Nothing needed saying. With a 4-1 lead and into the latter half of Alabama’s order, Austin Sexton just needed the baseball back in his hand. The Diamond Dog righthander took it, and finished what he’d started nearly three hours earlier for a complete game and series-squaring victory. Earlier Saturday, the Crimson Tide had rallied late and big for a 10-5 win in this SEC-opening weekend for both.
Given the manner Mississippi State (16-5) had blown an eighth-inning lead the first game, and a couple of other preceding contests, Coach John Cohen might have been a touch hesitant to use the bullpen anyway. Sexton made things simple for everyone. Other than a sixth-inning solo home run by Crimson Tide rightfielder Casey Hughston, the sophomore had a handle on things.
Or so it seemed outside the lines. Inside, Sexton said it was more intense. “I didn’t have my best stuff today but I was able to create some sink and get some ground balls. And luckily I’ve got one of the best defenses in America, they were able to shut it down for us.”
If that wasn’t Sexton’s best stuff, few could tell. He not only recorded his first college complete-game, Sexton (3-0) worked two innings longer than ever before. For the nine frames he allowed eight hits but only the one run, with a walk and seven strikeouts.
Sexton also left eight stranded, two of them in the eighth when with one out the meat of Alabama’s order got consecutive singles and Hughston was back up. Hughston drove what looked like a RBI-double until CF Jacob Robson raced almost from the other gap to get there. A bullet off the bat of Kyle Overstreet went right into SS Seth Heck’s glove to strand the pair.
And, set up a staff decision. Then again maybe there was no decision to make, judging by lack of between-inning talk. “I think when you’re going out for the ninth most people don’t talk to you,” Sexton said. “That’s just them complimenting me, how far I went. I tip my cap for believing and trusting in me to go back out there to finish the game, luckily enough I was able to do that.”
Luck had little if anything to do with Sexton’s and Mississippi State’s win. Errorless and in a couple of cases outstanding defense prevented any real Tide threat. And so did just enough Bulldog batting, as they eased just a little bit of the frustration from game-one.
“Looking back on the first game we really need to score some runs and help the staff out,” said RF Cody Brown after a 2-of-3 evening. “Coming up with timely hits and putting runs on the board helped get us the win.”
Brown had one of those timely knocks. His third-inning double down the line scored the game’s first run, one of two in the frame. 2B John Holland made it a 2-0 lead when he flew just deep enough to leftfield for Heck to race home and slide past a tag.
Until then Alabama’s Will Carter had scuffled around troubles, including a Brown double off the fence in the first MSU inning. The next time Brown came up was with LF Jake Vickerson on second base after a bunt single and steal, Heck on first via one of the seven Tide walks. Alabama was playing Brown to bunt in the two-on, two-out setting, and he did square initially.
But Brown drew back and slashed a shot down the right line. “Cohen said if they charged, just go ahead and pull back and take a good swing on it. I saw the first baseman charging on me and put a pretty good swing on it.”
An inning later Vickerson was up in the RBI situation, with two on and an out. Vickerson had bunted for a hit the first time up; now he was swinging on Carter.
“He had pretty good stuff but the plan was to make him throw strikes and when he put in there put the best swing on it,” Vickerson said. The line-drive single to center easily scored Robson for the 3-0 lead.
It was the support Sexton needed, especially after he struck out a pair to strand two runners in scoring positions in his second inning. In one stretch he faced the minimum nine thanks to a baserunning mistake. Riley Coleburn must have thought a drive by Chandlar Avant was going to get down, because when Robson caught it in center the runner was already on second base for an easy double-off.
Watching Sexton work, “It was fun,” said Vickerson. “With him you’re always going to get a competitor and it’s fun to play defense behind.” Even Hughston’s homer didn’t rattle Sexton. His offense got the run back in the seventh, too.
LF Reid Humphreys led off with a single and was run for by OF Michael Smith as 3B Matt Spruill bunted. Pitcher Jake Walters fielded had time to throw to second, he just was high and into centerfield leaving both safe. Robson showed bunt three times before Walters gave him one in the zone.
Walters ran in to grab then fumble the ball leaving the bases loaded and no outs for righthander Jay Shaw. He threw one pitch to, or rather at Lovelady for a plunking and RBI as Smith scored. Three were still left stranded, and uncomfortable reminder of what happened in the opening game when 15 Dogs were abandoned on bases.
This time 14 were stranded. The difference was Sexton made a three-run margin stand up. “Austin just absolutely went out there and did what we needed him to do,” Cohen said. “We needed a strike thrower in the second game and that’s what we got.”
Carter (1-2) took the loss on 5.1 innings with three runs on six hits, five strikeouts and six walks. Vickerson was 3-of-4 at the plate with a run and RBI, while Robson was 2-of-4 with a run. Eight Alabama batters had a base hit apiece.
Squaring the series does give the Bulldogs a rubber-game opportunity now. Still, “We’re very disappointed we’re not 2-0,” Cohen said, still stung by the game-long collapse. “I know our players are, but Alabama is a very good club and Hughston is a phenomenal hitter. They’re solid defensively and they can pitch a little bit. This is symbolic of what a SEC weekend is like.”
For Sunday’s 1:30 first pitch State will put LHP Vance Tatum (2-0, 1.99 on the mound. Alabama has righty Geoffrey Bramlett (3-1, 4.35) ready to go. Cohen was not sure post-game if catcher Lovelady will be in the lineup after hurting a thumb but still catching the rest of the game. C Gavin Collins did not play either Saturday game, to protect a still-tender catching hand that had pre-season surgery.