Saturday's win gave the Bulldogs forty victories for the first season since 2005. The Blazers, who upset their way into the NCAAs by winning a first-ever CUSA Tournament, finished 32-30.
The biggest reason for their exit was an unexpectedly explosive showing from the final four in Mississippi State's order. A quartet of Dogs who had three hits and little else among them in Friday's shutout loss to Samford came out swinging Saturday. This time they combined for four hits, five runs, and six RBI. Call it a case of quickly contagious hitting, according to 3B Sam Frost.
‘When the first person does it, in the dugout we said oh, if he can do it I can do it."
Frost certainly did it, making his one base hit—a double off the wall--count for the two key runs and a fly ball score a third RBI on his season-best day. This was from his nine-hole hitting spot, and a perfect placement it proved. "Sometimes you just need one guy to step up and be counted on, and that's what Sam did for us today," Coach John Cohen said.
As for the others bringing up the order-bottom, 1B Wes Rea delivered an equally key two-bagger for two more RBI that broke the afternoon open. C Mitch Slauter had a hit, run, and RBI of his own. And while Britton did not drive anyone in on his two official hits, the freshman scored three times himself; more than enough to out-do the Blazers. Not one of the quartet came in with an average of better than .245. Nor did they care.
"These guys just give tremendous efforts," Cohen said. "You'd think they hit .400."
That hitting, and a few other scores coming off Blazer miscues, were much more than Bulldog pitching has been used to working with. It all came midway of the day, though, so starter Kendall Graveman and middle-man Ross Mitchell had to pitch the same as usual. Close and intense. They were up to it, limiting UAB to two base hits and the one run in their combined 4.1 official innings. And once handed a comfortable cushion, Caleb Reed was good to go the rest of the way.
"We got great pitching," said Cohen. And good defense again, too. The Bulldogs did get tagged with a pair of error but neither caused damage to anything but personal statistics. The scoreboard was safe.
Righthander Graveman went the first 3.1 scoreless frames with a hit, two walks, and strikeout. Mitchell took care of the next 1.0 with a run, hit, and walk, and avoided really serious harm before handing Reed the ball. That gave the freshman lefthander the decision and a 3-0 record, while senior Reed got his ninth save of the season and 21st career. Reed had four hits and as many strikeouts in 4.2 innings.
UAB went with righthander Ryan Nance, a Mississippi prep and juco product who only because a starter at the end of the season. For four innings he looked like an ace before those bottom-order Bulldogs got to him in the fifth for two runs on as many hits. Nance (4-4) walked four and struck out seven.
"Nance was outstanding as he was in the (CUSA) championship game a week ago," Cohen said. He definitely had the SEC Bulldogs' number the first time through the order, sitting nine-straight and 14 of the first 15 faced. State swingers appeared still in Friday's funk as they swung at non-strikes and watched offerings in the zone go by. It took Graveman's gutsy work and sharp defense to strand runners in his first and second turns. Then in the fourth with one out a walk and a plunking had two Blazer on. State didn't hesitate summoning Mitchell for a left-on-left matchup, to roll a double-play and keep it scoreless a bit longer.
Nance's downfall was the fifth and after two were outs, as he walked Britton and Slauter on base. With a 1-1 count UAB called time to talk it over, but Frost wasn't thrown off-stride. "I was kind of locked-in and trying not to lose focus, think about it too much." Whatever the Blazers discussed ought not have included leaving a fastball up in the zone on 2-1 because Frost had figured out the pattern this time.
He didn't just make contact but drove it deep to the right-centerfield gap, reaching the base of the short wall. Both Britton and Slauter came on around on the double for the 2-0 lead. An intentional walk of SS Adam Frazier, and unintentional passing of LF Demarcus Henderson, loaded the bases and finished Nance for righthander Chase Mallard to end the inning on a fly ball.
UAB had a response in the bottom of the inning as the eighth and ninth batters reached on a walk and single. Mitchell put both in scoring positions with a balk. UAB replaced their own order-topper with a righthanded pinch batter who did his job with a grounder to deep shortstop scoring Keith DePew. But the runner on second could not advance, and State was able to put Reed on the hill against a row of righties.
He rolled a grounder to third base for out-two, and struck out John Frost (no relation) to keep it a 2-1 lead. He would have plenty of time to cool down watching the Bulldog offense heat up.
CF Hunter Renfroe jump-started the outburst by lining a double off the screen above right-centerfield. RF Luis Pollorena, drawing a surprise defensive start, was bunting to sacrifice but did it so well with a bump to the left side he reached on a single with Renfroe on third base. Rea only needed a fly ball for one RBI. Instead he hit it on the ground for two, slipping a bouncer down the third base line for a double and 4-1 lead.
And this time the Dogs didn't settle for a couple of scores, but expanded in a big way. Britton bunted to the first base side and created chaos. "I was running and I saw the first baseman and pitcher chasing it, they called it at the same time and I tried to beat the second baseman to the bag. And they ended up throwing it into the ground." So there were still no outs with Dogs on corners for Slauter. His bunt was a safety squeeze also to the right side, fielded just fine while Rea came across for the 5-1 margin.
With two outs Frazier was passed on-purpose again, and Henderson's ground ball to shortstop ought to have ended the inning. Only, Tanner Bryant didn't get the glove down enough, and Britton scored on the error. Dillon Napoleon took over and fed Porter a RBI-single making it 7-1.
"The wheels kind of fell off, and it was tough to recover," Blazer coach and former MSU aide Brian Shoop said.
An inning later Frost was back up in a RBI setting again, after Britton's one-out double and a Slauter single. The third baseman lifted one deep enough to centerfield for the sacrifice fly and 8-1 score that would stand. Because Reed made sure of it, his righthanded slider abusing Blazers swinging from that side and fastballs spotted well against southpaws.
A few Blazers did reach, such as Patrick Palmeiro on a leadoff double in the sixth. It was a ground-rule job unique to Dick Howser Stadium though, a high fly to the back-fence that got caught behind an advertising banner. Palmeiro, son of Rafael, was left stranded, as was another in the seventh after a teammate was caught trying to steal third base.
"I came to Coach Thompson in the eighth, I said I came this far, let me go finish this and save rest of the guys," Reed said. The pitching coach gave his blessing and despite a couple of one-out singles Reed did seal his deal. A double-play, the 70th of State's season, ended it.
State out-hit the Blazers just nine to six safeties but had four doubles against a lone extra-base hit for UAB. Porter and Britton had two hits apiece for the Bulldogs. And State pitching only gave away three walks and a plunking to further limit Blazer opportunity.
Offensively, "We kept hanging around and had a couple of things happen for us," Cohen said.
Now what happens is a Sunday decision who to throw first and then in all the likely relief roles. Cohen and Thompson want to scout the noon opponent before final decisions, though the first choice would seem to be righthander Brandon Woodruff. Though Reed says he can throw again if needed any such stint would be short after 56 pitches today. That ought not be a problem though as the Bulldog bullpen remains well-stocked.
"Jonathan Holder hasn't been used to this point, Pollorena hasn't been used in pitching," Cohen said. "I think we could use Ross (18 pitches) again if we had to. But we feel we have a deep bullpen by college standards, and we can go left and right. I think tomorrow Jacob Lindgren is going to be a big factor to come in and get some lefthanders out. With Nick Routt among others."