Solo home runs in the first and fifth innings gave Alabama all the offense they needed to salvage a split on the final weekend of SEC season. The Crimson Tide finished up 34-21 for the regular schedule and 15-14 in league play. This was also the last game played in the current stadium, with a $30 million rebuild coming.
For Mississippi State, it was something of a letdown after clinching the series Friday, and winning 11 conference games in the second-half with eight-straight road victories. "But we desperately wanted to win this game," Coach John Cohen said. "It wasn't in the cards for us."Not when a couple of Alabama batters came after those two decisive pitches. Specifically first pitches in their at-bats, and in the case of Mikey White the first Bulldog offering of the day. White was looking to swing immediately off RHP Preston Brown and launched a no-doubt drive beyond left field for the instant 1-0 lead.
In the fifth it was Ben Moore coming up with one out and doubling the Bulldog deficit on another first-chance hack. Which also cleared left field, and proved the margin of victory. It was an ironic turnaround from Friday evening when the only offense by either team came on a solo homer by Bulldog 3B Matthew Britton.
"Sometimes you win that way, sometimes you lose that way," 2B Brett Pirtle said. "Last night we had one home run and won 1-0. So it's just baseball."
Mississippi State did scratch out a seventh-inning run to avoid shutout, and was ever-so-close to tying or even taking a lead in the eighth. Close, as in a 1B Wes Rea drive that drew a lot of dust on the left field line but no real chalk. Even at the very end a drive to left by DH Alex Detz with a fast runner going off first base could have forced things into overtime. But the outfielder had been shaded the other way, for the game-ending catch.
"Two inches that way, and we feel a little bit different about this ball game," Cohen said.
Certainly different about the pending post-season. Mississippi State (35-20, 18-12 SEC) finished tied for fourth in the SEC standings with South Carolina. But because the Gamecocks won their series with Ole Miss they will be #4 seed and have a Tuesday bye at the conference tournament. They will await the winner of the #5 Mississippi State-#12 Georgia game which is the final matchup of day-one.
Leaving the park Friday after sealing the series, their seventh of this season, the Bulldogs weren't saying for sure who would start game-three against Alabama's right-handed order. It would have been surprising though had anyone other than Brown got the ball, with his knack of getting grounders in any size park. The trouble was his first pitch of the day didn't go on the ground. Or stay in the park, as White got a sixth homer of the season.
A couple of one-out walks brought RHP Ben Bracewell in to practically re-start the game after Brown (4-2) faced just four batters. Bracewell got a first-pitch grounder for a double-play off a slider. "It was just damage control there and try to put up as many zeroes as I possibly could and get us deep in the game as possible."
He did despite loading the bases in the second with two outs, coaxing a comebacker to end that threat. Both orders would get used to RISP frustrations this game. Isolated singles in the third and fourth did no harm to Bracewell. But an out into the fifth Moore was up, and Cohen later said he thought it would be a fastball on first pitch.
Instead, Bracewell said, "I tried to get changeup down-and-in, I left it belt-high and it would have been hard for him to do anything but hit it out of the yard." Moore's ninth homer of the season would be all the scoring the home team needed, barely.
Because for five full innings lefthander Justin Kamplain (6-3) kept frustrating the Bulldogs. A game-opening single by SS Seth Heck came to nought, as did a one-out walk of RF Demarcus Henderson in the second. In the Bulldog third Detz singled with two out and Pirtle joined him on base via plunking. Kamplain stranded them with a strikeout on a dirtball to C Gavin Collins. Henderson walked on again in the fourth and got nowhere.
"He had three different pitches, throwing for strikes and in-and-out of the zone," Pirtle said. "He's a good pitcher, he got the win. But there were key situations we didn't finish today that really got us in a bind."
Kamplain finally got into one in the sixth, with a leadoff walk of Pirtle and one-out single by CF C.T. Bradford. Righthander Jay Shaw took over and lefthanded batter OF Cody Brown pinched, grounding to the pitcher for an out at first base. Rea grounded out with the pair in scoring spots.
State snapped any shutout in their seventh as LF Derrick Armstrong stayed in the order after the change of arms, and walked his way on. A wild pitch got a free base and Britton was able to ground his teammate over to third. With Armstrong's speed a grounder to the middle would net a RBI, and Heck delivered it. Alabama went back to the bullpen for lefthander Thomas Burroughs to end that inning.
LHP Jacob Lindgren took the ball from Bracewell on 2-2 count with two outs to strand a runner on third base in the seventh. The Bulldogs had their last best chance to catch up, even go ahead, when Rea came up in the eighth With Pirtle on second base and inch-batter Reid Humphreys on first. His 2-2 drive down the line really was that close to a tying or go-ahead contact, but no Dog protested the correct foul call. After a battle with more fouled-away balls, Rea flew out.
Burroughs sealed his 10th save by leaving Heck on first base after a two-out single, when Detz' other-way liner was caught. Cohen, frustrated with the scoring-position contacts in the first five innings, thought the approaches improved as the game went on. "Even the last swing was a pretty darned good swing."
Alabama had a seven to five edge in hits, and both teams stranded ten runners in a day of missed chances for everyone. Everyone but the two Tide swingers who went deep. As Cohen said, "You don't want their best hitter to beat you, and that's what happened."
"They're a good offensive club and can really swing it, and they play well to this ballpark," Bracewell said. "I thought we did a good job of containing that. You saw Friday how important one pitch can be."
Otherwise, Cohen said, "I'm really proud of the way we pitched. Preston is probably still not back where we want him to be mentally or physically. But we gave up two 0-0 home runs, we centered some balls up and Alabama loves the 0-0. And we served up two balls and let them hit it out of the ballpark."
The Bulldogs headed home to rewind a winning weekend that didn't quite achieve their ambition of a first-day pass at Hoover. So they will be driving this direction again early Tuesday after a quick preparation for the single-elimination matchup. Mississippi State is assumed by all analysts to already be safe for a NCAA at-large berth when they are announced a week from Monday.
"We've had a good SEC year right now," Pirtle said. "So we're just going into the tournament and need our momentum to keep going."