Heck Leads Off Opening Day Victory

When Diamond Dogs say they practice for everything, they mean everything. Including, where one might be batting. So even if Seth Heck wasn’t expecting to hit leadoff on opening day…he was ready. “You have to be prepared to hit in any spot,” he said.

Heck was obviously and absolutely prepared. The shortstop rapped base hits in his first four plate appearances of his senior season, and sparked Mississippi State to a 6-2 victory over Cincinnati. The Bulldogs took the 2015 opener, while the Bearcats finished Friday 1-1. Earlier they had beaten intrastate rival Miami-Ohio 3-1 at Dudy Noble Field.

Hitting leadoff wasn’t entirely new for Heck. He did it 14 times last season. Still no Dog was sure who’d stand-in first on opening day until the lineup was posted. Seeing his name atop the order was nice but not a really big deal after preseason scrimmaging, Heck said.

“In the intraquads you’re hitting 1 one day, hitting 9 the next day and 2 the next. It’s all over the place.”

Giving Heck first turn was the right call though. He was 4-of-5 officially with a double in the first chance to swing and three more singles, only getting out on a hot grounder in the eighth inning long after his team had control. Heck not only got the team’s initial safety of the season, he also scored 2015’s first run when his middle-infield cohort 2B John Holland sac-flied for the RBI.

“I felt good up there, I felt comfortable,” Heck said. “It was just preparing and being ready to go and since I’ve been on this stage before it was fun.”

It was fun, for a Bulldog offense showing five first-time starters in the opening order. Mississippi State ended with ten hits in eight innings, as well as five walks drawn against just six strikeouts. Maybe Coach John Cohen could have criticized eight failures to hit with runners in scoring positions over the course of the afternoon game.

Other than that, though, there was much to like about this Dog debut.

“We did some things well,” Cohen said. “We defended well, the two double-plays were big-time and that’s a trademark. We ran a couple of balls down in the outfield. We took a couple of good swings. We didn’t have as many execution situations as we wanted but some guys had some great at-bats. Obviously Seth Heck swung well, I thought Wes (Rea) was really on-time all night.”

1B Rea was. His 1-of-3 line didn’t reflect the senior’s good swings well enough. Rea smacked one grounder hard enough to force an error, came back with a clean RBI-double, and walked in the third trip. That was batting sixth in the order, behind CF Jacob Robson. Though by all rights a top-of-order type batter and runner, Robson thrived this time in the five-slot with two hits, scoring both times, and two more walks.

State also got another double from RF Mike Smith before he had to leave with injury; and a triple by Smith’s replacement RF Cody Brown. “I think we squared-up plenty of balls tonight,” Heck said. “I think our swings looked good.”

The offense was both sufficient and early enough, all runs scored in the first three innings, to ease the load on RHP Preston Brown. The junior had tuned-up for opening day duty with repeated Friday scrimmage starts, and it showed.

Brown gave a solid 5.0 full innings, allowing the two Bearcat runs on seven hits while matching a career-best strikeouts with seven. Even better, Brown issued just one walk and hit no one with excellent first-outing control.

“I felt pretty good. The defense played really well and we scored a ton of runs. I just did a good job with (Josh) Lovelady, it was good to have him back there.” Brown was working with junior transfer Lovelady, starting in place of injured All-SEC catcher Gavin Collins. Neither missed a beat throwing or catching as it turned out.

And according to the coach, Brown can yet be better.

“I don’t think Preston was as sharp as he’s been in our intrasquads, but good enough. When he’s really going he’s going to get to the bottom of the strike zone with tremendous sink. It’s a credit to him he can be competitive and get outs when he doesn’t have his best stuff.”

The Bulldogs came out swinging, literally, at UC starter Dalton Lehnen, as Heck one-hopped a shot past third base and into the corner for the leadoff double. No bunt was required because Lehnen wild-pitched for the free base. One of the five first-time Dogs, Holland lifted a full-count fly to rightfield. Heck didn’t get a great jump but stuck a hand in under the tag for the first run.

The 1-0 lead didn’t last long. Brown’s first pitch of the second inning was lined over leftfield by Conor McVey for a fast tie. “I wish I had that one back,” Brown said. “I thought they ‘jumped’ a couple of pitches with the barrel.” A walk, wild pitch and ground ball had Devin Wenzel on third base when Keith Thomas flew to short rightfield. Smith got a glove on but not under the ball for a hit and go-ahead RBI.

Brown shook it off to stand Thomas, and when he returned it was with a bigger and better lead.

Robson began State’s second with a slow roller and fast run to first base for the infield single. Rather than bunting, Rea swung away and smashed a shot few shortstops could have handled cleanly. Robson used his speed to take third for Dogs on corners.

An out later, on full count Smith lined a drive that got over the leftfield for a RBI-double. Rea stopped on third base and was still able to score on a single through shortstop by Lovelady. Heck followed suit himself, scoring Smith for the 4-2 lead.

Robson was back up to begin another inning and singled again. He didn’t have to steal this time either, because Rea roped a drive through the left-centerfield gap for the double and RBI. After a two-out walk of Lovelady, Lenhen was lifted for righthander Ryan Atkinson to face Heck.

He had no better luck. Heck lined a base hit over second base for the RBI and made second on an error as well. A line-out stranded two Dogs but it was a 6-2 lead now.

Brown gave up three hits in the fourth and fifth frames with no damage done, because each time he produced a double-play. One ended the fourth inning; the other neutralized a rally in the fifth, which he capped with a swinging strikeout of Ryan Noda.

RHP Zac Houston took the ball for the sixth and retired all three, with one strikeout. He fanned two more in the seventh after a walk. LHP Daniel Brown got to debut on opening day too, working the last two turns with no hits and three strikeouts.

”I was really pleased what Zac and Daniel did,” Cohen said, “those guys know we have a great tradition with our bullpen and they want to be a part of our future.”

Cincinnati had seven base hits, six singles and McVey’s homer, from seven batters. Three Bearcat errors and five walks contributed to the margin, but the Bulldogs hit well enough to win as it was. Pitching and defense, ditto.

“It was fun,” Heck said. “It was good to get out here and play somebody else.”

Mississippi State sees somebody else at noon Saturday by playing 0-1 Miami-Ohio; then rematching with the Bearcats at 4:00. Cohen would not say for sure who will pitch but every indication was LHP Lucas Laster will take the mound for the first contest.

“Certainly Lucas is going to pitch one of those two games, I’m pretty sure it will be the first but we have to talk about it. After that we’re not sure. Some of it revolves on whether Ross (Mitchell) pitches in relief in the first game, if he doesn’t he’s an option as well.”

Both Saturday games and Sunday's 1:30 third match with Cincinnati are local-radio broadcasts.

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