Regular-season SEC champions LSU, 43-16 and 2-2 with both losses to State, head home to host a NCAA Regional next weekend. But they looked assured of hanging around Hoover at least one more day with a 3-0 lead after seven innings in the elimination game. This was when a patient, and even more pesky, Bulldog bunch finally made some things happen.
"We're a team that just keeps battling no matter what," said pinch-run-and-batter hero Britton. "And we believe in each other." As did a coaching staff which kept pushing the players to stay in the game and with the plan.
"I think a lesser club, with less character, could have quit and said this is just not our day," Coach John Cohen said. "You wonder if it's going to go your way. But our kids kept getting after it, and it's fun to watch them rewarded."
As fun as the first seven innings were frustrating, with more Bulldogs reaching base in that stretch than Tigers. But where LSU had three runs on the top scoreboard line, Mississippi State had a zero after stranding six with five more forced out on the paths. Even an ice-breaking run in the bottom of the eighth stung as two other Dogs were left in scoring position by Tiger fireballer Nick Goody.
But a unexpected outburst by the bottom of the Bulldog order in the last chance cracked Tiger composure. After a series of pinch-run moves and lineup changes, SS Adam Frazier knocked in Britton for a 3-2 difference with one out. Then with bases loaded and new runner Brent Brownlee 90 feet away, pitcher-turned-runner-turned-DH Luis Pollorena drove a fly ball to centerfield.
In a sprinter's stance and using third base as his block Brownlee raced home for the 3-3 deadlock. And, the ensuing tenth-inning opportunity that rang a bell with Reed. It was he, after all, who had been on the mound three months before in Baton Rouge when a tenth-inning fly ball landed barely fair for a double. This led to a 3-2 LSU win in both team's SEC openers.
Now here the rivals were rematched in a loser-go-home at the end of the schedule. Goody got out of the ninth with a fly ball, but Bulldog closer Jonathan Holder himself made it through the top four in the Tiger order with a stranded runner and intact tie. Then an out into the bottom of the frame Slauter came up for a fifth time. Just 1-of-14 for Hoover, the catcher's only hit was—ironically—a double that made him the winner runner in State's 3-2 Wednesday victory over LSU.
Slauter worked the count full after two strikes, then saw one of Goody's best in the zone. All those previous outs meant nothing. "That's what it is all about, putting at-bats behind you. It was a rough day but I put it behind me and put a good swing on the ball." Good enough to carry beyond fleet centerfielder Arby Fields for a double.
Righthander Nick Rumbelow came in to face freshman Britton, a .147 batter for the regular season but 1-of-3 at Hoover. Rumbelow wasn't giving the left-handed rookie much good to look at, feeding him five consecutive curveballs by Britton's counting. With it 3-2, though, "I was thinking fastball. He threw it and I got the barrel on it."
Second sacker Jones showed his superb athleticism with a lunge to his right and backhand stab that did get brown leather on white. "My stomach kind of dropped because I thought he'd grabbed it!" Britton admitted. "But it got past him and I kept running, I was pretty happy about that!"
Just one of many, though, as every Dog not crossing home plate ran to second for the dogpile. That included winning pitcher Holder (2-0) who needed work just that one extra-inning to be on-record for the decision. Holder wasn't hit as the runner reached on an error, erased on a grounder to the same shortstop who booted the previous ball. Holder had been beautifully set up by lefthander Ross Mitchell's routine ninth inning against the bottom of LSU's order.
But the real ‘winners' among MSU moundsmen were starter Jacob Lindgren and long-reliever Reed. Together the freshman and senior, left- and right-handers, combined for a grueling eight total innings of keeping the big-hitting Tigers mostly at bay. Rookie southpaw Lindgren was a relatively late choice for the start. He was fresh, true, but also had tossed just 19.2 innings in a dozen regular-season chances. Throwing the kid up against LSU was not just a gamble, it was gutsy.
A quality Lindgren showed abundantly. He shook off allowing two runs in the first inning and another in the second on a combination of walks and hits to endure 4.2 official frames. And, to just give his team a chance to stay in the game.
"Jacob is a competitor," said Slauter, who helped get the rookie through the challenges. "He didn't have his best stuff early on, he was in and out of the zone. But he was out there competing and did a good job minimizing."
It didn't seem so initially. Lindgren scuffled into a bases-loaded, two-out situation with a full count on Ty Ross before the Tiger DH smacked a hard hopper right off the MSU pitcher. The carom went exactly 90 degrees off him and out of bounds, chased down by 1B Wes Rea but not before two runs scored. After a quick check from the trainer, Lindgren ended that inning with a grounder.
In his second turn Jones reached on an infield hit, followed by a grounder to the left bag. 3B Daryl Norris came in for the grab and strong throw, but it also meant vacating the bag so Jones slipped in ahead of the return relay. That allowed him to score on a grounder up the middle by Nola which SS Adam Frazier did prevent from becoming a base hit.
Yet three runs were not chasing this starter, if for no other reason than lack of other options in the first-half. "We needed him to get through his first couple of innings," Cohen said. "That's why we were a little more patient. Who knows if he was going to get back in the zone or not, but the fact he got aggressive really was the most important factor to get him going again."
Not merely aggressive but good as Lindgren settled in and retired seven-straight Tigers, aided by a double-play in the fourth, before a one-out single by order-topper Austin Nola. Lindgren got a 0-2 count on Mason Katz, then Reed took over to finish the out and inning and start his own gutsy streak. A sixth-inning single was erased as Jordy Snickeris was shot down at second base, and Reed stranded a pair of walks with a fly-out. He returned for the eighth inning and survived two more hits thanks to another double-play.
"Coach actually asked me how do you feel. I'm never going to say no to the ball, of course! I said my stuff felt OK, if you see something different you can come get me. But I want the ball."
Not that anything Reed or the other relievers did would have mattered had State not come to life late at the plate. Their first good chance at scoring was in the second inning with two in scoring positions and one out. LSU starter Ryan Eades stranded both, as leftfielder Raph Rhymes made a great running, reaching grab of a 2B Sam Frost drive that seemed sure to fall for a double. Two innings later Frost did double, this time to rightfield, with Rea on first base.
Though the rightfielder had the ball well before Rea arrived at third base, "That's a situation where we have to send him with less than two outs, even though he's not a great runner," Cohen said. Rea was out well before the plate. Consecutive singles to open the fifth by Norris and Frazier led to nothing either.
Still every Dog to reach added to Eade's pitch count, and at 97 after 6.0 innings he was lifted for Chris Cotton. He got the bottom of MSU's order in the seventh, but in the eighth the top-third was more effective at last. Frazier and RF Tyler Fullerton both worked for walks. A ground ball forced the middle-runner but left Dogs on corner. CF Hunter Renfroe tried to tie it up on one big swing, then knocked in the first Bulldog run with a single up the middle.
A dirtball was far enough away for pinch-runner Luis Pollorena to make third if he tried, but also obscured by the catcher too long for the uncertain move. So a dribbler to the pitcher only advanced the remaining runners before Slauter's hard grounder right to the Tiger third baseman.
With the save situation Goody and his 95-mph fastball was sent out for the bottom of the Bulldog order. It didn't work out as expected though. Rea hit a huge fly that would have left any SEC ballpark but Regions. It still came down a foot inside the line down in the right corner for a double. Britton pinch-ran. Straight smoke struck out Frost, but Norris got around on a fastball and punched it through the left side for a base hit. Britton was held at third base as Rhymes had the ball quickly, but caution was rewarded as Frazier knocked a single under the first baseman's glove.
A plunking of Fullerton loaded the bases and gave Pollorena the most unlikely opportunity, as he'd taken the place of designated hitter Porter. It was just his fourth at-bat of the whole season. "I told him just don't get big. Don't try to do too much, all we need is contact," Cohen said. On a 1-2 count the popular Pollo did just that, and while Brownlee exploded off the bag as if in a race the centerfielder didn't even bother throwing beyond second base.
Two more Dogs went un-scored so the game continued. But just as Reed predicted, the Bulldogs got what was owed them at last. Reed had gone 3.1 innings with three hits, no runs, and two walks. Holder likely would have gladly given his elder teammate the win and accepted another save, but it was fitting for the pair to share in this success. Goody (1-2) took the loss on three runs off four hits.
For all the early frustrations State out-hit the Tigers ten to eight, with three singles by Frazier and two more from Norris. Katz and Snickeris both had a pair of hits for LSU, but league-leading batter Rhymes was 0-of-4 with a walk.
"Our kids stayed with it," Cohen said. "They showed great fortitude and nobody in that dugout was giving up." This when State, assured of a NCAA at-large berth, could easily have bagged it after falling behind, gone home, and gotten ready for a road trip. Now they will play at least one more day in Hoover, though after four games in as many days patching the pitching together will be a monumental challenge. Righthander Evan Mitchell will almost certainly get the ball first.
After that? "We've got lots of people," said Reed. "We've got Trevor Fitts, Chad Girodo, rubber-arm Ross (Mitchell) can still throw. I can still give an inning or two tomorrow, as usual!"
Crazy talk? Maybe. But after an absurdly wonderful comeback win, who wants to bet against another Reed prediction?