Britton's line-shot became a base hit scoring catcher Mitch Slauter from second base for the margin of 4-3 victory. The single—Britton kept going on to second during the unsuccessful LSU throw for home—capped a comeback worth of SEC Tournament history, as the Bulldogs rallied from 3-0 down through seven innings to force an extra frame and knock off the regular season champions.
And, keep State around for an unexpected extra day in Hoover. Or unexpected to anyone midway of the contest but a Bulldog bunch that wasn't ready to head home just yet. Somehow they got to LSU bullpen pitching for a run in the eighth, the tying tallies in the ninth, and then Britton's walk-off. Or, run-home in Slauter's case.
That Britton was Friday's hero made some sort of local sense. The Cullman, Ala., native was seizing opportunity to shine for the home folk. "I got my family here, I think my high school coach was here. I've not played her before but I've always watched the SEC Tournament." And when Britton says he watched the event, he means annually. Even if it meant, as he said, skipping out of school to do so.
"Me and my friends would always come down," he explained. "This would be our week of exams in high school and we'd get done with morning exams and come here." So, did he ever miss a test to take this May road trip? "No!"
"Matthew is an excellent student!" interjected Coach John Cohen. Nor has the true freshman been a shabby second baseman for State this first season either. Britton has had the usual rookie ups-and-downs with the glove, but over the past six or seven winning weeks in State's second half surge he has been a reliable defensive substitute at second base.
Hitting? Welllll…this is not a kind league to first-year batters and for the regular season Britton posted a .147 average; last among the regulars. But he'd hit once safely in the first three SEC Tourney games, against Arkansas. And average was not at all on his mind there in the tenth with one out and the winner in scoring position.
"You can't think about that when you get up to bat. You've just got to have confidence in yourself." Britton showed buckets of confidence too as he battled Nick Rumbelow's first five curveballs to work the count full. "All I was sitting on was fastball, he finally threw it that 3-2 pitch. And I got the barrel there." The confidence flickered just a moment as he saw LSU second baseman Jacoby Jones get a great leap on the ball. "When he dove I thought he caught and I was like ‘dang!' Then I saw the ball get past him and Mitch scoring."
Trite to say, maybe, but all those days as a high schooler in the Regions Park bleachers made Britton's first big moment on the field simply, well, huge. "I grew up watching the SEC Tournament every year, I always dreamed of getting out there playing. And now that I got an opportunity it's a big deal for me."
Oh, and what of Drye's other advice? You know, of staying ahead of the Dog-pile? "I got squished on the bottom."
THE BULLDOG SHUFFLE: Britton's presence on the field, and in the order, was just one of many late-game moves Mississippi State made to keep that comeback going. Or running, specifically. When 1B Wes Rea led off the ninth inning with a deep double, there was no question of running for the big Dog. Back in the fourth inning Rea had been waved around third base, running from first, on a Sam Frost double and been thrown out easily. Though as Cohen said, in a two-out situation it was an automatic MSu call to force the defense to make the play.
Regardless, Britton got to run for Rea and would score State's second run on a base hit by SS Adam Frazier. Also on base at the time was Brent Brownlee in place of 3B Daryl Norris after the latter hit a one-out single for Dogs on corners. This was an ironic sort of move because while Norris is still slowed by that March kneecap injury, Brownlee himself has had his own knee issues all year.
"I told him we just need you to go full-speed one more time for us," said Cohen. "And I felt if he went full-speed around the bases, which he did, I didn't know if I could get him in the outfield, if he could move. He's really gritting it out with that knee." Brownlee did score, bursting off third base like a sprinter on a fly ball by…
…Luis Pollorena, who himself had entered in the eighth inning as a pinch-runner for DH Trey Porter after a RBI single scored State's first run all day. So against all imaginings it was a lefthanded pitcher and sometime-substitute leftfielder/pinch runner at the plate with one out and bases loaded. For, as Cohen knew, just the fifth (fourth this season) at-bat of Pollorena's college career.
The coach's worried instructions were not try for anything bigger than contact enough to force in the tying run. "Put this thing in play, take an easy swing, and let happen. He was going to do that without me saying anything to him because he's a great competitor! But that was a huge at-bat in that ball game, for a guy who had three at-bats coming in."
Pollorena's drive to center easily evened things up, but a tied game an extra inning meant more moves. Backup catcher Nick Ammirati was sent to first base in Norris/Brownlee's order spot of #9. So when Slauter knocked his one-out double over the centerfielder, Cohen had to consider risking one more pinch-move. But he was getting short of catchers.
"Ammo is already in the game so Hunter Renfroe is the next guy. We'd already used Brownlee up, we run him and get him out of the game to get Ammo in. that was a difficult thing, we run for Norris because he has a bad knee; and take Brownlee out because he has the bad knee!" In the end State stuck with Slauter for his head more than his legs, which were bound to be drained after catching 37 straight innings.
"I figured this. If we got to two outs Mitch could get the early jump, but with one out he had to make a great read and we needed a ball not hit directly at somebody. The guy has caught four games in a row and that was an extra-inning game and he's running as hard as he can."
Fortunately, running all the way home with the game-winner. Yet even before Slauter made base there was some intense moments between coaches and umpires after all the switching. At one point Cohen came out to be completely sure home ump Tony Maners had gotten all changes right; an automatic out for batting out-of-order might be fatal.
That took time to discuss with LSU fans getting angry. Then it was Tiger skipper Paul Mainieri's turn as something Maners told him—calling Britton's slot by #17, Ammiratie's number, instead of #15—wasn't reading right either. This allowed Bulldog fans to do their own booing back.
"I was even confused," Britton said. "We had four people switch in-and-out that last inning running bases, Pollo hitting, I was just waiting to get back in the box!"
Of course at the time Slauter already was in the box. "I was up to bat when the whole situation happened. I was all sorts of confused about what was going on, I'm just trying to get the idea." Interestingly, Slauter said while the break didn't either rattle or rest him, "I think it got to the pitcher more than anything, got him out of his rhythm."
MSU-ELLAEOUS: Mississippi State and Louisiana State played five times this season, with four of the games settled by a single run. The Tigers won 3-2 in ten innings and 4-3 in Baton Rouge to take the regular series, with State winning the Sunday game 7-1 on a complete performance by Kendall Graveman. Now MSU has two SEC tourney wins by 3-2 and 4-3 (10) scores.
State now has a 9-7 lead in games with LSU in conference tournament play…And this was the 100th SEC Tournament game for a Bulldog team, with a 55-45 record going into Saturday.
SS Adam Frazier has a ten-game hitting streak going, longest now of his college career. The sophomore is 19-of-33 in the last eight games, and is 9-of-16 in the SEC Tournament…As valuable as his bat though has been some splendid glove-work. Twice Frazier has been charged with tough-play errors, only to have the scorer change the call later. That wasn't the case in the top of the tenth inning Friday when he gloved a two-out grounder only to drop it. "He makes an error, and what happens?" Cohen said. "We take a mound visit and he walks right up and says ‘get me another ground ball'. And he gets it, sits right down on it and makes the play. I just can't say enough about him, I don't think I would trade him for any player in the SEC." Frazier's average is now .374 for the season.
Freshman pitcher Jonathan Holder has now thrown 26.1 relief innings without a run allowed, earned or otherwise. He picked up Friday's victory with a scoreless top of the tenth against the top of LSU's order.