"He's a great pitcher. He's had his ups and downs this year but he played for Team USA. He did a good job against us."
Good enough to even up the series. Mengden (3-6) turned in six complete innings by scattering most of the nine hits allowed, walking only one Bulldog and striking out two. Domination, it wasn't. Effective, it was with a couple of fifth inning runs all the damage done.
"After last year I thought he was going to be one of the best guys in our league, he's got such a great arm," Coach John Cohen said. "He battled and he pitched a lot differently than a year ago, he pitched off his changeup and his breaking ball tonight. He kept competing and kept his team in there."
That was the key: keeping Mississippi State from making too much happen. And frustrated, per Pirtle. "At the same time we didn't do a good job against him because there were so many balls hit right at people."
That was fact as State didn't lack for solid contact all evening and accumulated 11 total hits. What they lacked, as has been the case much of the season, was the one break-through base hit to change an entire game. Instead the turning points of this one went Texas A&M's way.
And, in a most unexpected manner. State starter LHP Ross Mitchell came in having worked 49 of 54 possible SEC innings the previous six games, and having played as sound a defense as any moundsman anywhere. This time it was different. Mitchell (6-4) only lasted 4.1 innings, absorbing five runs on seven hits with three walks and a pair of strikeouts. It was un-Mitchell an outing as might be imagined…
…made all the more so by a startling defensive mistake which opened the door for A&M's winning inning. That was when with the Aggies leading 1-0 the pitcher threw away a bunted ball which wasn't his to field in the first place. One run scored on the play outright and three more followed for a deficit the Dogs could not make up.
Both starters were scuffling early on, as Mitchell needed double-plays in the first and second innings to avoid harm. Mengden got a twin-killing of his own in the Bulldog first which set a tone for hard-hit balls finding leather.
Texas A&M got on the board in their third chance after nine-hole hitter Krey Bratson hit his way on to open. He stole himself into position with one out; and with two down Cole Lankford dropped a single in short rightfield for the game's first run.
Six Bulldogs would reach in the first three innings and none score. In fact the game could have been altered in the third frame by a baserunning decision that failed. 3B Matt Britton began the third with a base hit but was caught stealing before a two-out single by DH Alex Detz. Pirtle drove one deep that landed on the track and bounced over the fence for a ground-rule double that sent Detz back to third base. The failed steal try came back to bite because it was a two-out grounder by C Gavin Collins ending the inning with nobody scoring.
Mitchell kept the difference at one run into the fatal fifth, when the top of A&M's order was back up. Blake Allemand was on first with Patrick McLendon bunting up the third base line. Britton was charging hard and, Cohen said, called for the ball correctly with the angle and the arm to make an attempt. Mitchell cut in front and grabbed, tried to turn and fling for first base.
He missed 1B Wes Rea wide and low to the left, and by the time the ricochet was recovered Allemand was coming home ahead of a throw. A 2-0 lead would not have been crippling the way State was swinging.
A 5-0 deficit was. McLendon had made second and took third on a highlight-video grab-and-throw by Pirtle. A four-pitch walking had runners on corners with the one out, setting up double-play potential. Nick Banks foiled it on the first pitch, driving a double that not only plated McLendon but let walkee Hunter Melton come home from first too. That finished Mitchell for RHP Myles Gentry, who allowed a two-out single by Troy Stein for the 5-0 lead.
Those added runs were priceless for Mengden in the Bulldog fifth as he walked Rea on and was hit by Britton for two Dogs on. A fly ball put Rea on third base, to score as Detz singled. Britton went on to third and scored as well when Pirtle dropped a single in centerfield. A really big inning didn't develop as Mengden coaxed a pop-foul and grounder to strand two Dogs.
Ty Schlottmann took over for the Bulldog seventh and promptly walked RF Cody Brown on. With one out Pirtle doubled into the rightfield corner for Dogs in scoring spots and one out. C Gavin Collins' fly ball to rightfield was enough to score Brown, but Pirtle was left on third by a strikeout.
The Aggies got a little insurance in their ninth as Gentry issued a leadoff walk, followed by a sacrifice bunt and wild pitch. With the runner on third base and one out Lankford was walked on and LHP Vance Tatum called in. His 2-2 offering to Ryne Birk was bounced through the right side for the 6-3 final.
Lankford and Banks had two hits apiece for A&M. Detz and Pirtle had three safeties each, hitting consecutively too, and both drove in a run. Heck and Britton added a pair of hits each. "You look up and down our lineup and everybody is hitting balls hard, we just couldn't string anything together," Cohen said. "But the same thing could be said for those guys in the first game."
"We walked some guys we shouldn't have. But the biggest play in the ball game is the bunt to third base," Cohen added. That, and the Pirtle drive that caromed on over the fence instead of back into play. "If that ball stays in the ballpark and we just take care of that bunt, it's a whole different things. But when you tempt fate in that way at this level you're going to get beat. And that's exactly what happened."
The loss snapped a six-win streak for Mississippi State, now 28-16 and 11-9 SEC going into Sunday's rubber game, while the Aggies are 26-18, 9-11. Streaking or not, the Bulldogs cannot afford to let momentum begun with a sweep at Missouri last weekend evaporate now. Even in a tightly-paced conference race falling behind with three weekends left could end any hopes of NCAA hosting and a first-round SEC Tournament bye…two things that this wild season may well go together.
So Saturday is "a big, big ball game for us, for a lot of different reasons," said Cohen. A&M will put their staff leader Grayson Long (5-1, 2.44) on the hill. The Bulldogs have no ace to counter with but at least do have a reasonably well-stocked staff to mix and match with. Righthanders Brandon Woodruff (1-2) and Ben Bracewell (3-3) have essentially been co-starters the last three weeks; both of the top bullpen arms should be available at need in LHP Jacob Lindgren and RHP Jonathan Holder.
And Cohen hopes RHP Preston Brown (3-1, 1.95) comes to the ballpark feeling good after a three-series layoff for a shoulder problem. "We're going to wait and see how Preston feels. If he gets up and feels like he has this whole week there's a pretty good chance we'll give him the baseball to start us off."