With the victory, Mississippi State (40-16, 16-14 SEC) took the series and reached the 40-regular season-win benchmark for the first time since 1997. They also secured the #5 seeding for next week's SEC Tournament, and will face #12 Missouri in the late Tuesday game.
But as Henderson said, what mattered more on Diamond Dog minds was what comes after the conference tourney; when the NCAA announces the 16 first-round Regional sites a week from Sunday night. So much depended on this rubber game beyond simply winning one more series. "It's definitely important," said LHP Ross Mitchell.
"One, because it gives us a better chance of hosting. And when you've got crowds that come out like this it gives so much advantage. So this was big for possibly hosting, and to get us going into the tournament."
Beating South Carolina (39-16, 17-12) ended a weekend that bounced both ways for the Bulldogs. They won the opener with a big eighth-inning rally for a 5-4 final; then fell in ten Friday innings 5-3. In both games State came away with more base hits, just not enough timely contacts. The rubber-game was another matter though.
It wasn't so much State's hits, as just the contact that turned things around. Or turned the Gamecock defense inside-out rather. Three official errors and other un-charged gaffes directly helped the Dogs score twice in both the second and sixth innings. And all the mistakes were forced by Mississippi State pushing the path-pace.
"The scouting report said if you've got speed they'll kick it around a little bit, rush them up and speed them up," Henderson said. "With our speed it played out good for us."
Henderson led with three hits, scoring twice and driving in two others, while SS Adam Frazier, 2B Brett Pirtle, and CF C.T. Bradford had two hits apiece. The Bulldogs out-batted South Carolina 11 to seven safeties, though this time it was turning on the speed that made the offense produce.
"We want to be able to pressure, we want that ball put in play, and we want that defender to say I've got to hurry through some things," Coach John Cohen said. A three-run eighth inning to put this one away came via more traditional hitting, running, and scoring.
It also made a winner of Mitchell (10-0) in yet another successful relief outing. A long one too. The lefthander entered with one out and two on in the top of the fifth, and got his side out of the inning with minimal drama. From there Mitchell rolled through the aggressive Gamecock order, retiring ten of eleven in one stretch and giving up the only other South Carolina score on a solo home run. The longball came from first baseman L.B. Dantzler, who'd done the same trick—and to the same right field—in the second inning.
That both came with nobody on another base was crucial though. "Right before he got up I was like if he hits a home run its fine, I'm just not going to walk him," Mitchell said. "And I guess it was fine, since we ended up winning! You don't want to put them on base for free."
Mitchell only walked one for free in fact, with two outs in the seventh, and stranded him. He also had just one strikeout but that was irrelevant to his pitching plan as he allowed just two hits in 4.2 innings, which took only 54 pitches. "I just wanted my defense to make plays for me."
Dantzler's first shot came off State starter Jacob Lindgren. The sophomore lefty had been struggling in his game-three starts of late, but not this time. He shook off the first homer and 1-0 deficit and pitched as he had in the impressive early-season outings. Lindgren went 4.1 innings with the run on five hits, a walk, and four strikeouts, and like Mitchell used the Gamecock's own aggression against them to get early swings and outable contacts.
Jack Wynkoop (7-3) took the loss on 5.1 innings with four runs on seven hits, two walks and three strikeouts. And, a crucial pickoff error and two untimely wild pitches. "But he was a solid pitcher," said Henderson who had two of his hits and a walk off the starter, driving in the first Bulldog run and scoring for the lead himself.
That was in the second inning, which let State show some resilience after Dantzler's first homer to lead off the top of the inning. With one out in the bottom Bradford singled and was advanced to second on Wynkoop's errant pick toss. Two were out when DH Derrick Armstrong's bouncer to second was fielded fine, only Max Schrock—knowing the runner's speed—rushed his sidearm throw. It was high and off the first baseman's glove, scoring Henderson from second for the 2-1 lead. Schrock redeemed himself as with runners on corners he went behind the bag for a stabbing grab to rob 3B Alex Detz of a hit and RBI.
Still State had taken a lead and Lindgren ran with it. He stranded a tying runner with a third-inning pop-up, and another in the fourth by striking out Connor Bright. Lindgren was another out into the fifth when nine-batter Dante Rosenberg singled. A walk of order-topper Graham Saiko was the cue for Mitchell. His first out was an adventure when Chase Vargason popped-up behind the plate. Mitchell galloped all the way in and stuck a glove over C Nick Ammirati's head to ‘rob' that catch. After a brief meeting of mound-minds he rolled a grounder off Joey Pankake.
The key for State was some expansion and it came in the sixth, again aided unintentionally. Pirtle dropped a base hit in rightfield, and with one out Bradford went the other way with his single to left. The Gamecocks talked it over but didn't change arms yet. State sent both runners with Henderson swinging to cover, which worked out better than hoped as he bounced it to deep shortstop for an infield single and loaded bases.
Ammirati didn't have to swing for the lead runner to cross, as Wynkoop bounced his first pitch past the plate scoring Pirtle and advancing the others. That finally made for a move with righthander Evan Beal inheriting two Bulldogs in scoring spots and the 1-0 count. He did his part with a one-hopper directly to his first baseman, who came home in-time. Except Rosenberg just dropped the ball for another free run and 4-1 lead that made all the difference to Mitchell.
"It made me be able to go throw strikes instead of miss their barrels." Which he did up to Dantzler's second shot and 14th of the season. No problem for Mitchell as he rolled Friday hero Grayson Greiner out to end that inning. By the time he returned it was with a lot more margin to pitch with.
Pirtle opened with his second-straight single. Rea couldn't get a bunt down, but worked back to full count before lashing a skipper that got under third baseman Vergason's glove for a hit. Pirtle had been running already and got to third base. Lefthander Vince Flori replaced Beal and on 2-2 got Bradford swinging.
But Henderson didn't waste time watching; he hacked at the first offering and dribbled it through the right side for the base hit, his second RBI, the 5-2 lead and next pitching change with righthander Colby Holmes. Ammirati didn't hit him out, but a drive to deep center was just far enough to get off a glove for a RBI-double as Rea chugged across. Porter, up against another sort of righthander, sailed far enough to center for the sacrifice scoring Henderson.
The only question was could Mitchell keep the bullpen gate closed, even if RHP Ben Bracewell and LHP Chad Girodo had been warmed. "Coach Cohen looked me in the eyes and said, can you finish? I was like, yes sir!" Mitchell said.
"I knew I could. We got a lot of runs late, which helped out a lot. I just wanted to throw strikes and let my defense make plays behind me, which they were able to do." So even after a leadoff single by a pinch-batter, Mitchell got a line-out, his lone strikeout, and fly ball to end his season unbeaten.
And, send Mississippi State into tournament time with forty wins on the books and stronger hopes they will return to Dudy Noble Field in two weeks. Yes, said Cohen, "You always want more." But with an elite RPI and strength of schedule it will take somebody on the NCAA committee saying no, because the Bulldogs have made their case already.
Mississippi State also returns to Hoover to defend their 2012 SEC Tournament championship, earned with five wins in six day games under the first ten-team format. This year's field expands to a full dozen with four games on opening day and single elimination.
Cohen is giving the team Sunday off other than a weights workout, with a Monday practice before departure.