Even trailing 1-0 after Mississippi State broke the scoring ice in that fourth inning the Catamounts were clearly confident. Then with two outs and bases loaded Vickerson dropped a drive into rightfield plating RF Cody Brown and DH Derrick Armstrong.
The clutch knock confirmed how the junior college outfielder had earned first spot in this Bulldog batting order. Never mind 0-for-4 on his first night on three strikeouts and a fly ball, it was just a first appearance in big-time ball and against an outstanding Western Carolina starter. Coach John Cohen was confident.
"Jake was so good in fall and in spring, there was a time in intrasquads he had six-straight hits and was 10-for-16 or something like that. So we knew he was going to get hits, but when you put the uniform on and play in front of people it's just different."
What might have gotten Vickerson in some sort of synch was his previous at-bat, when in the third inning he followed up a leadoff walk of C Gavin Collins with a well-executed bunt. Nobody would score after his sacrifice but it did Vickerson good, after his leadoff strikeout. "I really just wanted to make that adjustment after chasing those (Friday) pitches and do what I do."
The three-run fourth not only put State's offense into gear but gave RHP Trevor Fitts all the reinforcement the starter needed. The junior also showed why fall and preseason work had earned a primary role, by throwing six complete innings against the aggressive Catamounts for his first win. It was easily Fitts' longest stint, starting or relief, and a superb one too. He allowed one run on seven hits, walked just two, and struck out a whole dozen. That was three-times his prior best as a Bulldog.
"I was just trying to pound the zone and let my defense work for me," Fitts said. "Woody (Friday starter Brandon Woodruff) and Ross (Mitchell) taught me a lot yesterday, just pound the zone." Which can be dangerous against a Western Carolina order that swings aggressively. Fitts knew to respect them well, since "I played with Aaron Attaway and Cody Jones this summer so it was kind of cool to face them." Leadoff Catamount Attaway was 1-of-4 against Fitts with a third-inning single, and #3 batter Jones was 2-of-3 with no damage done.
The lone run off Fitts came in his fifth, right after getting the 3-0 lead. And he contributed to it himself, because he struck out leadoff batter Bradley Strong but missed Collins' mitt for a reach. Strong stole second and made the next two corners on consecutive wild-pitches by Fitts. The starter steadied though, struck out Aaron Martin to end that inning, and left a pair stranded in the sixth to end the stint.
"Breaking balls were good, and when they got on the breaking balls I started pounding fastballs. It's a tribute to Gavin for calling pitches, he hasn't even caught me all spring except for one bullpen." Other than that one inning the duo looked like a long-time battery.
Western Carolina went with old hand Jordan Smith, a seven-game winner last season, and he frustrated State swingers through three innings. Finally in the fourth 2B Brett Pirtle got the first Bulldog base hit. An out later RF Cody Brown was fooled on three strikes but fouled the third off to stay alive. His 2-2 drive to the rightfield gap was off diving Matt Smith's glove and caromed into center for a stand-up triple and RBI. Two more walks had the inning continued for Vickerson's key contact.
"It was a changeup, I was just looking for something and letting the ball travel."
All the same the MSU offense left a lot of unplated players. A bases-loaded fifth inning wasn't used though Armstrong tried with a hard one-hopper that went right to the shortstop for a double-play. That came after two pitching changes by WCU, and not the last at all. In the seventh inning two Dogs were on with one out when CF C.T. Bradford turned on Bryce Danielson's pitch and ripped it…right into the glove of a drawn-in first baseman who didn't have to move.
Fitts kept the Catamounts at the one run with a tough sixth, as two were in scoring position with two outs. Fitts went 3-0 to order-topper Attaway too, but got a strike over and coaxed a 3-1 popup caught behind first to preserve the 3-1 lead.
LHP took the ball from Fitts for the seventh but walked a pair in the heart of the WCU order around a strikeout. With a righthanded hitter up RHP Preston Brown entered to strike out Martin and fly-out Dykota Spiess. He returned to get two eighth-inning outs around a walk, and was full-count to Attaway.
At which point ace closer Jonathan Holder was summoned. A single pitch, a sloooooow curveball, drew the swinging strikeout. By the time Holder returned he had the 6-1 lead to work with. New C Zack Randolph singled his way on and with full-count substitute RF Demarcus Henderson, batting where Vickerson had been until a sixth inning switch, was drilled.
3B Alex Detz loaded the bases with a line-drive single and righthander Colton Davis inherited the mess with 1B Wes Rea at bat. It worked out well for the home team as Rea lined a single to center for his second two-RBI hit of the series. Pirtle followed with a single to reload the paths and force yet another mound move, though all John McClure did was give a full-count walk to Bradford for the free base and final run score.
Holder went in-order in the ninth to complete his first save of the season and 31st career, with two strikeouts. Jones had two of the seven Catamount base hits, all singles, as they left 12 stranded runners. The Bulldogs left 13, which along with eight WCU pitching changes explained how a 6-1 game could last almost four hours. Detz and Pirtle had two-hit games for State. There were a combined 27 strikeouts.
"Trevor really set the tone for us today," Cohen said. "It was great for him to navigate the first five or six innings for us, that was critical. "We finally got some balls to fall for us and create a little bit off offense. Though it was remarkable, these guys play really good defense. Because Armstrong's double-play was absolutely smoked, and the ball C.T. hit, I can't believe their guy made that play."
For the rubber game Cohen and Coach Butch Thompson were choosing between veteran RHP Ben Bracewell or true freshman RHP Dakota Hudson as starter. "But both will pitch tomorrow no matter what." Holder and Lindgren are both available for second appearances, and State wants to get soph RHP John Marc Shelly and freshman RHP Austin Sexton work as well in advances of next weekend's four-game series.
Western Carolina is listing transfer righthander T.J Fussell as their likely starter.