It did not. Louisiana-Lafayette catcher Michael Strentz made the throw on target to officially end the 5-3 victory and take the Lafayette Regional championship. The host and #6 national seed Ragin' Cajuns, coming through the losers bracket with four straight wins including consecutive contests with the Bulldogs, advance to the NCAA Tournament's super regional round.
Mississippi State finished their season 39-24 having dropped both championship round matchups with ULL. This defeat also ended a three-season run of Bulldog teams winning either a SEC or NCAA tournament in post-season play.
"It's close," Coach John Cohen said. "But it wasn't enough."
Monday's if-necessary rematch turned into a good, close contest. The Cajuns (57-8) took a 4-0 lead midway of the fourth innings and appeared ready for another runaway like Sunday's 14-8 score. Mississippi State responded a little faster and a lot better this time, battling back within 4-3 with an excellent chance to tie or take a lead in both the seventh and eighth innings.
Lafayette quelled those rallies, padded their lead in the top of the ninth and retired State's side to take this tournament. Close, and not enough…again, as senior CF C.T. Bradford noted.
"You've seen stuff like this happen all year. I thought we kept our composure, and we ended up coming up short."
Much as on Sunday, the major short-coming was on the mound, though not nearly to the same degree. LHP Lucas Laster gave his team the first part of what was being asked in his fourth start of the season: get through the potent Cajun order one time. In fact he did that as not until the order came back-around did anything big happen.
But Lafayette was to be held down only so long. The frustration for Cohen and club was how much help they gave an offense which needs little aid anyway. The Cajuns won with just seven base hits, only one more than State, because they received seven walks and three plunkings. And, some terribly-timed wild pitches that gave the home team most of their lead.
"They're a very good club," said Cohen. "What you can't do is walk people and we walked seven during the course of the game. We have to play ‘clean' baseball to win championships, that's the way we're built. It wasn't clean that third inning."
Lafayette pitching wasn't spotless itself. But they got a lot of mileage out of starter Ryan Wilson, probably more than hoped, as the lefthander worked 6.2 innings with the three runs on four hits. He walked four and struck out a pair, and it was good enough to earn the win and stay unbeaten at 6-0. The heavier lifting fell to reliever Matt Plitt as he had to leave the tying and go-ahead Bulldogs on bases in the seventh, then strand two more in the eighth after walking them on for a fifth save.
Laster (0-1) was the only realistic starting option available by Monday, though as a lefthander he was not an ideal matchup for a right-side heavy Cajun order. Still he got through his first inning in-order and scuffled around a couple of second-inning hits with a rolled double-play. But an out into the third he walked the #9 batter…and saw the order starting over.
Even then he got a ground-out putting Michael Strentz on second base with two down, a situation he could handle. Except that tournament MVP Jace Conrad was up, and after giving up two balls Laster was supposed to stay at the far edges of the strike zone in what Cohen called an unintentional intentional walk situation.
His third pitch missed…or rather didn't miss Conrad's bat. "We just mislocated a pitch there, we weren't really pitching to him," Cohen said. The base hit scored Strentz. Laster followed with consecutive walks to load the bases up, and with his coaches trying to get his attention he threw a first pitch to Blake Trahan that was fortunately fouled away.
That's when State went to the bullpen as expected at some point, giving ace lefthanded reliever/closer Jacob Lindgren a 0-1 count, stuffed sacks, and absolutely necessity to stop this from blowing up. Everyone with any awareness of State pitching knew what was to come; a hard breaker bounced in front of the plate.
Lindgren obliged, and the carom got past Collins' mitt to score Conrad from third. Lindgren re-loaded the bases with another walk, then threw a fastball to the backstop for another free run. A called strikeout ended the inning but with the Bulldogs down 3-0.
"That's where I really think the game was lost for us," Cohen said. "But our kids never gave up and we got back in the middle of it." Not for a while though, and not before the Cajuns scored again in their fourth without benefit of a hit. Lindgren plunked Seth Harrison to lead off, then consecutive pitches (the first ruled a passed ball on C Gavin Collins, the next just plain wild on Lindgren) put the runner on third base. Strentz dropped a beautiful squeeze bunt far enough from the plate for Harrison to make it 4-0.
"Early on I didn't have it, I struggled with command a little bit," Lindgren said. "But I made the in-game adjustments pitch-by-pitch." Those worked too as Lindgren kept the Cajuns at four runs the rest of his stint, even stranding three runners in the fifth.
Mississippi State finally made something happen against Wilson in their half of the fourth, beginning with their first base hit as Bradford singled to center. Pirtle followed with a single through the left side, and Bradford took third on a fly ball by Collins. 1B Wes Real got behind 1-2 so he settled for a good fly ball and RBI as Bradford ended the shutout.
They could have made up more ground in the sixth after Pirtle singled again, and Rea took his first pitch to the leftfield corner for a double. Pirtle had to stop at third and went no further as LF Jake Vickerson swung on the first chance and flew out to right. Still it was a 4-1 difference, striking distance, and the Bulldogs nearly erased their deficit in the seventh. This, after a couple of heads-up defensive plays by RF Cody Brown and Collins to throw out runners kept it close enough.
Wilson was two outs into the seventh when he walked 3B Matthew Britton. Then it was Bradford getting the free pass. Righthander Plitt took over but was hit by Bradford for the RBI-single as Britton scored. Then it was Pirtle's third base hit of the evening pushing Heck across and sending Bradford to third base with the tying run. Collins went 2-2 before checking on a called fastball which caught the outer corner and left the pair stranded with a 4-3 lead now.
Lindgren returned only to issue a four-pitch walk, which brought RHP Jonathan Holder in to keep it close. He fielded a bunt and outed the lead runner, then watched in the bottom of the eighth as Brown and DH Alex Detz each walked with two outs. Britton went 2-2 before missing on a low breaker to strand the pair.
Failing to catch-up right then cost dearly as Lafayette built a little more margin for the finish. Holder did get two quick outs before hitting Conrad, who made it hurt more by stealing second. On 1-2 count Holder had to wait after a ball got out of the grandstands and had to be tossed back out. Maybe it mattered, maybe it didn't. But Trahan came after the pitch and singled it past a diving Heck for the two-run cushion.
Plitt took care of the rest with three fast outs, including the dropped strikeout of Pirtle which was not errored in any way. Neither team had a fielding gaffe charged, but the wild pitches and passed balls were just as damaging to State in the long run.
"I thought we got down 4-0 and our kids fought back," Cohen said "And I thought really showed a lot of composures, especially when you consider the third inning. We bring Jacob in and have a tough time keeping the game in front of us at the plate, that accounted for the whole ball game."
Lindgren's 4.3 innings was his second-longest stint of the season and last as he will be drafted by the weekend. He gave up a run on three hits with four walks and seven strikeouts giving him 100 Ks for the junior season. Holder, also headed to pro ball shortly, worked the last 2.0 innings of his last game with a run on one hit, no walks and three strikeouts.
Holder also made the All-Tournament team, as did seniors Bradford and Pirtle. They combined for five of State's six base hits in the finale, three and two respectively; and Rea had the other.
Ending a senior season is tough enough; doing it so soon and only a year after experiencing Omaha and finishing second in the College World Series made this finish that much more frustrating. "That's the way it worked out tonight," said Bradford. "But that's how it goes."