Portland had knotted the Saturday contest in the top of the sixth with a RBI-single by Jeff Melby. It proved their only tally of the cold afternoon though. The Bulldog bullpen showed its stuff, with four relievers at first limiting the damage and then making the one-run lead hold up. Or, Holder-up, as closer Jonathan Holder entered for the last 1.2 innings. He stranded the potential tying run on third base in the top of the eighth, then sat the side in the ninth.
Holder got his first save of this sophomore season and 10th career. Ross Mitchell, first reliever used, picked up the decision on his 1.0 inning with a hit and strikeout. He did give up the run-scoring safety to Melby but that was charged to starter Evan Mitchell's account.
In-between it was scripted shorter stints by Ben Bracewell and C.T. Bradford setting Holder's stage. In fact Bradford only threw three pitches, and all after Bracewell had gotten ahead of Pilot lefthander Turner Gill 1-2. The third pitch was a called strikeout on the inside corner.
All the mixing and matching with a one-run lead? "We've run our intrasquads exactly like we ran this game," Coach John Cohen said.
Having Henderson hit at crunch time wasn't the sort of percentage-playing Mississippi State is known for. Pilot lefthander Travis Radke had been outstanding to then, showing why he was his conference freshman of the year in '12 and an all-American on some teams. Other than a fluke run allowed in the Bulldog fourth Radke was controlling an offense that had shelled his teammates for 16 runs on Friday.
He ought to have been out of the sixth, too. After Norris dropped a two-out single inches in front of the Portland leftfielder's glove, Radke got 2B Brett Pirtle swinging on a bouncer. Only it bounced past the catcher to extend the inning. Henderson had been up twice before with a called strikeout and double-play groundout, the latter after Radke pitched around Pirtle—hitless himself in two games—to get to the leftfielder.
Cohen said there was brief talk of pinch-batting a lefthander against the southpaw, as stats showed Radke a touch more vulnerable to that approach. Plus State lefties had made good contact on him. Henderson admitted that when the sun came out Radke's stuff was hard to pick up, especially the breaking balls.
"For some reason I was seeing glare. So I was going to try to be as late as possible and still keep it fair." He did, working the count full before punching a drive that cleared the leaping second baseman. "It was a fastball up-and-away, that's right in my wheelhouse."
Radke (0-1) lasted 6.2 innings with the two runs charged on seven hits. He walked a couple and put two more on with wild pitches, but struck out nine. "He was just good, he's a SEC-caliber pitcher," Cohen said. "He changes speeds and nothing comes out of his hand the same way two times in a row. We just kind of hung in there."
So did Evan Mitchell, for 5.0-plus innings. The righthander wasn't as sharp, not initially at least, but literally warmed to his task and didn't allow any runs in those first five-full with three hits. He finished with three walks, one of those the runner driven-in; and six strikeouts, in Mitchell's longest outing since the 2011 Atlanta Regional.
"He's a little bit of a slow starter, especially in cold weather," Cohen said. "But when he got to pitch 28 he really turned it on. His velo went up, his breaking ball was better, his command was better. He was prospecting today for sure."
Wheras C Nick Ammirati was hunting. He erased a one-out walk in the first inning by throwing Caleb Whalen out. And after a wild E.Mitchell pitch put Cody Lenahan on base Ammirati shot him down too on a steal try in the fourth. "And the pitch he didn't throw a guy out on was a really difficult pitch (by Holder), a ball down," Cohen reminded. "He can really catch and throw."
Mitchell had to strand a pair in his second inning with consecutive strikeouts, and a leadoff double in the third did no harm. He lasted until a close full-count ball call that walked Whalen on for the eventual lone Pilot run. This was after Ross Mitchell had two outs but plunked a left-handed batter to give Melby the RBI-chance.
State's first and the game's key run came in the bottom of the fourth. 1B Wes Rea fanned on 2-2 but reached first as the pitch went wild. Rea had to hold as DH Trey Porter's bouncer through the right side and in front of him, but still was waved to third base. He got in ahead of a throw that was admittedly slowed by the sharp left-to-right wind. For that matter the big first baseman had to be winded.
"Wes is battling a little a bit of a leg injury and isn't moving as well right now," said Cohen. "But he's more athletic than people give him credit for." The coach certainly did as he called for a safe squeeze bunt by RF Hunter Renfroe.
The attempt was botched, Renfroe popping it up…but Radke got off the hill late and dove a foot short as the ball fell for what will always read in the scorebook as a RBI-single. Radke limited the harm to that run with the Henderson ground-out.
Fortunately Henderson got another opportunity with runners in position. "And I wasn't going to waste it this time."
"Demarcus is somebody we have to develop and get ready for league play, and he's just a good player," Cohen said. "Today a couple of at-bats he stepped forward."
After a 21-hit barrage in the opener, the Bulldogs managed just seven Saturday hits. Porter had a pair, including a double. Five State pitchers limited Portland to four hits with Melby going 2-of-3 for the lone run batted in. These were misleading numbers per Holder, who needed a big-swing strikeout and grounder in the eighth to leave two Pilots in scoring positions.
"They had a great lineup, a lot of them could really put the bat on the ball. That eighth inning when I came in you really had to take cautious with runners in scoring position so I tried not to give anybody a cookie so they could just eat it. And I got some good D."
Saturday was originally to be a double-header day but the threat of cold and wind—and both were freezing the field—had State rearranging the schedule. Now there is a Sunday twinbill starting at 1:00. State will put senior righthander Kendall Graveman on the hill for the first contest, while Portland lists freshman righthander Zach Tortson. The pilots have another righty set for the second game while the Bulldogs are yet to choose.
The victory was also #1,000 at Dudy Noble Field by a Bulldog team, since the program moved across campus to the current site. In the 47 seasons since home teams are now 1,000-366-3 in this location.
"It's just a credit to a lot of people who have been through this program; all the players, all the coaches," said Cohen, who has been both now. "It's another milestone that makes you proud to say you're a part of this program."