"There's no doubt this team, we've been through it in six days. And in the heat of the day, we drew some night games this year. That's going to help us out. And there's no doubt in my mind we're going to be able to come back and bounce back and be the same team we were."
Immediately after the victory, Coach John Cohen was talking about how the game was being pitched as it went on, and on, and on, and…"We were just trying to win the game. You worry about tomorrow, tomorrow…" he said, before the coach caught himself. "Well, today, today!"
WORKING OVERTIME: They won't get credit for it on the record of course, but the Bulldogs and Tigers put in nearly two complete games in four hours, 39 minutes. This tied for the longest SEC Tournament game ever, anywhere; and is the longest played in 16 tourneys contested at Hoover. It tied for Mississippi State's longest recorded game, matching the 17-inning road win at Ole Miss on a 2007 season Sunday.
That game was won on a dribbler base hit by SS Jet Butler in the top of the 17th, with RHP Aaron Weatherford working just about a complete starting stint in relief to pick up the victory. The game-three win also salvaged a split of the series. Comparisons are risky of course, but it's easy to think of how the 2013 Bulldogs also came back on an Oxford Sunday to salvage a split of this series, albeit in ordinary innings. And now this team has matched their predecessors for longest game.
Maybe it means nothing similar, but fans will recall how the 2007 season turned out…
For Missouri it was their longest-ever baseball game, and in their first-ever SEC Tournament experience. What a way to be introduced to the league's premier outdoor event.
WORKING OVERTIME Pt II: This was the fifth time a Bulldog team had to go into extra-innings in a true SEC Tournament game, in one of the various formats begun back in 1987 when the league went away from inter-Division competition to settle the conference champion. Mississippi State is now 4-1 when the games go long, all of them in Hoover.
The lone loss came in the first such chance, a 6-5 defeat by Florida in 10 innings. In 1999 it was a 7-5 win over South Carolina in 10 innings also. The last three though have been truly dramatic, none more so than 2003 when State and archrival Ole Miss went into the 12th inning. Thomas Berkery was the hero, slugging a no-doubt blast over leftfield for the 5-4 win.
And last season during the remarkable title run, 2B Matt Britton smashed a hot hopper that got off his LSU counterpart's glove for the game-winning RBI in the 10th, with a 3-2 final. Now Slauter has added his name to the list of clutch-hit heroes in Bulldog tournament time.
EXPERT ADVICE: The late-relief success of RHP Will Cox was exciting but not entirely surprising. To be sure, the big sophomore had worked five times in the previous nine Bulldog games. But his longest relief stint was just 0.2 innings, in game-two at Ole Miss. Otherwise Cox had been essentially a spot-substitute for specific matchups in the order.
Still this limited work and his good results, with just one hit allowed in a total 2.1 innings, indicated Cox was getting ready for bigger things. He got his chance around midnight, entering for the 15th inning, and hung three more zeroes on Missouri's line. He was hit just once by the ten batters faced, struck out two, walked none, and of course allowed nobody to get nearer scoring position than first base.
Not that Cox claimed anything remarkable was going on for his part. Teammates made him the winner. "Without those defensive plays I wouldn't be anywhere." And he got some sparklers from all four infielders, not least 2B Brett Pirtle who was smarting from anapparantly misunderstood ‘turn' sign in the 12th inning that cost State the winning runner between third base and home. The junior second-sacker more than redeemed himself with some big stops in the four-hole.
Beyond this, Cox is again showing signs he can be the strong righthanded starting candidate again that he was in the early season. Cox started three times in the first three weeks, either as the fourth-opener in such series or midweek. He last start was March 26 against Austin Peay where he was beaten-up by a good opponent. Since then Cox has been developing his game, for this season at least, into reliable relief.
Now it is paying off. "I've been working these past couple of weeks on sinking the ball and using my slider from down-low. I feel ever since Will Clark came and spoke to us, and talked about taking the ‘sting' out of bats that's what I've been trying to do. It's been working so far."
Will Clark may well be the brightest name in Diamond Dog annals, and is an all-timer in SEC circles. But he made his name with the bat and glove. You know, by doing damage to pitchers and not helping them out. Yet when Clark visited campus prior to this season and talked with Cohen's 2013 club, he had advice for the pitchers on how to diminish contact. Or the ‘sting' as Cox and other moundsmen call it now.
It's an odd image for old-time Dogs, or even younger ones. "I know it, it was unbelievable!," said 20-year-old Cox, who admits at his age he never got to Clark play in person. Yet, "Those words clicked in my mind and so easily and it all made sense, and ever since I've been living by."
PUPS AT PLAY: With all that is on the anticipated post-season line, one might wonder if State's dugout getting too tense as Tuesday turned into Wednesday with no sign of scoring ahead. One would be wrong. Previous late game situations, even if not necessarily extra innings, have done more to bring out the playful pup in these Dogs.
Fans who stayed to the sweet end surely noticed or at least heard when a ruckus arose from the first-base dugout. "We're doing what we can to get a roll and get rhythm," said Slauter. "We went back and did our pre-game chant there in I think the 14th or 15." There was some of the procession-line walks by non-participants too, and all they needed were the lucky green caps which weren't suitable by tournament time uniform rules. Sadly.
"We were just doing anything we could to spark something to score that run," Slauter said. A run he plated with his walk-off single. It wasn't a mighty shot—"I didn't get a whole lot of it"—but that was the right thing anyway as Missouri ran down almost every well-struck ball that went to the outfield. Dumping a single in front of the centerfielder was the ticket to victory in the end.
It was also, as Slauter himself reminded, his first base hit since the Florida series in early April. The Sunday pitch off his left hand at Texas A&M left the catcher with a cracked left hand. It wasn't really slow to heal per se, but as it was his catching hand a lot of caution was required. The down-time and lost at-bats took a toll on his swinging style upon return.
Now, with NCAA play looming? "I'd say I'm probably close to 85, 90%. Obviously it's going to be soreness, something I might have for the next three or four months. It's a matter of getting through that stage. It's not a sharp pain, it's more of a soreness."
Then again, it was Missouri left hurting after Slauter's single.
OFFIICALLY SPEAKING: The Tigers did have a game to remember in their first SEC Tournament trip, if not for the final result. Missouri managed just one run, and it was not even batted-in. Barron Champagne did single his way on base in the top of the third inning but was advanced to second by one Trevor Fitts wild pitch. He took off for third on another dirtball that stayed in front of C Nick Ammirati, and there was time to make the throw to third base.
Except Ammirati was too high and the ball got into leftfield scoring Champagne on charity. Which later on had Bulldog players and even an assistant coach convinced it was not an earned run. Cox certainly said so. "I think the one run they got was unearned, I think I heard. So 17 innings with no earned runs puts a big compliment on our bullpen and how good we are."
It takes nothing from the relief staff to note that in the box score it was an earned run. Why? First because wild pitches put the runner in scoring position(s) and that would make them earned on any hit or sacrifice. But the fact the runner came across on an error was negated, because with two outs Missouri singled. That by rule meant the run was earned since, presumptively, he'd have scored on the base hit.
As he's presumably headed to pro ball after this junior year, it is the last chance for a Dog like Hunter Renfroe to experience NCAA insanity at the home yard. He did see first-hand the 14,562 that showed up for Super Bulldog Weekend's Saturday game, though. And even with school out, both the numbers and the enthusiasm shown during the South Carolina series hinted at what could happen…if Mississippi State receives its long-sought opportunity.
"There may be 15,000 screaming people here and that'd be a sight to see," Renfroe said. "That will get us even more amped-up for the post-season."
A Sunday throng of over 12,000 came to Hoover last year to watch Mississippi State win the tournament championship. The on-field celebration was splendid, yet even there Dogs who had endured six-straight days of play—all in daytime heat at that—were looking drained in victory. So it's not really surprising some feelings are mixed this time around, about the chance of an early return to Starkville.
"If that did happen we'd get a few days off," said SS Adam Frazier, the Most Valuable Player of the '12 Tournament. "But we always want to win. There's positives to that and positives to winning, so let the chips fall where they fall."
At least this May, the Diamond Dogs have the luxury of playing under-lights for a radical change. Cohen wasn't entirely joking a year ago about how all players and for that matter staff should have had IV's pumping in fluids immediately after storing the championship trophy on the team bus. The literal drain certainly showed a weekend later at Tallahassee.
Day or night, though, "Going in we know what to expect, the possibility of playing four or five days in a row and what that does to you and how to prepare for that," Frazier said.