State Controls Fate Heading Down SEC Stretch

Hopefully cameras caught for a broader audience what the weather-limited Sunday crowd got to see; a bizarre, nay berserk string of Bulldogs circling the dugout and chanting…something. Anything. "That's the walk-off walk," explained C.T. Bradford. "Hopefully you guys don't have to see it a lot more but that's what that's called!"

What it is really called, is fun. The Diamond Dogs were having some serious fun even as game-three of the Alabama series ground into extra innings. And when Bradford singled-in Hunter Renfroe to end the win and complete a sweep, the party moved out into centerfield for all to observe.

Here a day later what everyone watching SEC baseball sees is Mississippi State (36-13, 13-10) setting up for the stretch run. By taking three wins in two days, including a weather-forced Saturday twinbill, the Diamond Dogs have righted themselves and stand fifth in the overall league standings. They are still priceless percentage points behind 13-10 South Carolina, which caught a great break with their Sunday rainout of game-three with Vanderbilt. Since these teams end their schedules against each other, this is business the Bulldogs can eventually take care of.

That's the big picture after eight conference weekends. The more focused viewpoint? "We needed it for our confidence," said RHP Jonathan Holder.

Club confidence certainly ought be back where it was prior to a lost weekend at Vanderbilt. That sweep might not look better in the rear-view, but is explicable given how the Commodores are running away with the SEC title. Still State, which has by-far the toughest schedule of West Division squads, lost some confidence and a good bit of ground in the post-season picture.

Today it looks much brighter for the Bulldogs, having won four of the last five series and moved above .500 again. They also, by the numbers, look to have clinched a berth in the SEC Tournament with two weeks left. "It compels our team to go further and further," LHP Chad Girodo said. "Just winning a series is huge with all the teams so tight right now."

Winning the way they did? That was even better, if a lot more intense on fans and friends. Alabama made all three wins work, even after a seven-run second inning in game-one. State had to create some late margin for the 10-6 victory. The others required both mid-game comebacks and extra innings for the 5-4 (10) and 7-6 (11) finals, and each ended on a clutch hit…something else often missing this season in the setbacks. When Jacob Robson in game-two, then Bradford in the finale singled in the winning it did more for the offense's confidence than a weekend of blowouts.

Yet how shaken was State by the previous series? "During practice this week we practiced like nothing happened last weekend, and that's what good teams do," Holder said. This is a reminder of something Coach John Cohen has mentioned all spring; that this is a veteran ball club which has been through the cycles of a long season before and matured. Thus the Dogs weren't derailed in Nashville, just re-routed a little in May ambitions.

Or as Bradford said it, "We stay loose, we don't get too fired-up about too much. We stay calm can keep our heart rate down, and we deliver." He wasn't joking about the ‘loose' part based on the dugout antics, which both days including hauling out the (presumably) lucky green caps and tossing them to the turf after walk-of wins. Though there wasn't any walking on those winning hits, especially when Renfroe made an under-appreciated check-and-charge home on Bradford's hit. That Renfroe made scoring looks simple reflected just how special he can be.

Or that Renfroe doesn't have to hit great for the team to succeed. He went 3-of-11 for the weekend and his only RBI came on the 15th homer this season, which still tops the SEC. Plus he scored five of the 22 runs. He still leads the team with a .394 average but has slipped to third in the league batting race. And as nine of his homers were solo shots, the SEC triple crown was a long shot already. Still no pitcher looks forward to seeing 34 in the box, especially when Renfroe has coverage to either side.

Over the weekend 2B Brett Pirtle or Bradford provided it in the next slot-back. Pirtle was quite a weekend story in his own right. He played game-one still suffering nausea and scored twice; then coming off the bench in game-two provided the critical pinch-hit RBI to tie it up. And it was his taking a plunking, for the third time, Sunday that put Renfroe in game-winning position in the eleventh. Pirtle had just two hits but reached base seven times all told. He's reached base somehow in 22-straight games.

"We talk about character and work ethic, he's a really tough kid," Cohen said. "And he's a winner, no other word. He's just a winner."

Bradford hit fourth in the game Pirtle didn't; otherwise he stayed in sixth, a slot that has become productive at the right time as he was 7-of-15 with three runs and as many RBI. He was exactly who State wanted up in the clutch Sunday, too. "That's the confidence he deserves to have," Cohen said. "He's had a couple of lulls but now he's a very confident hitter. And we need him this time of year to do the things he did."

The leading batter was somewhat surprising. Or should LF Jacob Robson's 5-of-10 weekend been so surprising? The freshman has been making better contact as he develops, and his speed sets up all sorts of get-on scenarios as well as baserunning options from there. "I'm grateful for every opportunity I get and I hope to continue making the best out of it." State will keep alternating leftfielders, so righthanders Demarcus Henderson and Derrick Armstrong can match up accordingly, yet Robson is making a late-season case for more opportunities.

At the same time experience is making Armstrong a key contributor. He was the runner on Pirtle's clutch single in game-two and made a perfect path home ahead of a relatively routine throw-in from leftfield, sliding wide and slapping the dish before a tag. "I don't know if there's anybody else in our league that scores from second base there," Cohen said. "Because it's bang-bang at the play. but he outruns the baseball."

At the other end of the experience scale, senior 2B Sam Frost stepped in for Pirtle that game and went 4-of-5, stole a base, and made every defensive play. And it was two opposite-way doubles by senior DH Trey Porter that scored four RBI and keyed the game-one win. "We put a lot of stock in what we sense from our seniors," said Cohen. That included C Mitch Slauter, not expected to play with a cracked catching hand still healing, twice coming in for late innings so State could make all sorts of batting and running moves that ultimately produced wins.

Such timely feats from all sorts of players allowed wins despite average or worse weekends at the plate by Renfroe, as well as SS Adam Frazier and 3B Alex Detz. They were a combined 4-of-25 in the two top spots, which up to now would have doomed any series. Instead the middle and end of the orders delivered when it mattered, and clutch contact counts for more than consistency. Sometimes. Far better would be having Frazier and Detz back on their best pace and setting the plate for Renfroe, Pirtle, and 1B Wes Rea, who got his fifth homer of the year.

"I think we're a capable offensive club and have not really hit on all cylinders yet, and I'm hoping that is what is going to happen," Cohen said.

What matters as much here at stretch time was being able to sweep without dominating starting pitching. The three openers weren't sharp, lasting a combined 13.1 innings with a 6.2 ERA. The good news was LHP Luis Pollorena, RHP Kendall Graveman, and LHP Jacob Lindgren did not walk many, just four between them with 13 strikeouts. But they got hit harder than is expected of starters in mid-May.

"I don't think we saw the best performance," Cohen said. "So we had to win in a different way. And we had some brilliant relief performances." A bold description, yet accurate for Girodo, RHP Ben Bracewell, and Holder. They handled 12.1 innings without a run charged and just five hits, three walks, and 14 strikeouts. Maybe the best sign, in an odd way, was State winning despite rock-reliable LHP Ross Mitchell getting tagged for a three-run homer by a kid who hadn't hit a shot his college career. Happily his teammates got Mitchell off the decision-hook and kept him unbeaten with a 9-0 record.

Holder was, well, Holder as he worked 5.2 combined innings with one hit and walk against ten strikeouts. That gives the sophomore 64 fannings on the season, more than double his freshman total of 30. He also now is tied for the season saves record with 13; he might have broken the mark Sunday given a lead but settled happily for his second win.

For that matter the Bulldog bullpen now owns 21 wins, compared to 15 for the starting staff! Girodo got one of those Ws by notching a single out in game-two's 10th inning, but what an out it was as the southpaw specialist stayed in to strike out a righthanded three-hole hitter and keep it tied.

"I wasn't going to give in with a runner on third," Girodo said. "If I was going to get beat it was going to be on my best pitch." He didn't get beat, nor the Bulldogs, as they got their first walk-off win of the year in the bottom of that inning. Then, added a second such on Sunday. This also made State 8-3 in one-run games, something which matters in May.

So does just having fun. That includes dugout dances and different hats (including the sombrero provided by Pollorena on Cinco de Mayo to lead the Walk-Off Walk) to be sure. But winning is the best Bulldog fun of all, which signals to Cohen a matured squad.

"But none of that works unless you have the right kids with the right outlook and competitiveness. The credit goes to the kids and their parents."

Also, for all the fun in sweeping one old foe, the Bulldogs have to be more competitive than ever this season as they face the real rival. This weekend sends State to Oxford in a series which, many figure, can determine which program has dibs on hosting a NCAA Regional. The Rebels have had their own issues lately losing series to Kentucky and Auburn, but no Dog dares assume anything in a series at cozy-quarters University Stadium.

Then the schedule ends with South Carolina which also is in the current four-team muddle, with Florida, of teams battling for a SEC Tourney bye and NCAA hosting. Sweeping one squad has put State back in the middle, Cohen agrees.

"But we're still not there yet. We have a lot going on in the regular season and are going to play two unbelievable clubs on the weekends."

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