Dogs Edge Kats For SEC Tournament Title Shot

He'd been warming so long one would think Nick Routt was burned-out before entering. One would be wrong. "I was kind of watching the game, getting a feel for it. Seeing the mitt and getting a good spin on my pitches." Routt proved to have a fine feel indeed, tossing the intense relief innings in Mississippi State's 2-1 victory over Kentucky in the SEC Tournament semifinals.

Routt threw 3.1 scoreless innings out of the bullpen and set closer Jonathan Holder up to seal a win that sends Mississippi State into Sunday's championship round. The Bulldogs (38-22) will play at 2:30, State's first appearance in the tournament title game since their 2005 championship.

It will also be the sixth SEC game in as many days. "They are tired," said Coach John Cohen. "But they're excited, no question."

None who know this 2012 State squad is surprised how the Diamond Dogs got this far, this week. It is the same formula which turned the season around half-way through and has carried them to 15 wins in the last 20 contests against SEC foes, regular- or post-season. State pitched superbly again, played sound defense which gave no runs away, and got just enough timely hits to score.

Where clutch hitting got the kudos Friday in beating LSU 3-2, today it was the pitching staff earning their bows. And win. The decision went to Routt (3-5) and save to Holder (#9). But they had been preceded by manly efforts from starter Luis Pollorena and reliever Ben Bracewell for the first 4.2 frames. Still somebody had to hold that one-run margin the rest of the way.

That was Routt. Entering with two down in the fifth Kentucky inning and a pair of runners on bases, the junior lefthander made that impromptu bullpen scouting pay off. He'd been doing it a while, having begun warming as early as the second inning.

So what did he see? "That they love away pitches. Fastballs-away is what they hunt for righthanders, and their lefthanders want to pull the ball. I think I threw maybe two fastballs away to a rigthhander the whole game."

But it was a south-swinger he entered against there in the fifth, with two outs, the tying Wildcat on second base and go-ahead guy on first. Facing A.J. Reed, he went full in the count before coming with a curveball that went most of the way outside the strike zone…before breaking at the last moment and catching the inner corner for the called strikeout.

"That was a huge pitch, he didn't leave a whole lot of doubt," Cohen said. "He threw that with so much confidence that was fun to watch. I tell you what, the glove didn't move! It was a great pitch."

Routt dealt with other baserunners of his own the next three full innings, erasing one with a strong double-play begun on a great down-to-knees stop by 2B Sam Frost. In the bottom of the seventh the tying runner was on second again with two outs and Bulldog-batterer Thomas McCarthy at the plate. "Coach came out and talked to us, said he was 7-of-8," said Routt. The next batter was struggling more. So, "I kind of pitched around him."

Not really, as after two balls Routt located a strike at the bottom of the zone. Figuring why not, on 2-1 he came with a changeup McCarthy could not resist but should have. RF Brent Brownlee had the easy catch.

The other threat came in the eighth with one on, two out, and J.T. Riddle taking his fourth at-bat after going 3-of-3 with a solo home run back in the second inning. Routt got behind 0-2 and could have let this one go too. Instead he worked more changes and while Riddle hit it very well, seemingly headed for a gap, again Brownlee saved the day with a running grab.

Pollorena went the first two-plus innings with the one run against him on three hits, a walk, and three strikeouts. Only the no-doubt shot by Riddle which cleared both fences in the second turn impacted the scoreboard. But the lefthander's leash was short and Bracewell was hurried in after a leadoff walk in the third. He got a break too when McCarthy hit a hot grounder which one-hopped right into UK baserunner Austin Cousino for an automatic out. Bracewell went 2.2 scoreless turns with three hits, a walk and a strikeout. On an obvious ‘staff' day every out mattered, too.

"I thought Luis was solid for us, Benny came in and gave us some solid innings," Cohen said. "And Nick was a star today, he was waiting for his opportunity and took advantage of it."

Kentucky surely expected good Saturday pitching. Not only had the #4 seed Wildcats only played twice all week, compared to four games for State, but they had ace lefthander Corey Littrell right on-schedule after a whole week's rest with another before he throw in NCAA regional action. Litrell (8-2) was not shabby at all in his 6.0 innings, with the two runs on six hits, two walks and six strikeouts.

But the Kentucky coach saw his best southpaw, from a bunch of good ones, getting behind too many counts too soon. So while State managed just two scratches on the scoreboard the pitch-count on a hot day wore Littrell down even faster than a tired bunch of Bulldogs. Both Littrell's losses this season have been on Saturdays, to Mississippi State.

MSU had only a walk in the first inning off him, but LF Demarcus Henderson led off the second with a single to rightfield. C Mitch Slauter bunted him over and 1B Wes Rea converted the RBI-opportunity by punching a single on 1-1 up the middle. That lead didn't last out the inning as Riddle hit the longest shot of the Tournament so far, pulled dead to rightfield.

Fortunately SS Adam Frazier was leading off the Bulldog third and extending his hitting streak to eleven games. Bunted over, it was DH Trey Porter with the two-out responsibility. He beat Littrell by timing the off-speed offering with a lined shot to straight centerfield. Cousino so very nearly got his mitt under the ball, just not quite as the single made it a 2-1 lead that would hold up.

CF Hunter Renfroe sustained the margin with a hard charging catch to end the fourth. Only after McCarthy notched another hit and Bracewell nicked Luke Maile was Routt summoned to take care of business. He did, handing that same score to Holder for the ninth. It could not go routinely of course; moved to third base Frost got over for the backhand grab only his throw was high and wide and pulled Rea off the bag.

Holder wasn't rattled in the least, even as consecutive grounders advanced Lucas Witt to third base. He got no further as order-topper Cousino popped it high and straight to Frazier. The final line showed Kentucky with nine hits and the only homer, while State had eight singles. Both sides left nine stranded. Or as the MSU coach said, it was once again about pitching and defense over offense.

"I'm just really proud of our kids, they're so used to hanging in these one-run games," Cohen said. "Our kids really, really fought and hung in there."

This degree of fight is all the more remarkable given how Bulldog legs have to be wearing down after five-straight day games in late-May heat. Nor are they getting much of a breeze on Regions Park field either, never mind shade. But will they be ready to play for a trophy tomorrow?

"We talked today about the second wind kicking in," Porter said. "I guess we've got a little fire left, we feel we can win it."

MSU fans are encouraged to arrive early outside Regions Park to meet the team for a 'Dog walk' just as was held Saturday.

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