The result was a Rebel win on opening night of this mid-season series, improving the visitors to 28-8 and 8-5 SEC. Mississippi State (21-14, 6-7) fell under .500 in league play with a fourth-straight conference loss. It was also the fourth time in five league series the Bulldogs have dropped the opener.
This one stung worse than most after State had ten base hits and put 14 runners on bases via various means. That included six innings where the leadoff Dog reached. Coach John Cohen saw many more well-struck balls, but just one run produced.
"I'm a big believer you make your luck. Ole Miss won the game, that's how it works…but it's hard to get on kids when hitting balls well." It was a little easier to critique a couple of baserunning gaffes with Dogs getting aggressive in the wrong place and time for two easy outs. Both cases kept promising innings from developing further. Counting what happened in Tuesday's extra-inning win over Southern Mississippi, State has lost six runners at second, third, or home in two games.
"You still have to be aggressive but we can't make the first out at a base, or bases loaded get in a rundown," said Armstrong. "We'll just come back tomorrow and be better at it."
Ole Miss didn't have to be aggressive on the bases. They already were at the plate. Typically that plays to the advantage of LHP Ross Mitchell, who thrives on early contact and ground ball outs. The Rebels beat the odds though, rapping out eight hits in the first four innings for a 5-1 lead that was more than sufficient. And over half the safeties came on first pitches, maybe the real surprise of the evening.
"I made some poor pitches, and I paid for it," said Mitchell, "and a couple of good pitches that they got hits on. They had a good game and tip my cap to them, they had a good approach. I thought we hit the ball real well, we just like to hit it right at people it seems like."
At the same time Mitchell (5-3) was State's bright spot by working 8.2 innings and keeping the relief staff stocked for the upcoming two must-win matchups. He was responsible for all six runs and 13 hits, with just two walks against five strikeouts. RHP Myles Gentry got the final out after Mitchell tossed 122 pitches in his first Friday SEC start, an situation forced by a rotation injury and use of others Tuesday.
"I thought Ross again pitched much better than the scoreboard indicated," Cohen said. "It just didn't happen for him today but I thought he was fine, he only had two hitters who went six pitches against him. That is a recipe to win, it didn't work."
Ole Miss righthander Chris Ellis looked the part of a Friday starter, going 6.2 around eight hits and one run with a walk and two strikeouts. Ellis stayed perfect at 5-0, and LHP Wyatt Short got his third save of the season with 2.1 scoreless innings on two hits and three strikeouts.
The Rebels came after Mitchell immediately, even—as Cohen noted—swinging at stuff that wasn't really in the zone. It still produced though with a three-hit, two-run opening inning before the Bulldogs ever came to bat. Austin Bousfield bounced his first chance inside third base for a one-out double, and made third on a ground ball. After a semi-intentional walk had two on, and Brantley Bell put the visitors on the board with a single through shortstop. Sikes Orvis followed with a liner to center for a 2-0 lead.
In the second it was a leadoff single and balk setting the stage. Errol Robinson was bunted over for the top of the order and Braxton Lee cashed in the RBI opportunity with a double.
Ellis had a game-opening walk erased with a double-play, and stranded SS Seth Heck (single) in State's second. The Bulldogs had their chance to close it up in the third though as Armstrong got the first of his two singles. He was running as 3B Matt Britton swung and bounced it over the pitcher. The Rebel shortstop had a tough choice and figured to wait on the hopper at the middle bag as Armstrong arrived.
An odd skip got past the glove and Armstrong made third base for Dogs on corners. A pop-out behind the plate by RF Jake Vickerson meant it would not be a big inning, and Ole Miss almost escaped entirely as DH Alex Detz bounced to shortstop. Britton got to second base ahead of the fielder though so the only out was at first, with Armstrong scoring. A two-out plunking of Pirtle did no harm as C Gavin Collins flew out to center to strand the tying runners.
Inability to maximize the opportunity hurt immediately. Preston Overby singled and was balked over with still no outs. The Bulldogs played for a bunt and had the left side defense in motion…except Robinson was swinging away. His grounder went right through the vacated shortstop spot for runners on corners with no outs. Britton made a fine diving stop of a Will Jamison grounder for one down as Overby scored. Lee brought the top of the order up a third time and this double was dropped in leftfield for the 5-1 lead.
State had a chance to scratch something out in their fourth with a pair on bases and one out. Armstrong stung the ball well, directly to the rightfielder for the second out. At second base, CF C.T. Bradford had twice nearly been caught too far off the bag. When Britton bounced a grounder for an infield single he turned third too far and was caught in the rundown to end that inning.
Ellis nearly had a really bad break on the first pitch of the fifth as Vickerson lined it off his leg for an infield hit. The pitcher stayed to get a grounder off Detz with Vickerson making second by running early on 3-1 count. Pirtle was hit on the first pitch for two on bases, only to have Collins roll the double-play.
A routine bottom-sixth later, Ellis had Armstrong reach on an infield hit. With two outs and the runner on second Ole Miss called in lefthander Short to strand the runner, on third after a no-throw steal, by grounding out Detz.
Pirtle opened the MSU eighth with a single to left but tried stretching for second and was out easily, the sixth Bulldog baserunner of this week out on the paths. This too prevented a big-inning opportunity as Collins reached on a dropped pop-up and Heck singled. Rea went full-count before lining to the second baseman.
Meanwhile Mitchell soldiered through four scoreless but not hitless frames, stranding four. He was two outs into the last inning when a single, plunking, and Orvis' base hit made it a five-run margin. RHP Myles Gentry got a grounder to third base and Britton's close throw was ruled in-time.
"They had a good approach," Mitchell said. "It wasn't my day but I just had to battle and save our bullpen who threw a lot over the week."
Cohen worked on the positive angles after a painful loss. "We had 21 hard hits on a chart, we didn't strike out much, I thought we made some outstanding defensive plays. They had a lot of early-action swings against Ross, some of them were good swings, some weren't good swings but a lot of them fell in the holes."
Armstrong was 2-of-4 with the only Bulldog run, while Heck and Britton had two hits each. Pirtle had one hit and two plunkings as he extended the streak of games-reached against SEC opponents to 42. Five Rebels had a pair of hits with two RBI for Orvis and two runs scored by Will Allen.
The outcome was in contrast to a big night for Diamond Dog fans, as a crowd of 13,224 turned out for the opener. It is the largest Friday gate ever at Dudy Noble Field, regular- or post-season.
"I really appreciate the fans being here, it's a great atmosphere," said Cohen. "They need to bring their four-leaf clovers tomorrow and we need to have some balls fall for us. And we need to be a little more fortunate."