Fast Start Turns Failed Finish In 9-6 Defeat

Five fast and easy runs should have been enough for a rubber-game win. Maybe they came too fast and too fast for Diamond Dog good.

San Diego stormed back with two huge late innings to take a 9-6 Sunday victory, and spoil Mississippi State’s first real weekend series of the season. Trailing 6-2 after seven frames, the visiting Toreros batted around in both the eighth and ninth. First they tied it all up going into the ninth, then San Diego staked their claim to the game and series alike.

Centerfielder and catcher Cody Waltner’s bases-loaded double off Dakota Hudson broke the tie with two RBI. Then pinch-hitter Conner Jauch grounded to shortstop for an infield single off Levi Mintz for extra insurance.

The three-run lead was sufficient for Anthony McIver to protect. Entering in the MSU half of the inning, McIver did hit CF Cody Brown and was hit for a single by LF Jake Vickerson. Neither came close to scoring as pinch-hitter Joey Swinarski struck out swinging and 3B Matt Spruill grounded out.

While Toreros justifiably swarmed the mound to celebrate a second series won over a name-brand opponent (a week ago it was at Texas), stunned Bulldogs tried to grasp how Sunday got away. Specifically, the 5-0 lead after two innings and even that four-run margin through seven.

“Credit to them for sticking with it,” SS Seth Heck said. “They continued to put bats together and were able to pull through at the end.”

That in itself was a story. Since 2012 any Mississippi State lead, especially a multi-run margin, in the late innings was as good as a win. “Obviously the last four years we’ve done a pretty good job with a lead going into the late part of a game,” Coach John Cohen said. “We just didn’t do as good a job today.”

Instead a sure-thing bullpen became unsure in the extreme with the least-likely culprits possible. LHP Ross Mitchell had the 6-2 lead going in the top of the eighth, his third inning to work in relief of starter LHP Vance Tatum. Mitchell had been his typical self the previous two turns, getting a runner or two on before bouncing a double-play.

In fact the Bulldog defense would tie the program record set in 1983, with five twin-killings in all. None were rolled in the decisive Torero turns though.

Mitchell was hit for three consecutive singles to begin the eighth, with only a fast fielding job by CF Jacob Robson keeping the bases loaded without a run. Not yet, anyway. Because on full-count Mitchell walked Jesse Jenner.

RHP Zac Houston took over with bases still full and no outs. A fly ball off Waltner’s bat sacrificed one run in before Houston re-loaded the paths with a walk. Designated closer RHP Trevor Fitts inherited this jam, and a left-handed pinch hitter. Fitts threw four-straight fastballs that all missed the outside corner for another walk-RBI. The tying runner was plated on a fly ball before Fitts left two stranded with a 6-6 deadlock.

Fitts came back out for the ninth only to give up a leadoff single. That wasn’t really surprising; no less than seven innings did the first San Diego batter hit his way on safely. The difference was this runner, #9 hole man Andrew Solomon, would become the winning run. Fitts wouldn’t be there to see it, having been lifted on 2-0 count for RHP Myles Gentry in his first action of the season since a February injury.

Gentry threw only one pitch, which as expected was bunted. What was utterly unexpected was 1B Wes Rea fielding the bouncer and, apparently, mid-toss to the covering pitcher thinking he had a tag. He didn’t, Jerod Smith reached first safely and Solomon was in scoring position with no outs. State went to another green pitcher, LHP Trent Waddell for the matchup in another obvious bunt setting. San Diego executed it for runners at third and second.

Hudson took over in the big-time jam. An unintentional walk was not a huge deal at the time since it did set up forces everywhere. What Waltner did was force something different with a deep drive in the rain for the day’s biggest hit.

Fitts (0-1) took the loss on the one hit and walk allowed. He was the fourth of eight Bulldogs to pitch, five in the ninth inning alone. Mitchell though had the most damage, with four runs on five hits and two walks. That negated an otherwise solid start from Tatum with his 4.0-plus innings and two runs on seven hits, walk and a strikeout.

Stress on ‘a’ strikeout. Ninth pitcher Levi Mintz got the other one. By contrast there were eleven Bulldogs sat down on called or swinging strikeouts, over half of them in the last four innings and all with a runner on base. This was not really a credit to San Diego pitching, either, as much as a State offense which reverted to something uncomfortably like 2014 form.

It was hard to recall how quickly Mississippi State seemed to have taken control, at expense of SD starter Gary Cornish. The righthander was not hit hard or even well in the four-run first. In a role reversal, the Torero defense broke down early on. With runners aboard on an infield single and walk, Rea’s bunt turned into a hit because first base wasn’t covered.

CF Cody Brown’s infield single pulled coverage off that same bag for Heck to score. A ground-out by LF Reid Humphreys netted another RBI, before with two outs Spruill got the first real base hit of State’s day. It was good for two runs and the fast 4-0 lead.

It became 5-0 in the second as RF Michael Smith singled and was wild-pitched along. Cornish fell fielding Heck’s bunt and the throw wasn’t just late. The ball came loose from first baseman Aiden Stinnett’s mitt when he slapped Heck in the face. Smith made the turn for home.

San Diego did chop two runs off their deficit in the third. With a pair in scoring positions a team that hadn’t executed a sacrifice bunt in two days suddenly produced a fine squeeze that not only scored Solomon but turned into a single. Smith scored on a double-play for the 5-2 score.

Later Cohen could point to failures to build on the lead as eventually fatal. Dogs were left in scoring spots in the second and third. State did expand a bit in the sixth at last, when Spruill reached on a strikeout/wild pitch. Heck had the two-out single to plate him.

But it was State’s seventh the coach would regret more. Righthander Drew Jacobs walked Rea on, and with two outs did the same for pinch-batter Gavin Collins. A strikeout of Spruill left them there. “That was going to be the seventh run of the game, which was huge at that moment,” Cohen said.

Because even as Mitchell got out of problems, twice spared by double-plays followed by excellent catches from Robson in centerfield, it was still not out of reach if the bullpen broke down. Which it did.

“If you score early it’s great,” Cohen said. “But if you let that other team create momentum by not scoring then there’s a very good chance you’re going to lose a ball game. That’s what happened.”

Jacob Hill (3-1) got the decision for San Diego by recording just one out, in the MSU eighth with Robson on second base waiting. That out was a game-within-game, because San Diego made the change only after State sent lefthanded hitter John Holland to the box. After Hill came from the pen, Holland was replaced by right Brent Rooker, who didn’t get cheated on three big swings.

McIver earned his third save. The Bulldogs did muster ten base hits, all singles. But the Toreros had 16, and as noted did not strike out. If getting leadoff men on in seven of nine chances didn’t produce a lot early the cumulative toll eventually told.

Seeing how San Diego (6-7) had left Austin with a won weekend, losing the series in itself was not shameful. Frustrating, yes. The Bulldogs essentially gave away Friday’s 2-1 with wild pitches scoring both Torero runs. To blow a big early lead only amplified everything.

It certainly put the good feelings from a 13-0 start in a different perspective now at 14-3, with the real season starting next weekend as Alabama comes to town. Cohen had one talking-point to be proud of: the record-tying five double-plays.

Otherwise? “We didn’t throw enough strikes, we didn’t have enough offensive progress during the course of the game,” Cohen said, adding “The game really punched us in the face.”

The rain that was falling post-game is expected to continue well into this week. So a decision on the Tuesday and Wednesday games with Western Kentucky is expected sometime Monday, with the possibility of a double-header being discussed.

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