The Spartans are 4-5, 0-3 in the Classic with two losses to State headed into their Sunday morning rematch with Eastern Illinois.
Bulldog confidence in true frosh Sexton was obvious when he drew assignments in both previous weekends. Neither lasted very long; 2.0 innings against Western Carolina as essentially a co-starter with classmate Dakota Hudson, and only 1.0 in a true start against Holy Cross. Stuff wasn't lacking, consistency was.
But each outing taught Sexton a key to college success; not just controlling the baseball but energy too. "Last time I as rushing, I didn't slow down and take a breather. This time, to get that first inning out of the way, and everything runs smoothly."
Very smoothly. A two-out single and passed ball in the first inning not only failed to faze the freshman, it raised Sexton's game. He responded by facing the minimum for the next four innings. In fact, since a double-play grounder erased a leadoff walk in the second inning, Sexton technically sat 13 consecutive Spartans. He was able to record 6.0 shutout innings of work, and do it on just 68 pitches with three hits, two walks, and four strikeouts.
"I just had all three pitches today. Fastball, changeup, and curveball, just trying to fill it up. Luckily I've got the best defense in the nation and they're making plays for me."
"Austin went out there and threw a gem," said classmate and DH Reid Humphreys. "He pounded the zone and the defense played a great game."
Speaking of pounding, Humphreys did some of that as well. The hitting hero of the previous win with his game-winning infield single as a pinch-batter, freshman Humphreys came up big in his first chance of game-two. He crushed a fastball from Anthony Misiewicz over leftfield for a solo home run. Humphreys would add a single later. It wasn't a perfect day for the rookie masher as two more strong contacts found gloves to start double-plays and end innings.
All the same, "I just got a chance to hit today," the excited newcomer said. Lots of hitting came at Michigan State expense, with 13 Bulldog safeties in all and eight from the second-half of the order. Misiewicz (0-2) suffered most of the damage with four runs charged on five hits and three walks, against a single strikeout in his 3.0 innings.
He did overcome a two-out error of 1B Wes Rea's grounder with no harm, only to serve one up for Humphreys to open the second. The Bulldog said he was aiming more to duplicate his ninth-inning contact of game-one "Really just trying to stay to the middle of the field, I guess I just ran into one." Humphreys claimed he didn't know it was gone, but off the bat everyone else in the park was sure.
And State didn't settle for that solo shot. CF Derrick Armstrong followed with a base hit and steal of second. RF Demarcus Henderson joined him on the paths with a walk and both were sacrificed forward by SS Seth Heck. C Zack Randolph got enough contact to loop a little drive past the pitcher's reach and score Armstrong.
Misiewicz came back for the Bulldog fourth only to walk Armstrong on. From there the centerfielder ran, taking second on a wild pitch and stealing third outright. Henderson plated him with a base hit through shortstop for a 3-0 score and pitching change, as righty Mike Theodore took over. Heck made it a tough intro with a perfect run-and-hit single through the opened right side for Dogs on corners, with no outs. That mattered because Randolph's grounder to shortstop was ideal for a double-play turned while Henderson came across for the 4-0 lead.
All this time Sexton was controlling the Spartans. The leadoff walk in the second was negated with a nice roller that Heck could snare-and-step to get two outs. Five of the next nine outs were on fly balls, none knocked all that far. "I was just mixing the changeup and throwing the fastball for a strike, changing the eye level and things like that helped."
Sending the freshman out for the sixth wasn't a sure thing at this early point of a season. But, "He had a pretty low pitch count, he wasn't even close to 100 at that point," Coach John Cohen said. "We just wanted to see if he can challenge the strike zone."
Or, deal with umping as he walked the #8 slot Spartan to open the sixth. "I thought a couple of the pitches could have gone either way. But you just have to focus back in and battle." It was a battle because nine-hole hitter PJ Nowak singled for a pair on bases. A fly ball to rightfield would have put the lead runner in position to score on almost anything, except Dan Durkin left the middle-bag too early. It became a unique double-play, and it made a difference too as Anthony Cheky singled with nobody in scoring position. Sexton stranded both Spartans with a fly-out of Blaise Salter to end his evening.
RHP Myles Gentry also gave a leadoff walk in the Spartan seventh and was down 3-0 to the next batter. He came back for a full-count strikeout of Jimmy Pickens, then bounced a double-play grounder and went in-order in the eighth. This was after Gentry had been tagged by EIU for a tying two-run homer in the earlier game, also in relief.
I'm proud of Myles," Cohen said. "He struggled in the first game, he threw a loose slider and the guy ran it out of the ball park. He came in and started not challenging the strike zone, we had a little visit and I know he wanted to finish. He did a nice job of attacking with his fastball in those two innings."
Mississippi State padded the margin with a three-run eighth. Armstrong again got it started with a base-on balls and stole not just second but third base, giving him four thefts on the day to tie a program record. He scored on a one-out fly ball by Heck, hit off Mike Mestdagh. Michigan State called in Josh Buchalski came in to get the last out, only it took three tries. He walked sub-batter Daniel Garner and was tagged for a single by Detz. The ball was bobbled further by the rightfielder so both Heck and runner Jacob Robson scored for a 7-0 lead.
It wasn't a save situation but RHP Jonathan Holder was given the ninth inning. The ace stopper has been battling an index finger issue and needed more live-time, and got it against the top of the order. One out in, a double by Cheky and walk of Salter set up the only Spartan score, as Cheky worked his way on around to come home on a bouncer that got past the mitt. Holder ended it on a strikeout, his third of the inning.
"We had a little bit of a gaffe at the end, we didn't block-up a Holder breaking ball like we should have," Cohen said. "But I thought Randolph caught really well and called a great game."
Checky had two of Michigan State's four hits while four Dogs batted safely twice. Armstrong only had one hit himself but walked twice and scored every time he made base. His four steals in as many tries tied a record set by Brad Winkler in 1981.
The Bulldogs conclude the Diamond Classic with Sunday's second game, taking on EIU at 3:00. Freshman righthander Hudson (0-1, 2.57) will make his third start.