The Ragin' Cajuns battered Bulldog pitching for 18 hits in a 14-8 rout, handing Mississippi State their first loss of the Lafayette Regional and forcing a second championship game. The rematch is 6:05 Monday with the winner advancing to the weekend super regional round. In State's case it would likely be a road series; for the #6 national seed Cajuns it would be hosting another weekend of NCAA Tournament play.
"And I think it will be a great ball game tomorrow," said Coach John Cohen…before adding the all-important qualifier. "But we have to do a better job on the mound."
Almost anything would have been better than how Mississippi State began their chance for a championship. From the second at-bat when Lafayette's Jace Conrad slugged a two-run homer, through the sixth inning the Cajuns were swinging sizzling sticks. They beat-up on Bulldog starter LHP Ross Mitchell for the first six runs and kept scoring on the next three relievers forced into action.
"Obviously you can't give Lafayette enough credit," Cohen said. "They did a great job, they swung the bat well. And they had a good gameplan."
One which was something of a carry-over from Louisiana-Lafayette's afternoon game, as they routed Jackson State to stay alive in their own tournament. The Tigers had used all their good arms and those used this game were generally soft tossers with erratic delivery. Normally that might have had a bunch of batters out-of-synch for a SEC starter…
…but by unlucky coincidence for State, lefty Mitchell is not a velocity guy either and relies on movement and location. So the Cajuns were somewhat ready for the style. Mitchell for his part turned in the most uncharacteristic outing of the season as a starter.
There had been talk of starting the slow-throwing southpaw in Saturday's game with Jackson State, both for the matchup and to keep him on schedule if the Bulldogs could advance to the next round. Cohen reported after this game Mitchell would not have thrown in any regard for some soreness. For this start he felt fine physically, but that might have contributed to the downfall too.
"I don't think Ross was his normal self. I thought he was over-throwing, trying to invent some stuff and create a little more velocity than he normally does." The result was a lot of big misses from the beginning, not the close nibbles at zones that often get batters swinging off-balance. Instead Cajuns figured out soon they could wait for Mitchell to come to them, and hit it. Hard.
Although their first reach was on a bunt that caught State's infielders playing back, a clever call since the field was still damp from the afternoon's three-hour weather delay. Ryan Leonards bumped the ball down for a single, and even Conrad showed bunt twice himself. After fouling off two attempts he swung full and hit it far, clearing rightfield for his ninth homer of the season and the fast 2-0 lead.
In the second another big fly nearly got out, falling on the track in right-centerfield for a one-out triple by Seth Harrison. Dylan Butler followed with a hot skipper that went through Mitchell's legs was clear since both middle infielders were shaded outside, for the RBI.
But for a few moments the State starter had a ‘new' game after his offense tied things up in the third. State's order came back up against Cody Boutte and came after the lefthander. SS Seth Heck got his second single of the game; and CF C.T. Bradford his first base hit of the regional, putting teammates on corners for leading hitter 2B Brett Pirtle. Who began by showing bunt on three pitches and fouling one of them off.
A fourth time he showed bunt but this one Pirtle pulled back on before slashing a single past second base to score Heck. Bradford was able to take third base as well, and score on C Gavin Collins' fly ball. 1B Wes Rea evened things up with a single scoring Pirtle. With two outs RF Demarcus Henderson was able to extend the inning with a double, though Rea had to pause at third base.
But Boutte was able to keep it tied 3-3 by striking out LF Derrick Armstrong. And he returned with another three-run lead after the Cajuns had another turn at Mitchell. Their final one. With one out, ironically of Conrad, he was tagged for three singles around a walk for two scores; then a sacrifice fly to make it 6-3. A comebacker ended that inning and his stint.
"His one-seamer didn't have the same sink," Cohen said. "He wasn't as down in the zone as normally he is." Mitchell (8-5) took seven hits for the six runs with a walk and no strikeouts.
Not that the successors were much more successful. The first and interesting relief choice was RHP Myles Gentry, who had thrown 4.0 relief innings Friday albeit with just 34 pitches. It probably wouldn't have mattered who was inserted as ULL kept swinging away. AT least to begin his stint Bradford stopped a run with a strong throw home for Collins to tag Michael Strentz trying to score from second.
But Conrad and Blake Trahan singled consecutively for one RBI, and a shot down the leftfield line turned into a RBI-triple for Tyler Girouard. That finished Gentry for another righthander. Brandon Woodruff walked his first-faced before a comebacker was deflected into a run-scoring single. It got worse too, as Harrison dropped a double in right-centerfield for two more RBI. Harrison came home on another base hit for the 12-3 margin.
Woodruff returned for the bottom-fifth and almost got through an in-order inning…until a two-out fly ball was misplayed by Henderson into a ruled-double. Girouard made it hurt with a RBI-single, and a walk finished Woodruff for LHP Vance Tatum. He ended the inning with a grounder, only to allow three hits and a run in the sixth. And with nothing to lose Tatum settled down for a couple of scoreless innings at last, even an in-order eighth which was the only 1-2-3 turn all evening for Bulldog moundsmen.
After getting hit pretty hard in the first three innings, Boutte was able to start coasting in the fourth and in a stretch retired seven-straight and 11 out of 12 faced. There was nothing fancy or dominating to his stuff and style, just the luxury of pitching with a big lead and against an offense not known for comebacks. Not until the seventh did he run into more troubles, after Pirtle doubled-in Bradford and new C Cody Walker was walked.
ULL figured job done well-enough and let Martin Anderson absorb a RBI-grounder by 1B Wes Rea before stranding him. Mississippi State did score some pride points and runs with a pair in the eighth on RBI hits by Bradford and Pirtle again; then a solo home run in the ninth by Rea. His fifth longball of the year was off Ben Carter.Boutte (9-0) got the decision despite ten hits and five of the eight Bulldog runs, with two walks and four strikeouts. A line like that would usually mean trouble, but with so much support on the scoreboard it was an easy evening after all.
Pirtle assuredly locked up an All-Tournament spot with his 4-of-5 evening, giving him eight hits through three tournaments games, and three RBI and two runs this night. Bradford was 3-of-5 with two runs and a RBI; and Rea drove in three with his two hits including the longball into the leftfield trees. Excellent offensive numbers on most nights, this time it was a pale imitation of how Lafayette swung and scored.
The 14 runs were the most allowed by a Bulldog club in post-season play during Cohen's six seasons; and most under any skipper since Texas Tech scored 17 on State in 2004 in Atlanta. It still was not a record. That was set in 1971 when State gave up 20 in a loss to Georgia Tech in the District III tourney…and still came back to win it the next day.
That same sort of opportunity holds for these Dogs tomorrow, too. There is even some encouraging history in this regard; the last four times a MSU team has played on Monday they have won the game and the regional. But to continue this trend will mean pitching the hard-hitting Cajuns far better than this first testing, and Cohen has no real right-handed option to throw at an order dominated by righties.
Instead State will start LHP Lucas Laster (0-0, 1.79) who has opened just three of his eight appearances this junior season. And it's a safe bet LHP reliever Jacob Lindgren (6-1, 0.88) is on a very quick bullpen call, if not a legitimate option to take the first pitch anyway. ULL expects to start their own lefthander, Ryan Wilson, who has opened just five times this year but is 5-0 in decisions with a 1.69 ERA and seven saves.
With an all-or-nothing evening ahead, "We have to dig deep and use some guys we haven't used yet," Cohen said. But the real digging isn't in the staff or pen or batting order, said senior Bradford.
"All year we've ben battle tested, we've lost games we shouldn't have lost but we're rebounded and gotten ready and come out and competed. And that's all you can do in a situation like this."