Eight Bulldog batters had at least one base hit and over half of those posted multiple-safety performances. As shortstop Heck, himself 2-of-2 official with two more reaches on walks, said, "If you don't believe in the saying hitting is contagious, it's so evident tonight."
Contagious? Try epidemic. A Mississippi State offense which came in batting .269, tenth in the early SEC standings, looked like a league leader for a major change. Besides the 14 official hits there were enough other contacts that put Bulldogs on bases and led to runs either earned or un-. None of this came as a surprised to one State player who never picked up a stick, but did his damage from the rubber.
"Our hitters were smashing all week in BP so I knew we were going to score some runs," RHP Preston Brown said. "I didn't know we were gonna score that many, but that's always nice to have that."
Very nice indeed, as State struck for four first inning runs, added two more in the second and blew it open with five in the third. In only two of their eight innings did the Dogs fail to score, and the 17 runs were the most in a SEC game since 2009 against Kentucky in the old hot bat era. This time State scored lots and didn't allow the opponent much offense at all.
"Scores like this on Friday nights don't happen a lot in the Southeastern Conference," Coach John Cohen said. "Vanderbilt is a very good club and they will be different tomorrow."
But the Commodores won't be putting ace Tyler Beede back on the mound. A sure first-round draft come June, the righthander brought a 4-1 record and sub-1.00 ERA to Dudy Noble Field. He left charged with 11 runs on just six hits, with only five of the runs earned. Contributing to Beede's completely uncharacteristic outing was lack of defensive support, including his own misplays of ground ball; and a Bulldog batting order that didn't wait for the ace to trump them.
Instead, State came out swinging early and well. "Obviously he's good, he commands the fastball, he has a good changeup," Heck said. "But we just came out ready to go. Getting a couple of runs in the first inning, we were able to throw the first punch and that was big for us." Beede (4-2) lasted 2.2 inning with five walks and just two strikeouts.
Cohen said his club went to the plate ‘hunting' fastballs to keep Beede's other, better stuff come into play. "I thought the key was the first two guys in our lineup got hits, but when we got deeper in the lineup we didn't take great swings. But we didn't strike out, so our pressure guys hit little ground balls." Which were often booted or not turned into more than one out.
At the same time Vanderbilt threw an experienced ace, Bulldog sophomore Brown was making his first-ever SEC start. Though, "I didn't have a very good bullpen, I think Coach Thompson was thinking about starting someone else," he said. Fortunately the pitching coach stayed with the plan, and Brown rewarded all with a full 8.0 innings scattering seven hits for two runs, only one walk and three strikeouts.
Brown (3-0) didn't overpower much anyone. He didn't try. His whole approach was get grounders and let the infield work. "Randy (C Zack Randolph) caught a great game behind the plate, the infield played spectacular, no errors. That's probably the best infielder in the nation, Britton's plays at third were amazing; Heck at short, Pirtle, Wes. So that made it easy to shove it in the strike zone. We also had a big lead so that helped."
A fast lead, too. Bulldog batters came up swinging from the start, as LF Jake Vickerson led off with a single and DH Alex Detz followed suit. One out later 2B Brett Pirtle reached on a bouncer that was fielded at first and flipped in time, but Beede failed to get his foot on the bag in time. Maybe this threw him off his mental stride too, because he walked the bases full with a pass of SS Seth Heck. On 3-1 he pitched wildly for an official walk forcing in State's first score. RF Cody Brown made it 2-0 with a ground ball to the right side, scoring Detz.
It got worse for Beede before the inning was over, too. He wild-pitched in Pirtle, then charged a nubber by Randolph only to bobble it as Heck crossed for the 4-0 lead.
"We were lucky," Heck said. "Be walked a guy with bases loaded and we were able to squeeze out a couple of runs on little dribblers, and go from there."
Having sat the first-inning side with two strikeouts, Brown lost a bit of that margin in his second turn. A leadoff double and walk set up the successful bunt for a pair of Commodores positioned to score. Brown loaded the bases with a plunking of Vince Conde, before Chris Harvey pounded one into the ground. 1B Wes Rea had to wait on it and settled for an out there as Xavier Turner scored.
Brown limited the damage with an inning-ending fly ball, and returned with even more cushion. Again Vanderbilt assisted in the scoring as with one out in the Bulldog second leftfielder Brian Reynolds simply dropped a high Vickerson fly for the two-base error. Detz grounded to the right side and second baseman Dansby Swanson booted it, as Vickerson got the one run back.
Detz should have been picked as he jumped early for second, but the relay was so deliberate he had time to slide in safely. The vacated bag was soon filled by Rea, after his 19th walk of the season. Rea was out at second on a Pirtle grounder but the batter got to first ahead of the relay to keep the inning going.
Heck made it count as he lined a double to leftfield, scoring Detz from third and nearly so Pirtle from first. A great throw and relay beat Pirtle to the bag but the Bulldogs still led 6-1 after two innings. And even more was to come in their third.
Brown walked on full count, then stole second and kept chugging for third after catcher Harvey's throw went into centerfield. With one out CF Derrick Armstrong dumped a squeeze-bunt to the right side. There probably was no play at the plate as Brown was running hard for home, but Beede made sure of it as he slipped down again fielding a ball.
After missing the first swing, Rea tightened the stroke for a second and slapped it through the right side scoring Armstrong and Britton. With his bullpen filling up fast, Beede walked the bases full; then drilled Heck in the shoulder for a free if painful RBI. That was enough for Vanderbilt as lefthander Ben Bowden entered. And, immediately made it a 11-1 score by missing the mitt entirely allowing Rea to score from third.
Meanwhile Brown was taking care of business, rolling three groundouts in the third inning and stranding two Commodores (HBP and single) in the fourth with a called strikeout of Harvey. "They're a good hitting ball club, we were just trying not to let them string too much together. They'd get a hit every now and then and Randy helped me bear down and make pitches."
In the fifth though he was tagged for three-straight singles, loading the bases for Zander Wiel to make it a 11-2 scoreboard on a fly ball. Brown stopped things there by bouncing cleanup Commodore Turner into a double-play.
Mississippi State trumped that one run anyway, with three more in the bottom of the fifth. Rea walked, followed by base hits from Pirtle and Heck to stuff the sacks with no outs. Righthander T.J. Pecoraro inherited the jam, and gave up a drive off RF Demarcus Henderson's bat that just avoided the rightfielder's glove for a RBI-single. With all posts still full, consecutive fly balls by Randolph and Armstrong were sufficient to sacrifice in Pirtle and Heck in-turn for the 14-2 lead.
Which grew further in the seventh as Pecoraro walked Heck—his fifth ‘reach' of the night—and gave up another single to Henderson. Randolph collected his third RBI with a base hit to centerfield; and Britton's bouncer to the second baseman scored Henderson. In the MSU ninth it was Heck again delivering a run, albeit on the one turn that didn't get him on the paths. His sinking drive to left was caught on the dive but Rea jogged home from third base on the sacrifice.
Brown gave up an infield single in the Vanderbilt eighth but Heck provided the three outs. Woodruff took over to face the bottom-third of the order, allowing a one-out hit. With two down a strikeout pitch got past new catcher Gavin Collins, but Woodruff left both runners unscored with a ground ball. Vanderbilt had eight base hits, by eight batters with the double by Turner.
Pirtle was 3-of-5 with two runs; Rea had two hits and scored three times while driving in two; and Randolph plated three runners with one hit and two other contacts. It was an entertaining evening at the home plate to be sure…but none of the hits nor runs could be banked for Saturday's second game.
"That's the big thing, tomorrow it's a clean slate," Heck said. "So we've got to enjoy this one tonight but wake up tomorrow ready to go and knowing we're playing a top-five team in the country."
State will start junior LHP Ross Mitchell (3-1, 1.50), the former long reliever who moved into the rotation only last Saturday. Vanderbilt comes back with a lefty as well, Jared Miller (5-0, 0.57) for the 7:30 matchup.