Gentry, Bulldogs Grind Down Gamecocks 5-3

Presumably, Myles Gentry had the instructions to stretch his relief stint, preserve a short-handed bullpen, and keep Mississippi State even with South Carolina. Correct? "He said that, but not in those words," Gentry related. Well then, what were the exact words by Coach Butch Thompson? "He just told me go out there and be out there as long as you can." Gentry's longest was long enough.

Entering in the bottom of the fourth inning with #4 seed South Carolina having just tied the game 3-3, only one out and more Gamecocks on bases, Gentry didn't just go long. He went the whole rest of the way in Mississippi State's 5-3 victory in the second round of the SEC Tournament. The #5 Bulldogs (42-16) remained in the winner's bracket and take on Texas A&M Thursday in another night game.

South Carolina (39-17) is back at Metropolitan Park around noon for an elimination game with SEC East rival and league champion Vanderbilt.

Coming off their first-round victory over Missouri that took 17 innings and only ended in the a.m. hour, the Bulldogs were in a delicate pitching position for the second day. Starter Luis Pollorena was opening after a third-straight ‘shortened' week and couldn't be expected to go deep. But most of the bullpen had been burned by the marathon with five relievers utilized.

Thus pitching coach Thompson's blunt directive in the fourth inning. "I knew I was going to go as long as I could, he'd keep me out there as long as I did my job," Gentry said. "I knew I needed to stay in for a while."

Under the impossible pressure the true freshman, who hadn't gone more than an inning since March 26, stepped up and stood out. "The story of the ball game is Myles," Coach John Cohen said.

And what a story. He shut down the aggressive Gamecocks in that high-stakes fourth frame and hung five more zeroes on the bottom scoreboard line. His 5.2 innings saw just three hits and as many walks, and eight strikeouts. That matched his season high set in March, but those eight Ks had come against Alcorn State. This was South Carolina.

No problem, Gentry (4-0) said. "I was just going out there trying to throw strikes, get the ball down, and just let my defense work because I knew they'd be behind me." And with only a couple of hiccups, neither of which did any damage, they did. Gentry not only was a different side than starter Pollorena, but an entirely different style.

"I was just changing speed with my fastball, and the breaking ball came along tonight towards the end. Everything was working really." So well that while a few Dogs warmed in the later frames Gentry never needed lifting.

He also got just enough offensive aid at the sweet end. Having gone five scoreless innings of their own since the third, the Bulldog batters finally pushed South Carolina starter Nolan Belcher off the mound and took advantage of Gamecock relievers Adam Westmoreland and Tyler Webb. Again, much as a week ago Thursday when State rallied from 4-1 down in the eighth inning to win 5-4.

This time they waited until the top of the ninth, just when the top of the order rolled around for a fifth time. SS Adam Frazier led off with his second single of the night and 3B Alex Detz reached on a grounder to second base that neither middle infielder took charge of, leaving both runners safe. In an obvious bunt situation RF Hunter Renfroe popped-up his second sacrifice attempt for an easy out. But only one, rather than a double-play or other disaster.

Because Westmoreland went wild and walked 2B Brett Pirtle on four pitches to stuff all sacks. That was closer Webb's cue, giving a left-on-right matchup with 1B Wes Rea. The big Dog had knocked in Frazier back in the first inning with a single to right off one lefty though. The next one wasn't so different.

"I was just trying to put a ball in play, you have to avoid a strikeout in that situation." He did…put it in play that is, again slicing a ball to rightfield scoring Frazier for the 4-3 lead. But two runs would allow Gentry, and the coaches, more bottom-ninth margin. RF Demarcus Henderson tried to squeeze Detz home only to miss the low pitch entirely. Detz was run down, fortunately buying enough time for Pirtle to take third base. This mattered because Henderson was still at the plate and not happy with himself, never mind he'd driven in runs in the first and second innings already.

"Last night I was in the same situation and I didn't come through. I don't like to fail twice in those situations, so that was in my mind. Don't try to be big, with two strikes just try to get something in the air."

He did, driving a single through the left side for Rea to rumble home for the 5-3 lead. Even if State left three more unscored it was enough. Gentry got a quick fly out before a hit from order-topper Graham Saiko; shrugged that off with one more fly ball and an easy blooper to Frazier.

Westmoreland (7-2) took the loss on 2.0 innings with the last two runs scored, two hits, a walk and two strikeouts. Webb didn't blow any save as he did at Starkville but was tagged for the losing singles and struck out nobody. Starter Nolan Belcher gave up the first eight Bulldog hits and three runs with two walks and five strikeouts.

Despite allowing a pair in the first inning and another run in the third, Belcher wasn't on any hook. But it was State's book on him, written last Thursday, that caused trouble. "We do a good job keeping charts and we saw him five days ago," Rea said. "We kind of had an idea what he'd do and fortunately he fell into that pattern again."

Frazier got it going in the first with a single and advanced on a dirtball. Renfroe advanced him again with a base hit and with two outs Rea fouled off a couple on 1-2 before plating Frazier. Henderson made it 2-0 with his fly ball between the left- and center-fielders. In the third inning Pirtle doubled in leadoff, was bunted over by Rea, and scored as Henderson lifted a fly ball to centerfield.

To his credit Belcher recovered, Cohen said. "He went right back to pitching and shut us down for a long time. He doesn't light up a radar gun but he didn't panic and kept pitching."

He also voided State's best chance to blow it open, albeit with outside help. Bases were loaded and one out for Renfroe, who on 3-1 foul-flied to first base. Pirtle should have made it 5-0 as he dumped a dying drive in leftfield. Saiko made a fine dive and got the ball after it hit grass first, at the lip of his mitt. Yet third base umpire Gregory Street somehow saw it as a catch to end the inning. Replay showed otherwise but didn't matter of course.

"You just have to keep your composure, things like that are going to happen in baseball," Henderson said.

What else happened was South Carolina wore down Pollorena after three scoreless innings. Consecutive one-out singles and a dirtball had two Gamecocks positioned to score before Grayson Greiner walked. Max Schrock watched the full-count fastball miss the outside corner for one run, then Brison Celek tied the game up on a single through the middle. Gentry inherited a pair still on bases with just one out, and got some interesting strike calls himself to fan the bottom of the order and keep the score 3-3.

The biggest K came in the fifth, after a one-out walk and Frazier throwing error had two Gamecocks on and the muscle in their order up. Gentry put both L.B. Dantzler and Greiner down swinging.

"When he struck (Dantzler) out, he has not made a left-handed, middle of the order guy swing and miss, like, this year," Cohen said. "When he got that I think it really changed things."

It certainly had the Gamecocks baffled as they'd not seen Gentry throwing the sort of stuff and location on scouting. Because, he hadn't. His curveballs were registering mid-to-high 60s at times on the stadium radar, making a 90-fastball look blazing. "They talked to me about changing speeds and keeping them off-balance so they wouldn't be in attack mode all the time," Gentry said.

State notched a 10th double-digit hits game out of the last eleven with a dozen safeties. Only two went for extra bases, both by Pirtle who would have gone 3-of-4 if not for the blown call. He still scored twice as did Frazier with a pair of hits, while Rea was 3-of-4 with two RBI. Henderson was 2-of-3 and drove in three runs. In fact, the middle-three in MSU's order accounted for two runs and five driven-in.

And all came after the extended grind of Tuesday/Wednesday's 17-inning marathon. The Bulldogs didn't look so worn-down as this game developed, fortunately not into extra innings. "I wouldn't say we were fresh!" Rea cautioned.

But they had enough offense early and late, and an unexpectedly impressive performance from a freshman who'd been written-off by many in March. "It's awesome," said Gentry, who really was.

Just as he'd been instructed.

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