Frazier's four-base hit evening at the plate led, literally most times, the Bulldogs into the tournament semifinals for a second-straight May. #5 seed Mississippi State (43-16) got a third win in as many days and now has Friday off to await their Saturday opponent and gametime. They will play the survivor of Texas A&M and Vanderbilt, who meet Friday afternoon.
The Aggies (32-26) know who to blame most for their detour into the losers bracket. Shortstop Frazier, Most Valuable Player of the 2012 SEC Tournament championship, hit safely four of his five turns. He scored State's first run and then another go-ahead run; and for good measure drove in an insurance run in the eighth inning for the final margin of MSU victory. He also had three putouts and six assists with the glove and arm.
"I thought Frazier was fabulous for us," Coach John Cohen said. "His at-bats won the game for us. And I thought he was outstanding defensively as well." For the three games State has won in Hoover so far Frazier has nine hits, and a total of 17 in the '12 and '13 events.
The junior shortstop added to another Bulldog advantage on offense. Mississippi State cranked up the speed for their Thursday showdown with the Aggies.
Whether stealing, or moving on pitches, or stretching after contact, or bunting for hits, the Dogs ran wild and A&M was slow to respond if at all. "That's the first time I guess since I've been here we really took advantage of hits and runs," Frazier said. "We got three of them done. That puts pressure on defense and gives us a better chance to win."
It also gave the trio of Aggie pitchers more opportunities to lose as they just couldn't keep the same pace. For that matter Mississippi State's defensive speed was just as superior robbing A&M of some opportunities. Never more obviously so than in the seventh, with a one-run difference and a tying Aggie at first base, when CF Hunter Renfroe hit the gas and ran down a dying drive in short centerfield. Not only did he get the catch but his rifle-arm throw to first base doubled-off pinch runner Brandon Wood.
Who, in fact, was the last chance Texas A&M had to score. Because long reliever LHP Ross Mitchell used that help to string 3.1 hitless, scoreless innings together before handing the ball to RHP Jonathan Holder. The bullpen ace blew all three Aggies down in order with two fly balls and a swinging strikeout to earn his 16th save of the season, 25th career.
Mitchell's amazing sophomore season continued as he earned the 11th victory in as many decisions, all out of the bullpen. He walked one and struck out one of the nine batters faced.
"I just wanted them to get themselves out, and they did that for the most part," Mitchell said. "And I got some good plays behind me." Renfroe's was so good that Mitchell complained his neck hurt from turning so fast to see the throw.
Yet both starters deserved better than they got. Aggie righthander Rafael Pineda (5-5) took the loss on 4.2 innings with five runs on six hits. Just two of those scores were earned as defensive breakdowns cost A&M dearly. Pineda, who had been shelled in just two innings during a regular season loss to State, wasn't the same pitcher this time Cohen said.
"Give credit to A&M, especially the first guy. He pitched so much better than the last time we saw him, he had good velocity and good movement."
At the same time State starter RHP Kendall Graveman paid for a not-his-fault lapse in the field that led to two Aggie runs in the bottom of their first inning. He shook it off mostly and lasted 4.1 innings with four total runs charged, two earned as well, with no walks and two strikeouts.
Not surprisingly Frazier opened the game with his first base hit, on Pineda's second pitch. With one out Renfroe grounded to third base. Hunter Melton fielded it fine but overthrew his middle-man for Dogs on corners. 2B Brett Pirtle did as he had to on 1-2 count, bouncing a ball enough to the right side so the only out was at first base. Frazier came across for the early lead.
State returned the unforced favor though. Leadoff Aggie Mikey Reynolds reached on an infield single that high-hopped off 1B Wes Rea's mitt, and Blake Allemand bounced a ball to Frazier. His throw was on target, only Pirtle let get through him. "That's surprising because he's been a phenomenal defender all year long," Cohen said. "If we handle those two plays I think the whole ball game is different."
This let Cole Lankford even the score on his bouncer to the right side. Graveman's fourth ground ball made it two outs but had Lankford in position to score on the first real drive, dropped in left by Melton for the 2-1 lead.
That lasted to the fourth when Pirtle was plunked by Pineda. With one out and a 3-1 count he took off, and RF Demarcus Henderson bounced a hit through the spot vacated by the covering shortstop. C Nick Ammirati missed his first swing for a fly ball; the second connected for a drive to center scoring Pirtle.
The fifth inning proved decisive as State out-scored the Aggies two to one this frame. With the order starting over a third time. Frazier again singled in leadoff, and 3B Alex Detz used the opening left by a covering first baseman to bounce a base hit through. A strikeout did have a double-up set up but Pirtle foiled it, chopping the RBI-bouncer up the middle.
The rest wasn't entirely Pineda's fault, though he did walk Henderson on full-count to fill everything. After flying-out twice, once for a sacrifice, Ammirati bounced his first pitch to first base. Lankford simply butchered the ball for a two-run error as Detz and Pirtle made it a 5-2 lead. "They gave us a couple, too," Cohen noted.
Graveman couldn't maintain all that margin. He was tagged for consecutive singles and both were bunted over for the top of the Aggie order, the .351 hitter Reynolds. Graveman did get ahead 2-2, then was lifted for RHP Ben Bracewell. Reynolds fouled off three chances before a full-count popup behind the plate. Ammirati stayed with it for the tough catch and second out, but on 2-2 Allemand fought-off a jammer and chipped it just past first base for the single and two runs.
"Benny did a great job, he gets the pop-up," Cohen said. "And that guy did a great job with strength just getting the ball into the outfield, it wasn't a bad pitch." It was a one-run difference though. Mitchell entered and caught Allemand going for the rundown to end that rally.
The way Mitchell worked in this rematch with A&M, and with Renfroe's big double-up, 5-4 probably would have held up. "I didn't really get far last time I faced them, they hit me pretty well. But I tried to do the same thing, attack them with the fastball. They were swinging early and getting outs which helped my pitch count."
Insurance was still welcome and it came in the eighth off Kyle Martin. He had two outs when sub-LF Derrick Armstrong dropped the bunt so well he singled on it. Everyone knew a steal try was coming, yet Armstrong got to second base ahead of the throw…which bounced off him and into centerfield.
This let Armstrong advance another stop, and Frazier made it matter. Shortstop Reynolds did knock down the grounder, but without any realistic hope of throwing Frazier out on the infield single, RBI, and 6-4 difference.
State out-hit the Aggies ten to six safeties, though only one A&M reach didn't score compared to eight stranded Bulldogs. Pirtle was 2-of-4 with two runs and as many RBI, and ran his streak of games-reaching to 32. Melton had two hits for A&M, and the only extra-base knock all night came—of course—from Frazier with his 16th double this season.
"We were very workman-like on the mound," Cohen said. "I feel bad for Kendall because again if we make those plays early in the game he's probably going to get through six or seven innings. We just didn't want to push him at this point because we're going to need him a week from now."
That will be in NCAA Regional play, and increasingly likely on the home field as Mississippi State keeps improving its record, RPI, and schedule strength. Now that the Bulldogs are set for a semifinals berth though, it will be difficult for them not to try for a repeat title. Unlike their unprecedented '12 run of six games in as many days, they actually have a break this year.
Cohen said the team will stay in Hoover—though the coach himself will make a quick trip home for daughter Jordan's high school graduation—with a weights session, some conditioning for the pitchers, and of course scouting of their opponent. Once, that is, the survival game goes final Friday.
"We'll have some fun and they'll be able to watch some games during the course of the day. But at the same time we'll get some work done."