Fortunately, it was a happy mob of Diamond Dogs swarming Holland, after his two-out single plated Smith in the tenth inning to give Mississippi State a 6-5 victory over Western Kentucky. Holland said he has had walk-offs before, just in summer ball. And this was not summer ball.
“This is definitely more special.”
Nor was it any normal midweek game at Dudy Noble Field. The Bulldogs had already blown a 4-0 lead, thanks to a barrage of Hilltopper home runs, and trailed 5-4 going into the bottom of the ninth. Just forcing the extra frame, on a wild pitch run by SS Seth Heck, had enough drama for one non-conference contest.
On top of all that was memory of Sunday’s 9-6 loss to San Diego after leading 5-0. Blowing another such lead and game would be too tough to take. No wonder the dugout emptied instantly and, in their new all-black uniforms, everyone mobbed Holland.“It was cool to see everybody’s arms wide-open, a great feeling,” he said.
It was also a great cool-down for Coach John Cohen, who’d spent most of the game pacing in frustration. After what he called a great Monday practice and study session, Cohen said he “never felt more confident coming into a game.” Then the Bulldogs made mental and physical gaffes to give away a good lead and nearly take another major RPI blow.
“We really tried our best to lose this game,” said Cohen. “The only thing that saved us was our kids competed their hearts out.” Which, actually, was something of a win in itself after some tough losses last week.
What also saved Mississippi State was some gutsy late-inning pitching after Western Kentucky made their big bid. The Bulldogs still led 4-3 going into the ninth with LHP Daniel Brown on the mound. Brown had entered in the eighth and created his own drama. With bases loaded and one out he made an awkward and errant pickoff throw that got past first base to plate the tying Hilltopper.
Brown steadied and got consecutive swinging strikeouts on fastballs to strand the go-ahead runners. But in the ninth he didn’t locate the 90-mph stuff as intended. “Belt-high fastballs,” Cohen said, which Danny Hudzina and Kaleb Duckworth each launched over leftfield for the 5-4 lead. State called on RHP Myles Gentry to change things, only to see consecutive singles with still no outs.
After a ground ball by the #9 batter worked like a bunt, Mintz got the call. He struck out the top of the order swinging; more or less intentionally walked the bases full for force situations that weren’t needed; because Ryan Church went down swinging.
”I’m really proud of Levi, the last two times he’s come in he’s done a brilliant job for us,” Cohen said. “He just has good sink, a good slider.”
Mintz still couldn’t quite finish it. A two-out double in the top of the tenth and a 1-2 count to Paul Murray (no relation this side of Scotland) had State coaches antsy, especially after Murray fouled off a fastball and breaking ball. “That’s why we switched pitchers with two strikes,” Cohen said.
Switched for RHP Trevor Fitts to throw one more pitch and get the swinging strikeout on a dirtball. That one pitch put Fitts in line for the decision, too.
First though the Bulldogs had to scramble just to force another inning. Having taken the lead WKU put hard-throwing Ben Morrison on the hill with the top of State’s order up. Heck saw five pitches of 90-plus; the sixth he grounded hard to his counterpart for an infield single. CF/LF Cody Brown bunted him into scoring position, and after a wild pitch sent Heck to third base the Hilltoppers put 1B Wes Rea on first on purpose.
CF Jacob Robson didn’t have to swing. The first pitch he saw skipped through the dish. The brick backstop nearly burned the home team as a ricochet gave catcher Ty Hogan a chance at Heck, but the Bulldog slid hard and beat the tag try for a 5-5 tie.
Most of the afternoon and evening there seemed no need for dramatics. State starter LHP Lucas Laster gave seven good innings of work, and if not for a couple of well-struck pitches in the fifth inning he had a shutout going. A no-hitter actually, through four complete. After a first-inning plunking was negated on a double-play Laster had faced the minimum one out into the fifth.
Hudzina broke everything up with his solo homer over leftfield. A rattled Laster walked another Hilltopper on, and Murray’s double scored him. Though Cohen had some firm words for his pitcher during that one frame, post-game he was more generous.
“I thought Lucas pitched really well.” Laster went 7.0 official with three runs on just four hits, only one walk and five strikeouts.
Lefty Ryan Thurston put in 6.1 innings for WKU with four runs, all in the fourth inning, on nine hits and a walk. It was a show of faith, or a short staff, or something that Thurston stayed after that big fourth inning.
Rea began it with a one-out walk, and got to jog on around as LF Reid Humphreys slugged a high fly that just cleared the fence left of the wall in center. A bunt single and plunking had two Dogs on for 2B Ryan Gridley’s RBI single, scoring RF Gavin Collins. DH Brent Rooker followed with a single to left and RBI with C Josh Lovelady making it a 4-0 margin.
It did not hold up, but State did limit the later damage just enough to complete its own comeback. The 10th inning situation was set up when Lovelady worked a one-out walk and was run for by Smith. The outfielder’s speed helped him get to second on a grounder which could otherwise have meant a force on the middle bag. It gave Holland his chance to swing on Brennan Pearson.
On the first chances, as it played out. “I was watching him, he was throwing that slider a lot to everybody. I’m a dead-red fastball guy so if he gave me that slider first pitch I was going to take it. But he gave me a present, left me a fastball over the plate.”
Pearson (0-3) took the relief loss while Fitts evened his record at 1-1. Heck, Lovelady, and Gridley each had two base hits out of the 13 total for the Bulldogs, while Hilltoppers had nine hits. Hudzina got his second and third homers of the year, Duckworth his first; and Humphreys his second.
But it was Holland’s single to settle things. “I’m thrilled that we won,” Cohen said. “But Western Kentucky probably deserved to win that ball game, and we’ve got to learn from that and get better.”
State is now 15-4, while WKU fell to 6-8. Wednesday weather will settle if there is a chance to improve in a rematch. Game time is 5:00. Cohen said a starter would be picked sometime Tuesday evening.