And Rea left with the Most Valuable Player trophy, too. "It's pretty cool, it's a lot of family and friends here and that always feels good," he said.
What felt even better for Rea was coming through in crunch time against a league rival. In the last three SEC series the veteran first baseman had slumped to 2-of-26, and missed two starts at Missouri. If this weren't enough pressure, Rea was victimized in the top of the sixth by a hot grounder that got through his feet to begin a two-run Rebel inning to take the lead.
Most other men would have been entirely rattled. Not the big Dog. "I think the story of the game was Wes Rea," said Coach John Cohen. "He gets the error at first and things haven't been going Wes' way, all of a sudden he makes two scoop plays and two huge hits in the ball game for us."
With both glove and bat, at that. Rea snagged several across-the-diamond throws that for anyone else would be called exceptional, supporting the pair of Diamond Dog pitchers who ground out a rivalry win. He also singled in the bottom of the eighth and eventually scored some insurance. "But we scored eight runs, I was only part of three of them. A lot of it goes to the guys in the dugout."
Those guys combined for eleven base hits, enough of them bunched to produce a trio of multiple-run innings. "That was one of the statements we made," said Rea of a team meeting last week. "Hey, let's get the bats going. And we did."
C Gavin Collins led the list with a 3-of-4 night, and drove in a pair of runs himself on a third inning hit that might have been bigger even than Rea's. 2B Brett Pirtle had a strong MVP case himself, hitting 2-of-3 with a RBI and scoring twice himself. "Our whole approach was better in BP," Cohen said. "I think our players have awakened a little bit and it's neat to see that happen."
Equally neat and just as important in this frantic week's outlook was the start delivered by LHP Lucas Laster. The first career college start, in fact, and in a rivalry game. But the looming factor was the upcoming Texas A&M series which begins Thursday. Mississippi State could not afford to use a lot of arms for very long, so Laster was asked to eat innings.
He did even better, going 5.1 frames with just two hits allowed to 25 of the official-faced batters. He struck out a pair and walked one, and if not for hitting six Rebels the southpaw might have been coasting. Instead those plunkings led to or contributed to all three Ole Miss scores.
Still in the game and week pictures, Laster was as clutch as any batter. "He did an awesome job," said catcher Collins. "He gave us a great start and a chance to win. That's all you can ask for."
"Obviously I'm proud of Lucas," Cohen said. "Really for the last month Butch (Thompson) has been pushing Lucas, saying we've got to get him out there because he's getting better and better and better. Outside of that one inning I was really proud of the way we played."
Fellow LHP Vance Tatum (2-0) got the win with 3.2 innings of scoreless relief, with one hit and three strikeouts. Between them they limited the hot-swinging opponents to three total hits. Ole Miss' Preston Tarkington (0-1) took the loss, as the Rebels—who had an extra day's rest on the Dogs—used seven pitchers, going to the bullpen often after falling behind.
Yet they also scored first, and after Laster hit leadoff Rebel Braxton Lee to open the evening. On full count Auston Bousfield lined a single through the open right side. With the Bulldog bullpen already busy Laster advanced Bousfield with a dirtball before Austin Anderson's fly ball to centerfield put Ole Miss on the scoreboard. LF Derrick Armstrong saved at least one run by going to the gap for a catch while staring into the sun; then with two on Laster got a called strikeout on full count.
That seemed to settle him down because he was able to go on a strong stretch of outs. He did have a one-down single in the second but Collins erased him with the ninth caught-stealing throw of his season. Laster then sat the next nine before plunking the #9 batter with two down in the Rebel fifth. A stolen base had the tying runner in position to score, so Laster more-or-less walked Lee for a force situation. It wasn't needed as Bousfield popped-up his first pitch.
Mississippi State took longer to get to starter Jeremy Massie as he worked around runners in the first and second turns. The third was different after 3B Matthew Britton singled past shortstop, and SS Seth Heck bounced slowly to the same side for an infield single. Armstrong was playing to bunt the first three pitches, the third of which bounced off the plate to advance his teammates. With the bunt off Armstrong swung away, only to bounce right to the third baseman. Britton was coming on contact and got into a rundown, though that did give Armstrong time to take second base behind the play.
It seemed to be for nought as Pirtle struck out on a pitch way off the plate. Collins saved this opportunity though as he drove the ball for the single and 2-1 lead. "We were constantly hounding in the dugout he was going to go of-speed, off-speed until somebody does something different," said Collins. "I was going up thinking I was going to see soft and go the other way, got a changeup and put the barrel on it."
Massie finished that frame and threw the scoreless fourth before Hawtin Buchanan entered to pitch the fifth. He would come back with a lead. Anderson's hot grounder got through Rea's feet for a two-base error, and while Britton saved the run temporarily with a smart snag to hold the runner Laster wild-pitched him along anyway. He then drilled Brantley Bell for runners on corners with still one out…and on the first pitch came in too far on Sikes Orvis as well to load all bases.
Laster got ahead 1-2 on Preston Overby and almost had the strikeout on a foul-tip. But yet again he came inside on a righthander, and hit him to force the tying run across. Then and only then was relief summoned, with Tatum inheriting the mess. A fly ball to rightfield gave Ole Miss the lead back. Not for long.
When Buchanan opened the bottom of the sixth by walking Pirtle the Rebels immediately moved to bring in righthander Tarkington. It didn't work because Collins was swinging as Pirtle was running. The grounder went right through the open right hole for Dogs on corners.
CF C.T. Bradford grounded up the middle and second baseman Dalton Dulin went down to get it. His flip was a little wide and late and pulled his shortstop off the sack, but umpire Tony Walsh ruled an out anyway. Pirtle did score the tying run. When State pinched with lefthanded batter Alex Detz, Ole Miss countered with southpaw reliever Matt Denny.
A three-pitch strikeout had them about to end the inning, but Rea came after the first pitch. His pulled lasher stayed barely fair at third base. Which was exactly how Rea had ended his pre-game batting practice, pulling four balls to that side.
"Tonight I really tried to emphasize hey I'm going to get the ball there, I'm going to hit the ball to left field. And I think it really helped tonight." Bradford had no trouble scoring from second, and while Henderson had a longer route he was still able to get home ahead of an off-line relay throw.
A 5-3 lead energized Tatum to sit the side in the OM seventh, and he returned with even more margin. Scott Weathersby took over for the bottom of the seventh and without a lot of luck. After a strikeout of the order-topper, he walked pinch-batter RF Cody Brown on and followed with a plunking of Pirtle. Collins' fly ball tailed towards the line and rightfielder Overby had to try the diving catch. He couldn't come up with the ball which landed fair, loading the bases as the other runners had to hold up.
Things worked out well anyway, as Bradford grounded to the second baseman. The force was made of Collins at the middle base but Bradford easily beat the relay, allowing Brown to score unchallenged. Given a second at-bat Detz delivered a first-pitch single for the 7-3 margin and another mound move. Righthander Josh Laxer finished out the inning with a strikeout, then lefty Evan Anderson took care of the eighth.
Sort of, as he gave up a leadoff single to Rea and wild pitched him along. After Britton's well-bunted ball put the runner on third base Heck was intentionally passed. Heck took second as Brown struck out swinging, then Pirtle came up with the coup de grace on a RBI-single.
Tatum had a leadoff double in the eighth to deal with and he did with a fly ball, strikeout, and good get by Britton at the third bag which produced a strong throw picked by Rea to prevent any more damage. Ole Miss went down in order in the ninth.
"The true mark of a senior is what happens after a mistake," Cohen said. "Wes came to me and said Coach I'm going to block that thing up, don't worry. I'm going to help us win this game, and that's exactly what he ended up doing."
The Bulldogs have to be back on the practice field tomorrow in preparations for the early-starting series with A&M. Riding a five-win streak, they won't have a lot of trouble getting ready to play some more. "After the Ole Miss series we put our foot down and made a statement, said hey we're not playing our brand of baseball," Rea said. "What are your goals, what do you want to do? We've been doing that ever since then."