Mississippi State (10-0) used timely plate-work from the bottom third of the order and steady pitching from start to close to continue their unbeaten early season. Arizona is 9-3, having defeated Samford in the early Friday game at Dudy Noble Field. The MSU Bulldogs and Wildcats re-match at 11:00am Saturday as part of the six-game weekend event.
In previous wins just about all the offensive damage was done by the first-third or middle-men in Mississippi State’s order. This time though it was the down-order Dogs who rose to the top, with #7 man Vickerson setting the tone. The senior outfielder pushed the first Diamond Dog run across with a third-inning walk for a 1-1 tie.
In the sixth Vickerson crossed the dish on a fly ball by 2B John Holland hitting nine-slot. And in the Bulldog seventh Vickerson was up with men on corners. A fly ball might have sufficed but he did better with a single dropped in rightfield for the other RBI.
This was a result of simple maturity at the senior college level, Vickerson said. “Just being here a year. I’m more relaxed obviously than last year, we’ve got a good ball club and it’s fun to be around these guys.”
Those guys included C Josh Lovelady batting #8 and Holland. Between them the trio had all four of the Bulldog RBI, compared to the top-threesome which had one hit in 15 chances. This did cause some early anxiety as State didn’t maximize early opportunities, stranding seven runners in the first three innings and a dozen all evening.
But much like most of the other wins, Bulldog batters got enough done when it really mattered. This time, against a major-program peer, too. “They’re a good ball club,” Vickerson said. “You only get a few opportunities to get those runs and you want to cash-in on them.”
Arizona did cash-in an early chance of their own, scoring in the bottom of the first. The Wildcats were ‘home’ team after the squads had swapped status last season in Tucson. RHP Preston Brown limited the harm, and became the first State starter to win his first three chances in a season since 2007.
Brown (3-0) worked 6.0 solid innings with just one run allowed on three hits. If three walks annoyed him, seven strikeouts offset the irritations. He also came up against an Arizona order that meant to swing.
“I kind of started off a little shaky, kind of a messy first inning. The first guy almost hit a home run! I settled down and felt like I got in a groove, then I passed it off to Ross and Trevor.”
LHP Ross Mitchell gave 1.1 innings relief service with a run on two hits and two walks. It took RHP Trevor Fitts to seal the deal though, limiting the Wildcats to one run out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth and rolling through the ninth to score his fourth save in as many chances.
Brown and cohorts took advantage of the incoming breeze to pitch at the zone, and only Arizona’s Scott Kingery came close to leaving the yard. It still took a few turns for Brown or Wildcat starter Austin Schnabel to get warmed, and the umpire was a bit tight on everyone.
“But I’m really proud of the way our kids pitched, we just set the tempo from the beginning,” Coach John Cohen said. “Once Preston got it going third inning on, he was in a groove and the only guy on the field who was warm.”
Kingery nearly made it hot for Brown with his leadoff drive that LF Reid Humphreys lost in the high sky, the ball landing 20 feet to his right and at the fence. A bunt had Kingery on third with Riley Moore pounding the ball at first base.
1B Wes Rea rushed the throw home, missing Lovelady’s mitt for the run. Brown had to scuffle to strand two more Wildcats in scoring positions. He admitted he was throwing too many fastballs consecutively at first. “From then I had to bear down and mix it up more the rest of the game.”
Brown did gradually gain control of the zone and Arizona alike. Other than having to strand two more in the third turn he got sharper each inning and retired ten of the last eleven faced.
Schnabel also had to leave people un-plated; two in both the first and second innings. He nearly got away with loading the bases up in the third, too. With one out and Dogs in scoring positions Schabel bounced DH Luke Reynolds to first for a force of 3B Ryan Gridley at home to hold the lead. Rea kept the inning alive by watching ball-four to stuff all sacks.
Vickerson fell behind in the count, worked it back full before fouling away two strikes. Schabel tried coming inside, missed up, and Vickerson had the game-tying walk as CF Jacob Robson scored.
“I’d seen a few pitches already so I kind of had an idea what I wanted to do with him,” Vickerson said. “The umpire was kind of tight tonight so I was confident it was going to be a ball.” Schnabel stayed in to throw two balls to Lovelady before righthander Nathan Bannister was called in.
He did get a strike across before walking Lovelady to force Rea home for a 2-1 lead.
Small ball loomed large in State’s sixth as Vickerson bunted his way on to lead off. Lovelady was also bunting and while Arizona twice discussed their coverage it still worked. Better than planned too, because third baseman Bobby Dalbec slipped when fielding. Lovelady made base for an infield single and Vickerson got to third.
Holland’s fly ball to centerfield served for the sacrifice, RBI, and 3-1 lead. In the seventh Bannister had two outs before walking Rea. Reynolds singled down the rightfield line so Rea could get to third base. Up for his second RBI opportunity, Vickerson again delivered. This time he used the bat, dropping a single in right to plate Rea for the 4-1 lead.
Mitchell held that three-run lead for the seventh inning before a leadoff double by Kevin Newman in the eighth and four-pitch walk of Riley Moore. Bothwere bunted into scoring positions. So with a 2-2 count righthander Fitts replaced lefty Mitchell. It wasn’t a good beginning as a curveball bounced by Lovelady’s mitt scoring Newman.
Fitts should have been out of further trouble as Michael Hoard popped to the left side. Gridley had trouble tracking the little blooper in the breeze, which finally fell off his glove and fair. The other runners held up so bases were left loaded with still one out.
Fitts was fine. Zach Gibbons saw a fastball catch the inside corner, and Jared Oliva went down swinging.
“We just had two sequences in the whole dadgum ball game we did not make a play,” Cohen said. “The fly ball to third base, and the play Wes didn’t make when we had our infield in. But our kids hung in there, we found a way to compete and put together some innings.”
Schnabel (1-2) took the loss on two runs, four hits, four walks and three strikeouts. He had also lost to the Bulldogs last year 6-4 at home. For State’s offense Reynolds, Vickerson, and Lovelady each had two base hits out of eight total. Four of the five Arizona hits came from the top-three in the order.
Saturday’s schedule has been moved up for weather conditions, so the Bulldogs and Wildcats are back on the field at 11:00am. Cohen originally leaned to starting LHP Lucas Laster (1-0, 2.16) in the early game. After playing the opponent he changed course. RHP Austin Sexton (1-0, 2.25) will get the ball.
The game will air on the SEC Network. About 35 minutes following conclusion the MSU Bulldogs and Samford Bulldogs square off.