On the record, too. By opening this SEC series successfully, Mississippi State took its seventh-straight conference road win and ninth of this season. The Bulldogs (34-19, 17-11) go into Friday's rematch still one game behind Ole Miss for the Western Division lead, and with hopes extended of earning a first-round bye for the SEC Tournament.
One slim hope faded though as Florida's win at Tennessee gave the Gators the overall championship. And to take the West will require State taking the next two here in Tuscaloosa, as well as a pair of Rebel losses at A&M.
Whatever does or doesn't happen elsewhere, if Mississippi State continues to swing their sticks as they did Thursday lots of good things remain within reach. The Bulldogs used 14 base hits, all singles, to set an opening-night tone. Even better was how so many of the safeties were both bunched to make big innings possible; and the additional hit, or two or three, followed. The result was eight runs plated in the fifth-through-seventh frames to turn a tight contest into a cruise.
"The big story is we gave ourselves and opportunity to have a lead, and swung the bat well," Coahc John Cohen said. "Our first three or four guys in the lineup did a nice job in some key situations allowing us to have a lead. And when we have a lead our kids feel very comfortable, very confident that we're going to be able to win the game."
The top half of the order did do a lot to both set plates and produce, with nine hits from the first four batters for all nine RBI and four runs. Leadoff Dog Bradford did just that, hitting his way on three times and walking twice more en route to scoring three times and driving in a run himself. His final line was 3-of-4 officially with the two free passes. And, "That last one kind of frustrates me!" the senior quipped about the ninth-inning out.
1B Alex Detz was 2-of-4 in second with a career-best five RBI, while 2B Brett Pirtle and SS Seth Heck added two more hits apiece. Much of the damage was done to Alabama righthander Geoffrey Bramblett (4-2) as he was tagged for seven hits and four runs in the decision. The Bulldogs had this rookie scouted well, as it turned out.
"We knew he was a freshman, a really good arm," Bradford said. "I thought we did a good job attacking balls in the zone and laying off balls out of the zone. That was our gameplan going in and I thought we executed pretty well."
If the batters had their aggression well-timed, the coaching staff was just patient enough with one pitcher before going aggressively to the bullpen. LHP Jacob Lindgren (5-1) only faced six batters in his 1.2 innings in middle relief but it was what earned the decision, after a steady start by RHP Trevor Fitts.
"Trevor was pitching well, I thought he was going to finish the inning," Lindgren said. "But the coaches called upon me and I did what I had to do." Entering after Alabama had cut a 4-1 lead by one in the bottom of the fifth Lindgren got a quick fly-out, then took care of a one-reach sixth to qualify for the victory.
Fitts had gone the first 4.1 turns with two runs on three hits, a walk and two strikeouts. More to the point he sat the side and faced the minimum in the first three innings while his offense got a read on Bramblett. "I thought Trevor did a great job getting us out of the starting blocks, he was phenomenal," Cohen said.
Bradford had opened the evening with a four-ball walk only to be erased on a double-play. He came back up in the third inning with two down, and this time singled to centerfield. A wild pitch put him on second base. On full count Detz slapped a single past the pitcher and middle-infield for the evening's first score. Bramblett had to strand two more in scoring positions to keep it 1-0, and returned in the top of the fifth with a 1-1 tie produced by the top of the Tide order.
Mikey White opened with a single and was bunted into tying position before a walk. Fitts got a first-pitch gift in a pop-fly for two down, but Kyle Overstreet also came after the first offering and lined it to rightfield for the tying RBI. Fitts kept it tied with a grounder, and would come back to the hill with a better lead.
LF Jake Vickerson noted the first-pitch example and followed it, singling to open. 3B Matthew Britton was not bunting as the runner took off, but his grounder to the left side worked as well and Bradford followed with another base hit for Dogs on corners. Pirtle got a 0-2 gift as the umpire didn't reward Bramblett for a pretty pitch on the outside.
He cashed it in with a base hit bounced through the box scoring Bradford for the 3-1 lead. And Pirtle was alert to the throw home, taking second. It meant he was in position to score if Heck gave the chance. He did indeed, with help. Heck would have reached on a grounder up the middle that the second baseman cut off in front of his shortstop with no chance for a throw.
Except Overstreet also let the ball get off his glove (no error ruled) and Pirtle came home. C Gavin Collins lined a single to left that finished Bramblett for righthander Ray Castillo.
Spotted the larger lead, Fitts was tagged for a single to open the bottom of the frame. On a hard grounder Pirtle didn't seem sure how he wanted to play things, which might have led to it getting off his glove and runners on corners with no outs. A fly out wasn't far enough to advance anyone but did bring back the top of the Alabama order.
With a 2-0 count State didn't wait, bringing in Lindgren to get a grounder. "At that moment that's where we felt the game was going to be won or lost," Cohen said. "And certainly Jacob can get you swings-and-misses. Even though they're a predominantly right-handed club we felt he was still a pretty good matchup." Lindgren got a swing off White, a hot one that Britton handled and got over for the force. Pirtle's relay throw was low, though, and Detz could not pick it so the lead runner scored. Lindgren lined-out Georgie Salem to keep the margin 4-2.
"I just went in there to do what I do," Lindgren said. "It was fun."
And the Bulldogs got it back with interest immediately. DH Reid Humphreys drew a four-pitch walk and Vickerson followed with his second single of the contest. With an obvious bunting situation Derrick Armstrong was put on second base to run as Britton sacrificed him and Vickerson over.
Bradford laced his first look into centerfield for one run, and while Vickerson had to stop at third base he was close enough to score on a deep fly to left by Detz. Again it was Pirtle extending the inning with a single. Castillo was given a quick talk by his coach, only to see the next pitch singled by Heck for the 7-2 lead and another pitching change. Lefthander Taylor Guillbeau ended this inning on a fly ball, only to get beaten up in the seventh.
And it was all with two outs, after catching RF Cody Brown trying to steal third base. But the Bulldogs were able to load everything up as new LF Demarcus Henderson walked, Britton singled his way on and Bradford loaded it up with his second walk and fifth reaching. Detz was able to cash it in with a grounder through the middle infield for a couple of RBI and 9-2 score.
With that much more margin RHP Myles Gentry got the ball for the seventh and worked around two hits. The eighth was more interesting. An infield single and walk had two on with no outs. Gentry rolled a grounder to third base that Britton simply booted to load all bases. The pitcher just kept rolling them though and took two outs on a twin-killing at the accepted cost of one run. A Casey Hughston double made it 9-4 before one last bouncer to Britton ended that inning.
Even another infield error to begin the ninth came to nought as Gentry finished out 3.0 innings with two runs on four hits, a walk and two strikeouts. It netted his third save. "I thought he pitched pretty well, he deserved a little bit better fate," Cohen said.
"Give a lot of credit to our hitters," Lindgren said. "The catchers caught very well. We just have to keep grinding out games."
The grinding resumes Friday. Or maybe the recover, Cohen said. "If you could see the meal these guys are about to eat, steaks and half-chickens…I don't know if we can get our kids out of bed tomorrow." But they will have to in time for the 6:00 game-two. Alabama looks to come back with lead righthander Spencer Turnbull (5-5, 2.36) while the Bulldogs aren't sure what they want to do.
"We don't want to throw Ross (Mitchell) when he's not ready, and that will be a game-time thing," Cohen said. "We'll see what he says. We would love to be able to push Ross back to Saturday but somebody gets pushed-up. (Lucas) Laster is a factor, Preston (Brown) is a factor because he threw only 30-something pitches Sunday."