Sexton overcame a two-run homer in the second inning to throw just over seven otherwise-unscathed frames as Mississippi State (14-2) evened the weekend series. Only a week ago Sexton faced a similar start, again allowing a two-run shot that eventually the Bulldogs overcame.
“I hope that’s not going to happen every time,” Sexton said. “But luckily I was able to come back. And I can’t say enough about the hitters and Josh (Lovelady).”
Mississippi State hitters did provide enough support. They offset the San Diego shot with three runs in the same frame, and added a bit of insurance in the sixth. That was enough to get Austin into the eighth before handing LHP Daniel Brown a save situation. Which Brown did, for his first save of the season.
“Austin did an unbelievable job for us today,” Coach John Cohen said. “He gives up the early home run, then just bears-down. And I really I thought was at his very best heading into the seventh.” That was when a lot of second-inning pitches finally took the toll. Though, his coach said, lifting Sexton wasn’t automatic even after a leadoff walk on full count.
“His pitch count got up, he was begging us to stay in and because he was on a roll. He walks a guy and even on that he threw some really close pitches.”
Sexton (2-0) was credited with 7.0 innings in the victory, allowing the two runs on just three hits with four walks and five strikeouts. “Early on I struggled a little bit with my command, trying to get a little feeling for the ball. I just had a little trouble getting it down in the zone, I was able to adjust.”
Very, very well. After a third-inning single, Sexton retired 13 of the next 14 he faced with just a fifth-inning walk against his account. With catcher Lovelady settling the starter and figuring out Torero batters, they were able to roll through the order and make the narrow margin stand up.
Of course State pitched well enough to win Friday, too. But lack of offense meant a 3-2 loss, and by all accounts an intense Saturday morning meeting. It wasn’t being six-hit by an excellent San Diego starter that grated on Cohen. It was a mid-game series of called strikeouts, to go with stranded runners earlier.
“He just told us to be more aggressive, and not let the good pitches go by,” 3B Matt Spruill said. “With two strikes battling and put balls in play. And that’s what we did today.”
Spruill amongst them. His two-out single in the second inning drove in the go-ahead run, for one of his two hits on the day. The Bulldogs still only had six total hits, same as Friday; and only received three walks and one hit batsman. No big barrage was needed, though.
“We got to some situations where we finally answered and scored some runs,” Cohen said.
Three of the runs came off San Diego starter PJ Conlon (1-1). The righthander lasted 3.2 innings with just two hits and two walks, and struck out three. He also got that quick lead to work with, as Colton Waltner sailed a drive over leftfield with Jesse Jenner on base ahead of him.
Conlon couldn’t make it hold up though. 1B Wes Rea greeted him in MSU’s second with a single, and RF Gavin Collins walked. San Diego was playing for the bunt which did come off Cody Brown’s bat. But Rea was running hard, really hard, and got to the third base ahead of the throw.
In the first of the situations Cohen had emphasized, DH Brent Rooker battled back from 0-2 for a full count before flying one well enough to leftfield not only to sacrifice-in Rea but let the other runners advance. That mattered because Lovelady did the same thing with a fly to left to tie it up on consecutive sac-flies.
The Bulldogs didn’t stop there either. Spruill lined a single in front of the centerfielder that scored Brown for the 3-2 lead. As the Torero bullpen got busy Conlon was able to strand a pair.
“He was mostly trying to get ahead with fastballs, throw strikes, and come with the curveball and try to get us to take and use the big strike zone,” Spruill said.
San Diego also had an excellent chance to regain momentum with a one-out walk and a base hit by Jenner. Instead with Waltner back up they inexplicably called for a double-steal. First, it meant a covering strike-swing for the slugger. Second, Lovelady easily gunned down Austin Bailey with a strike to Spruill. Sexton fanned Waltner to hold the lead.
Conlon lasted into the MSU fourth before C.J. Burdick entered to strand a Dog. Burdick would work the rest of the day, 4.1 innings’ worth with four hits, a walk and three strikeouts.
And, the other run. C.Brown led off State’s sixth with a double down the first base side, and pinch-batter Luke Reynolds killed his bunt up the third base line. Catcher Riley Adams briefly thought about letting it roll foul, then grabbed and failed to grip. Reynolds reached for an infield single putting Dogs on corners with no outs.
Lovelady grounded to shortstop and San Diego settled for the double-play as Brown came home for the 4-2 margin.
Sexton won his debate with the coaches to try the eighth, and give the leadoff walk. D.Brown got a big-time defensive play immediately as Rea jumped high as the big Dog can to snag a one-hopper, denying a likely double and maybe a RBI. The unassisted out did put Jerod Smith on second base, where he could watch Brown strike-out both pinch batter Spencer Dunlap and cleanup man Jenner.
Brown made his ninth more efficient, with three-straight strikeouts to pick up the first save of his college career with five total fannings.
“Today was better in all respects,” Cohen said. “A very clean game defensively. Not only was I proud of Austin, obviously Josh was flawless behind the plate and we’re proud of the way he bounced back. Some solid defensive plays, we make one at third and Wes makes one at first.”
The teams square off again in Sunday’s 1:30 rubber game. Mississippi State will put LHP Vance Tatum (2-0, 1.45) on the Dudy Noble Field mound. Just winning the game and series matter, but in the back of all MSU minds is using this weekend to set State’s stage for the next.
“We had some really good film sessions this morning, early, and our kids know exactly what is at stake,” Cohen said. “This is really a SEC weekend and preparing us, and we need to execute when the opportunity presents itself.”