Third baseman Britton’s unassisted out at 6:51 ended a day which began for the Bulldogs almost exactly five hours earlier. And, against a different opponent. Mississippi State had to complete a suspended Saturday game with Marshall first, by a 7-4 score.
Then for most of the weekend finale it seemed Alabama A&M meant to play extra innings, if not spoil State’s perfect record, as the teams stayed tied 1-1 most of the way. Not until 2B Ryan Gridley’s two-out single scored CF Jacob Robson from second based in the bottom of the eighth did the Bulldogs break the deadlock.
Still the SWAC Bulldogs came far too close to re-tying things up in their ninth. A one-out throwing error, ironically by Britton, cracked the door and normally sure-thing reliever LHP Ross Mitchell opened it further with a base hit. Nor did RHP Fitts make it easier on himself with a bases-stuffing walk.
Fortunately Fitts fanned Jordan Friend on a full-count fastball. On 1-2 he got pinch-hitter Dustin Dhanani to ground to Britton playing deep and just right for the hopper. Briton outran Julio Nunez to the bag.
It was too close a call, coming after the earlier win by a margin more competitive than numbers showed. So, as Coach John Cohen said, “This wasn’t a pretty day for us, literally and figuratively I guess. We did not play our best baseball.”
What Mississippi State (8-0) did was complete another four-game weekend with record unscathed. Alabama A&M left 3-5 but with a pair of wins over Marshall, which was 0-for the weekend.
What few fans defying the gloomy Sunday weather expected was a tight contest. The MSU Bulldogs had blown-out A&M’s version 18-2 in the first Sunday game, beating up five pitchers. The visiting Bulldogs also had to play a full Sunday morning rematch with Marshall, breaking it open in the last two innings for a 8-1 final.
A&M still had one good strong (right) arm left though. Ryan Ahrens might have only worked 4.2 innings coming into the weekend. But he was able to throw 6.0 complete against State, allowing just a first-inning run on three hits against four walks and five strikeouts.
That lone score came immediately, as Ahrens walked SS Seth Heck and advanced the runner himself two bases on a wild pickoff throw. RF Cody Brown’s base hit made it a 1-0 lead, and that was all because Ahrens steadied. He overcame runners with a double-play in the second; escaped bases-loaded in the third by striking out Saturday hero DH Brent Rooker; and stranded lone Dogs each of the next three turns.
Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson had used LHP Vance Tatum out of the bullpen the first weekend “We wanted to see him as a starter the next weekend,” Cohen said. “I thought he did a great job.”
Tatum did his job with 6.0 full innings, with two hits and three walks against a career-best nine strikeouts. His only letdown came in the A&M second. Singles had two A&M runners on around an out and both advanced on a full-swing nubber that died in front of the plate with the only play at first base. Tatum brought Allen Smith across with a wild pitch.
That was all the damage done, as Tatum retired all but two of the remaining 14 he faced. Mitchell took over to keep it 1-1 with scoreless seventh and eighth innings.
State wasn’t scoring either, despite putting three of four batters on that Devin Smith faced in the seventh. A double-play and pop-out avoided harm. In the eighth A&M sent rightfielder Andrew Utterback to the hill for two fast outs.
But Robson, hitless in three chances, was patient enough to earn a full-count walk. A&M knew Robson wanted to run but couldn’t stop it as Robson stole second. Freshman Gridley got his chance and despite two strikes was ready for the moment.
“I think he threw me a fastball with two strikes. It was up in the zone and I just tried to keep my barrel flat and drive it.” Gridley did, as the ball easily cleared the second baseman’s glove. There was no chance of any throw beating Robson to the plate, either.
“That spot doesn’t even happen if Vance doesn’t keep us in the game in the beginning,” Gridley said. “If Robbie doesn’t get on there and bust his butt to get to second base. All the credit goes to everything that happened earlier in the game.”
Well, and to some intense things afterwards. The high throw to put a one-out runner on was close enough for State to argue, too. Regardless after Mitchell was hit for two on Fitts got the call.
“Ross is a contact guy,” said Cohen. “So he might give up weak contact, but he can give up hits because he’s going to pitch to contact. Trevor has a chance to get the swing and miss.”
What Fitts missed first was the mitt, his skipped breaking ball advancing the tying and go-ahead runners. A walk of Ty Russell wasn’t exactly on purpose but did set up a force anywhere with two outs. Having shown curves first, Fitts just threw harder and to spot against Dhanani to get a swing, contact, and heads-up out from Britton as there wasn’t time to throw at first.
Mitchell (2-0) got the win on his 2.1 innings with two hits and a strikeout. The save was Fitts’ third already this season in his new role as closer. He’d picked up the second by finishing off Marshall with 1.1 innings. Fortunately that took just 14 pitches so despite “a five hour time gap there” as Cohen called it, Fitts was rested and ready. And he needed just 14 pitches the second time, too.“He wants the baseball and to be in the game when it matters the most,” said Cohen.
Both teams had just four hits, and that’s the fewest of the early season for State after a series of blowouts.
Two unblemished weekends into the schedule, Mississippi State is set for a Tuesday home game with Alcorn State. The forecast is still on the chilly side but rain is supposed to leave the area. Last week, Cohen called off a Tuesday game with Mississippi Valley State. Conditions were one reason, and probably too the RPI-hit playing a low-tier team would mean.
That could be the case again this week, but the difference is State does want to get more pitching innings. Freshman RHP Jesse McCord did not throw the second weekend, nor did RHP Dakota Hudson. Cohen wasn’t sure which way he’d go as far as a Tuesday starter.
He did say that 1B Wes Rea, whose only activity was one pinch-hit turn late in Sunday’s first (finishing) game, should be back from the opening-weekend knee injury. Cohen doesn’t expect C Gavin Collins back from his pre-season hand surgery just yet. He is more optimistic about OF Michael Smith, out with a leg muscle pull since starting the opening day.