Mississippi State ended its four-day stay at the SEC Tournament quietly, shut down and almost out 5-1 by Florida in Friday's elimination round. The Bulldogs (37-22) exited Hoover after two wins and two losses, having played nothing but Eastern Division opponents. The Gators (39-20) will stay around at least one more day to face Kentucky in the semifinals round.
Though the final score was one-side, and Mississippi State's lone score did not come until the eighth inning, most Bulldogs said they watched a closer contest than everyone else saw. What made the Gators winners Friday evening were the same things which earned their regular-season SEC championship and a sure NCAA national seeding.
"They're a solid team, obviously they won the league and it's not by accident," RHP Ben Bracewell said. "We knew they were solid up and down, and they did the little things right. They don't strike out a whole lot, they put the ball in play and really make you work for pitches."
Bracewell could speak to that directly. Entering in the fourth inning with Florida already ahead 3-0, he had to battle his 2.2 relief innings just to keep it within some sort of range. And if a ten-hit game wasn't exactly overpowering, Florida showed its knack for making a contact when it would count most.
Or equally, hurt the Bulldogs worst. "I thought the difference was they defended well and we didn't," Coach John Cohen said. Which was surprising from a State squad which has relied on clean fielding and covering all season, and annually thrives at such things in the Hoover Met. This time it was different. Only two official errors were charged on MSU but there were other unofficial gaffes and lapses that the Gators grabbed.
And, as Cohen noted, Florida defended well. Very well, and a couple of times spectacularly so. The evening could be capsulated in a single instance that showed how well Bulldogs struck baseballs and how little came of the contacts. Trailing 2-0 in the bottom of the third with two outs, CF C.T. Bradford lined a drive just a bit too high for UF leftfielder Bobby Reed to glove. Pirtle followed with a hard shot of his own and a little more to the left-side than Bradford's. Reed was in hot pursuit of what looked like a sure RBI.
"I hit it and was alright, that's a double," Pirtle said. "I get around first and all of a sudden they're going nuts and I'm like you've got to be kidding me!" Because Reed had launched, reached with the left arm, made the grab and held on crashing to the turf. "That was a game-changer for them."
A game that changed as much on the Dog defense earlier. RHP Brandon Woodruff got the game-four start as expected, his first opening since April 20 at Missouri. The junior prospect threw hard enough, consistently notching fastballs in the 92-to-96 range. But he also wasn't hitting spots enough, going full-count to three of the first six Gators faced.
It caught up with him in the second inning. Taylor Gushue singled off Woodruff, who then walked Braden Matson on. Zack Powers pushed his expected bunt to Woodruff's arm side and by the time he fielded and looked at third base it was too late to do anything anywhere. With loaded bases a run was going to score on Peter Alonso's grounder, but the usually sure-stopper SS Seth Heck turned it into a two-run error as the sharp skip went off his glove. Another bunt had a pair of Gators ready to score with one out.
This time Florida made the mistake. A fly ball just foul of rightfield was caught by RF Demarcus Henderson who threw home. At third, Powers bluffed and didn't go; but at second Alonso did until realizing the bag was occupied. He was thrown out to end the inning on a most unique double-play. But it was a 2-0 deficit already which would prove enough.
By continued contrast Mississippi State had wasted a fine first-inning opportunity to get to Gator starter Danny Young. Heck reached on a grounder to shortstop, and Bradford lined a single over that same side. Both were bunted into scoring positions by team batting leader Pirtle, before the open base was filled when C Gavin Collins was hit. 1B Wes Rea made contact on 2-2 only to ground into the double-play.
Young's line looked great as he outed nine of the next eleven faced. On the field it was not dominating at all. Pirtle's rob-job was just the best example of how well State was hitting Young but without results. "We didn't give up. We had a lot of good at-bats today, a lot of hard line-drives that just didn't fall. I thought we did really well hitting and nothing fell for us, they made great plays."
Young lasted into the fifth when Collins led off with a double. Young struck out the nine-hole hitter and was replaced by Justin Shafer to strand the runner in scoring position again. Meanwhile Florida padded their margin. Braden Mattson hit to left-centerfield to begin their fourth with what ought have been a single, except LF Derrick Armstrong let it get past for a ruled triple off Woodruff. Peter Alonso singled him in. With a one-out walk Woodruff was excused so Bracewell could strand three Gators with a line-fly and pop-out.
"We just needed somebody to chew-up some innings for us. I did the best I could do."
Florida rubbed it in with a two-out single by Tobias in their sixth, scoring Alonso from second base. The inning did produce a glove gem from Pirtle. He robbed Turgeon of a hit with a glove-side dive, and still seated was able to throw out the runner.
None of which boosted Bulldog batting a bit. Shafer went in-order in both the sixth and seventh though that latter inning ended on a dubious out call as Walker appeared to beat the throw. It had taken a special running grab by second sacker Turgeon just to make the high throw so perhaps he was being rewarded for effort…or the umps wanted to end this one soon.
LHP Vance Tatum took the hill in Florida's seventh, immediately issuing a full-count walk with a double by Baden. A Gushue grounder made it 5-0. RHP Dakota Hudson and RHP Austin Sexton each threw an inning with a hit apiece.
It might have been just for pride but the Bulldogs did avoid shutout at last, as Britton singled to open their eighth. Heck's grounder had to be charged by his shortstop counterpart so Britton made second safely with one out, and Bradford moved him further with a base hit. The RBI-honors fell to Pirtle with a fly ball to leftfield. However, that out meant the senior's impressive streak of games-reached against SEC opponents (regular season and tournament) ended at 63; and his in-season streak of all games reached at 39.
Gray did have a shutout start with two strikeouts and no walks, but officially it was Shafer (1-0) awarded the win on 4.2 innings with two hits, the run and three strikeouts. Florida did not issue a walk to any Bulldog; while State's pitchers only earned five strikeouts, three by Bracewell. Woodruff (1-3) took the loss on 5 hits, two walks and no fannings in his 3.1 innings.
Of the six Bulldog hits, half were off Bradford's bat in his final SEC Tournament appearance.
Cohen agreed that his order made enough quality contact. It was the defense which broke down in fatal ways. Most obviously in the top of the decisive second inning. "If we handle the bunt play the way we have the majority of this year, and Britton comes and gets that ball, that limits their opportunities. And Heck has been stastistically the best defender shortstop in our league, and he got eaten-up on that ball."
"We have a strike three we throw away at first base. So we really did not defend well and to Florida's credit they did. They shoved it in the strike zone, they didn't walk anybody. We walked five and a ton of three-ball counts."
This outcome, coupled with Ole Miss' loss to Arkansas in the earlier elimination game, did not do any favors for the Hoover Met box office. "I want to thank our fans from driving all over, from parts unknown," Cohen said. "It says a lot to our players and our staff and everybody involved how supportive our fans are."
Some ballpark somewhere though will be counting on Bulldog fans to fill their seats, the address to be announced at 11:00am Monday when the full NCAA Tournament field is announced. The 16 regional sites will be named Sunday evening, and State knows it will be going on the road this year. With, they say, a clear conscience about the trip to Hoover and a good gameplan for the future.
"Did we want to tonight, absolutely," said Bracewell. "Did we want to win this tournament, for sure. But we're looking at it as preparation for the run we're about to make."