It was Vickerson who delivered the undoubted biggest base hit of Mississippi State's first day in the NCAA Tournament. Trailing 2-0 after giving up a pair in the top of the second, the Bulldogs were able to answer in the bottom after two quick outs. Still it was a 2-1 deficit and loaded bases when Vickerson came up for his second chance.
He had a good feeling about what was developing, though. "We talk about it all the time, creating the big inning." The rally-on-two began with a DH Alex Detz single, and was sustained thanks to a defensive mistake by San Diego State off 1B Wes Rea's grounder. The bouncer was fielded fine behind the bag, it's just that shortstop Evan Potter tried an underhand flip to the second baseman that was high enough to pull the Aztec off and let Detz slide in under him.
That, said Vickerson, was the point a team has to convert; especially after 3B Matt Britton scored Detz with a single, and CF C.T. Bradford extended the inning a little longer with his bases-loading walk.
"And you start getting on a roll," Vickerson said. "I just wanted the opportunity to get it done there and help my team." He did it about the best way possible, too, after a quick chat with the boss. "Coach pulled me aside and said be ready to hit that first pitch there. Coming off four straight balls the guy is probably going to get back in the zone there. So he told me to be ready and I was just looking for a pitch up in the zone to drive."
Mark Seyler grooved it and Vickerson took his best swing in weeks. Maybe months. Maybe all season. "I knew I got good contact on it. I knew for sure it was going to get over his head. Obviously I don't hit the ball out of the park, ever! So I wasn't too worried about that, I just wanted to put my head down and run." The run stopped at third base as Vickerson pushed every teammate in front of him across the plate with the three-run triple. It was his first three-bagger of his junior transfer season.
And, a continuation of something begun in the final regular-season series, when in two games at Alabama he had three hits. Vickerson followed that with a couple of hits in the SEC Tournament, and had an eight-inning single against S.D. State today as well. So in his last seven games the outfielder is 7-of-18 with five RBI.
All this comes after a dry stretch. Between April 15 and May 11, Vickerson had just two hits in 13 games with 25 at-bats. Perhaps Cohen would have started him anyway Friday since Vickerson had been warming back up lately and was a lefthanded batter to boot. Or perhaps it was what the coach saw in weeks of batting practice work from Vickerson.
"He's just working on his stroke all the time, and trying to take the ball out of the air. I felt he would be a good matchup for this club. He does a great job with guys that have a lot of arm-side sink, and Serler has good-arm-side run. That is one of Jake's strengths, he can handle those kind of guys." A 2-of-4 day with the huge three-run triplet affirmed that evaluation.
"I'm still working on things, just trying not to lift the ball," Vickerson said. "Trying to stay in the middle of the field and help the team." But it was a ball driven, not just lifted, that became the day's big hit.
CONTACT CLUB: But, not the only one to Cohen. "Obviously Jake's triple that drove in three runs was huge," he said. "But Detz' two-out hit was a big hit as well."
That was in the fifth inning, when Mississippi State added some welcome insurance to the 4-2 lead Vickerson had provided. With 2B Brett Pirtle on second base and RF Cody Brown on first after their base hits, it was still two outs and San Diego State making a pitching change. Lefthander Marcus Reyes inherited the runners and situation. And Detz, which in itself was a story.
Typically this season State would have countered the move by calling on a right-handed batter for the DH slot Detz was filling this game. Not this time. Cohen went with a quick impression of Reyes' warmup tosses to stay with the senior swinger.
"He was a breaking ball guy, I just kept watching him throw his pitches and his breaking ball was up in the zone. And Alex does a great job on breaking balls, especially up in the zone; and really his statistics against lefthanders are pretty darned good. I think he had a feel for what is going on in the ball game, and I just felt he was going to put a good swing on the baseball."
All Detz did was drive a single into rightfield scoring Pirtle from second for the 5-2 margin that held up.
Also not to be overlooked was 3B Matthew Britton providing the first State RBI back in the pivotal second inning. But that ought not have been any surprise. Britton, too, was a different batter at Hoover last week. He hit safely in all four games going 5-of-14 for the SEC Tournament. Cohen has seen how the junior has taken a lot of firm advice to heart, and to the plate.
"Just engaging the pitch. That's the thing we talk about with Matthew the most, just engaging the pitch. Meaning his I.D. has to be ‘I'm going to swing at every single pitch until it's a ball. When he's got that mentality he's a pretty good hitter. Just being quick and saying I'm going to swing at every single pitch that's thrown until there's a ball. Early on the year I think he was ‘I'm going to wait-and-see if this pitch is a strike, and ti was a late reaction thing. I think his entire identity is more aggressive offensively and he's had great success with that."
Six Bulldogs combined for the nine base hits notched Friday, and "I felt we put good swings on balls and didn't get hits," Cohen said.
A GOOD FITTS: It took all of oh, maybe 20 seconds for Mississippi State to decide it would be a righthanded starter against S.D. State. And, that it would be Trevor Fitts taking the ball. Evaluating the Aztec order, Cohen and Thompson figured Fitts was the right matchup for this offense; and besides, he was well-rested and used to opening series anyway.
And Fitts did his advance work well. "When we went through the scouting report their strikeouts and walks weren't very high, so Coach Cohen pointed out they are a free-swinging team that liked to swing early. It's worked for them all season, we just happened to defend it really well."
It just didn't seem State was pitching it well early when Fitts gave up the two runs in the second inning. Only, here again Fitts was the right Dog in more ways than arm-side. While a couple of relievers ran to the bullpen just in case, it was clear Fitts was how they wanted to roll through this one; at least until it was time to give Myles Gentry the ball.
Fortunately Fitts was able to delay that until after five full innings. He ended the dangerous second with just the two runs scored, getting a comebacker to strand three Aztecs. "I try not to let my emotions affect me at all. I mean it's frustrating to say the least." But not back-breaking.
"He gave up the two-spot," Cohen said. "But he minimized the damage. It takes incredible maturity to get beyond that (a strikeout/wild pitch to set up the trouble). He showed tremendous maturity right there and I thought that was the difference in the ball game."
The junior's experience did come to the fore as he battled out of the big mess and didn't allow anything else. It earned Fitts a post-season win on his record, too.
Besides his coach and teammates offering steady encouragement, Fitts credited another source of support. "Part of the thing that helped today was we had a lot of fans show up." In fact a few hundred Bulldog backers got into the ballpark. Some were on player family/guest tickets as allotted by the NCAA; a few used connections to get tournament books from local sources. But more took the chance of showing up and hoping Lafayette would sell them a ticket in the minutes leading up to the game, as advertised. This despite knowing no seat was guaranteed, that wherever they set up a Cajun fan could arrive late and take that spot.
Fortunately the locals either waited for their evening contest, or were good sports and accommodated their guests for the day game. So the Bulldogs had their cheering section of sorts for another tournament day.
"And that's huge," Fitts said. "Because when you've got people yelling—not always the most positive!—but when they're yelling keep going, keep battling and stuff like that it really helps. And our dugout does a great job with that."
SURPRISE, SURPRISE? During the press conference, Cohen said something the press corps took as coach-speak. Asked about the expected matchup with host and top-seed Louisiana-Lafayette, the coach talked about how great an offensive club the Ragin' Cajuns are and respect for the players and staff.
At which point Cohen added, "And you know what? It's baseball, and that means Jackson State can do it also. Because I've seen them do it also. So it's going to be a great baseball game tonight."
Nobody snickered or anything but obviously the media members were thinking…sure. None in the press room or much anywhere else would have imagined the SWAC champion Tigers would really challenge the #6 national seed. Or not until the last out of the late game was recorded and Jackson State had knocked off the home team 1-0. Now Lafayette is thrown into an elimination round game at 1:00 Saturday with the Aztecs…and Jackson State prepares to play the bigger in-state cousin at 6:05.
History would be on the Bulldogs' side as they are 50-8 against Tiger teams all-time. Then again there are State fans and certainly coaches recalling 2010, when at Trustmark Park it was Jackson State winning 3-1. For that matter some current players have been pushed in the last three seasons by SWAC squads Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley. So no Dog will report to the park expecting a push-over in this winner's bracket battle.
Or as Cohen said, "No matter what the matchup is tomorrow we'll be excited and ready for it."
MSU-ELLANEOUS NOTES: Bulldog teams have won their opening game in three of the last four first-round regionals going back to 2007. And since 2006, when State wins game-one in either a regional or super regional, they have won the tournament five times…John Cohen is now 8-2 in first-round regionals with State…Senior 2B Brett Pirtle is the only Bulldog to have started every game at one position this season…Pirtle has 19 games this season with multiple hits…The Dogs drew three walks today, giving them 260 on the season which is most in the SEC…State has won 13 of its last 16 games played away from home…Friday's win was in the first-ever meeting of MSU and S.D. State.