Mrs. Patricia Britton did indeed pick the right game to watch her son and the rest of the Diamond Dogs play at Alabama. Not only did she get to see another pitching jewel by Mississippi State…she saw Matthew hit his first college home run. Britton's solo shot in the top of the seventh inning was all the Bulldogs needed for a 1-0 victory to clinch the weekend series in game-two.
For Cullman, Ala., native Britton to come through with the longball probably left the home school squad as amazed as he was himself. Even in cozy Sewell-Thomas Field, and even with left field so tempting, the junior third baseman had no notion to swing for any fence. After all, he'd gone 246 official college as well as other plate appearances without a homer. And even as he ran into Spencer Turnbull's pitch there Britton figured it was just good contact.
"I was surprised, I was rounding first thinking he was going to catch it at the warning track. I looked up and he's jumping on the fence…" And coming back down with nothing as Britton's high fly cleared.
Tuscaloosa native John Cohen can also remember batting in this ballpark both as a high schooler and collegian…though he can't recall if he ever knocked one out. So maybe Britton has one-up on his coach? Either way, "That's a great story for him, a kid coming back and playing here. I think it's really neat for him."
And for the Bulldogs, now 35-19 and 18-11 SEC, as they won an eighth-straight SEC road game and stayed in contention for a first-day bye at the SEC Tournament. Alabama fell to 33-21, 14-14. State's win was the seventh by shutout this season, four of those coming in these last three SEC weekends.
"I think we're just playing good right now," LHP Ross Mitchell said. "We have a good plan each inning we go out there."
The best Bulldog plan seems to put Mitchell on the mound. Cohen and Coach Butch Thompson weren't sure about bringing him back a day ahead of his usual work-week, Thursday calling it a game time decision. But Mitchell said there really was no debate involved Friday, and he felt good enough to go. Go he did.
The lefthander tossed what most might call a masterpiece except that it has become practically routine this season. Mitchell went 6.1 innings with five hits, two walks and as many strikeouts, and of course no runs allowed. Mostly by his defense, he pointed out quickly. "A lot of ground balls and a lot of great plays. That's what it takes to win and we did a job of that." Ten of his first 14 outs were on rollers as Mitchell had Alabama's big swingers off-balance, even when runners did reach.
"I actually threw more changeups than I've probably thrown all year, I was able to get them to swing early and get some ground balls."
What Mitchell wasn't getting was run support, even though Bulldog batters were reaching off righthander—and Madison, Miss., native—Turnbull. The Tide workhorse was scuffling right from an opening four-pitch walk of CF C.T. Bradford, but Mississippi State couldn't come through with the one big hit or forced mistake to set an offensive tone.
Instead he was able to strand two Dogs in the first inning, one in the second, two more in the third after a clutch double-play, and two again in the fourth. No less than ten Bulldogs made base somehow in the first six innings and none came close to finding their way back to home plate.
Fortunately Mitchell was doing the same, with enough backup. Alabama's best chance to get to the State starter was in their second as with Kyle Overstreet on second and two outs Will Haynie singled through the left side. LF Jake Vickerson got to the roller, threw hard and high and a little to C Gavin Collins' left. But the catcher hauled in the strike, reached back to the path where Overstreet was trying to slide wide inside, and got the tag down in the eyes of umpire Tony Maners.
Mitchell got another even closer call to end the Crimson Tide third as with two outs and a runner on first Britton bobbled a grounder just a bit. He still made the strong throw across for a second unpopular out. The crowd was made angrier in the fourth with a two-out grounder that Mitchell deflected. 2B Brett Pirtle got to the carom while bumping into Overstreet running from first, with an automatic out ruled.
Still Mitchell wasn't getting offensive aid, until Britton came up to open the seventh. He'd grounded back to the mound and watched a strike-three the previous times, but had his own scouting done by then. "Spencer has been throwing me first pitch fastball, and I wwas looking for it. He threw it away, I got the barrel to it."
Just enough of it. "I don't think anybody was aware it was about to go over!" Mitchell said. "But we were so happy to get that run and fortunately that was all we needed."
Even as the dugout celebrated RHP Jonathan Holder knew to get loose. And sure enough after a leadoff single and bunt, Mitchell was allowed to get up 0-2 on the #9 batter before Thompson came to the mound. The move, so familiar to Bulldog fans, surprised the clueless TV crew who thought it absurd to make a change right then. State knew the score…the no-score, rather.
"You've got a contact hitter at the plate and a freshman coming up who's never seen Jonathan Holder and his breaking ball," Cohen said. "That's where the whole ball game is and you just can't allow contact there if you have that in your bullpen." Holder finished striking out Hunter Webb, then got order-topper Mikey White swinging as well to keep the 1-0 lead.
Holder also went in-order in the eighth, before Overstreet began the ninth with a single. Alabama had the tying run on first base and he stayed put with a fly ball and called strikeout. It was Holder's seventh save of the season on 2.2 innings with five strikeouts.
"One run the whole game, that's pretty exciting," said Holder. It was for Mitchell (8-4) certainly, and Turnbull (5-6) deserved better after 7.0 innings with the one run on five hits, four walks and three strikeouts. But in a small park it only took one swing to decide a tight game.
And if said swing came from such an unexpected source, so much the better? "Props to him," said Holder of the still-thrilled Britton. "He's in his home state, real close to his house, his family is here. That's real big for him, and for the whole team."
Finishing a sweep Saturday would be even bigger. The Bulldogs know now they cannot win the SEC West's top seeding after Ole Miss' second win at Texas A&M, as the Rebels have the tiebreak. They can hold on to third place overall, though as everyone assumes Louisiana State will finish a sweeping of Auburn it will require another State win to secure it.
Of course when a team keeps winning nailbiters or shutting squads out, they start thinking as if success is going to come somehow. As it did tonight, Holder said. "We'd played so good before that, we were destined to win it. Alabama has a good hitting club and I'm proud of throwing a zero against a team like that."
Game-three is 3:05 Saturday. Mississippi State will pick between RHP Preston Brown or LHP Lucas Laster, while Alabama is listing lefthander Justin Kamplain.