Zach Arnold's bouncer off Bulldog Preston Brown with one out in the bottom of the 12th sufficed to score Matt Rieda from third base and end everything at 12:46am. The win sends the Wildcats (35-22) to the semifinals round Saturday. Mississippi State (37-21) must return to the field later this same day for an elimination game with Florida.
Most of State's overtime games have been quality contests. This one wasn't. Entertaining yes, but not a well-played baseball game. Not for the Bulldogs or even for the Wildcats. They won more as much in spite of themselves while State will review one they let slide away.
"They gave us opportunities we didn't take advantages of," Coach John Cohen said. "And we gave them walks and missed blocks and extra bases. So it was two teams trying to give it away and nobody would really take advantage of it."
Not until the 12th, when for the second time in extra-innings Kentucky threw out a Bulldog baserunner coming for home from third base. State had been gift-wrapped a chance at their fifth lead of the evening in the top of that frame as with one out LF Cody Brown singled his way on, and was advanced to third on an errant throw back to first base by the Wildcat centerfielder. Brown took off on contact by RF Derrick Armstrong that bounced up the middle. Shortstop Rieda's throw to the plate arrived earlier to keep it 6-6.
RHP Brown took over from RHP Jonathan Holder to pitch the 12th and on 2-1 was tagged for a leadoff double by Reida. That was bad enough, but a Brown wild pitch put him in sacrifice position for free with no outs yet. A couple of walks loaded the bases and Brown did get a strikeout of Max Kuhn to at least offer opportunity for an inning-ending grounder.
Arnold did bounce one to SS Seth Heck but it was far too soft and slow for any realistic double-play chance. Even the flip to second wasn't in time for a force, as Reida crossed after a 4:36 marathon.
This loss came after seven extra-inning wins for State, including Tuesday's opener in Hoover. After so many overtime successes a squad expects to come out on top, until the day or night they don't. "I don't know, it just didn't roll our way this time," Holder said. "But I think we battled really well."
Both teams certainly battled as the Bulldogs kept throwing first punches and often seemed close to the knockout. They could not complain about the outcome after so many lost leads and excellent scoring opportunities that weren't converted enough, if at all. But the real surprise was not getting a strong start from the surest opener on the staff.
LHP Ross Mitchell did go 5.1 innings, during which he was hit eight times for four runs. He also walked two Wildcats and struck out none, neither number remarkable in themselves. The difference was how Mitchell was hit. He gave up one big swing in the fourth inning to Micheal Thomas for a solo home run that finally got Kentucky on the scoreboard.
More damaging was the sixth. With a 4-1 lead, Mitchell gave a leadoff walk to top Kat A.J. Reed, followed by a double, single, RBI-fly ball and more consecutive base hits. RHP Ben Bracewell managed to keep a 4-4 tie but State's best chance at taking control had been lost.
For that matter the Bulldogs could have had an even bigger cushion for Mitchell. Nobody who reached in the first three innings off UK starter Zack Brown was scored. Even when State got a run in the fourth, that wasn't a well-used inning. Having led off with a single, 2B Brett Pirtle had to score on a wild pitch instead of a hit; and three more teammates were left un-plated by reliever Sam Mahar.
State did score twice in their half of the fifth as Heck singled in CF C.T. Bradford and Brown plated Heck. In the sixth it was Jake Vickerson's sacrifice fly scoring 1B Wes Rea for the 4-1 margin...that was wasted when Kentucky evened it up in the bottom.
The rest of regulation was tit-for-tat. State regained a lead twice, though they couldn't really be proud of getting just one run out of a bases-loaded, no outs situation in the seventh. It was a grounder by RF Demarcus Henderson that scored Heck at the cost of a double-play. Kentucky caught back up in their eighth as RHP Myles Gentry gave a walk and double to begin and end his no-outs stint. A grounder tied the game 5-5.
In the ninth Pirtle opened with a single and scored on C Gavin Collins' one-out base hit. Holder had taken over in the eighth to hold the tie; this time he couldn't keep a lead but not because he threw poorly. His pitch jammed Reed yet the SEC's best batter not only got around for contact but lifted the ball to left field. The Bulldogs had played him with a shift of the whole infield to the right side and twice it worked for groundouts. Two other times he walked.
This time his tailing-away fly fell close enough to the left-field line that Heck, having shifted towards second, just couldn't get over in time for what became a fluke double. Flukes counted this night though and a wild pitch meant Reed could tie it up one more time on a simple fly ball.
Both teams wasted extra-inning chances though State's were a little more dramatic. Most so was when pinch-hitter Alex Detz opened the tenth with a grounder that was errored. Pinch-runner Derrick Armstrong made third on 3B Matt Britton's single and there was no question of sending the team's fastest runner on a fly ball. It was just that Bradford's drive was a little too high and medium-deep where Storm Wilson could field and fire.
Catcher Thomas caught the throw in a way that carried his mitt into Armstrong as he arrived home. Replay indicated Armstrong couldn't get a foot down on the plate though he was at it when tagged.
But Kentucky failed to finish in their own 11th as with two on and one out Britton stopped a grounder that seemed sure to get through, and Holder stranded three with a pop-fly. That had to end his stint at 4.0 full innings after throwing on Tuesday, too. So it was Brown (4-3) thrown into the 12th inning pressure and taking the loss on 0.1 of an inning with two hits, two walks and a strikeout.
"It's tough to come away with a loss, that was a big game right there," said Holder. "Man, I tell you what, our defense played their hearts out tonight. Our offense, we hit the ball real great." And on top of that State got all the extra aid in four Kentucky errors against no Dog fielding gaffes charged.
Spencer Jack (4-1) was good enough to go the last 4.0 innings with just one run on four Bulldog hits and a strikeout to get the win. Both teams had 16 hits, and ironically it was not the muscle in Kentucky's order doing the most damage. Their 4-through-8 slots accounted for 11 of the safeties and four RBI, led by Reida with a 4-of-6 evening.
Collins was 4-of-5 for State and five other Dogs had a pair of hits. Had any of them or somebody else gotten just one more contact at the right time, they would have the free Friday and semifinals berth. Instead they left the ballpark around 1:00 and were due back sometime mid-afternoon. With the short turnaround there wasn't a lot of time to talk about the pending matchup with the Gators……or what if anything that game could or should mean for either team. Florida is assured of a national seed and hosting a NCAA Regional, so nothing they do in Hoover will improve their post-season standing. The Bulldogs might have a little more to play for, not least pride since the program does stress competing at this tournament. Realistically though State is all but locked into a #2 seed at a road Regional. All that seems at stake now is being a highly-enough rated #2 to not be assigned to a national seed's site.
And, both coaches have to carefully gauge just how much they want to stretch or stress their pitching now that it is a week to NCAA play. Cohen could not name a Friday starter, only suggesting righthanders Brandon Woodruff, Ben Bracewell, and even Brown were possibilities.
Whatever others may think of the game's meaning, the Bulldogs will take it as business. "We're going to get something to eat, get some rest," Heck said. "We did a lot of things well in this ball game, we had a lot of chances. There are some positives from this. We're going to come out tomorrow and be ready to go."