In his 13th career start and 28th game at Mississippi State, junior righthander Brown outlasted some early-inning issues to post his first complete college performance. And it was all for naught. Auburn (16-10, 2-5 SEC) spoiled the evening with a run in their second inning and four more in the decisive third.
Still, “Preston gave us a chance to win,” said OF Jake Vickerson. “You hate to see a guy get a loss when he pitched so well.”
Of course as the score showed, Brown might have gone 18 innings and still not won. The Bulldog offense came up completely short, shut-out for the second consecutive game. Auburn starter Cole Lipscomb and Trey Wingenter combined to five-hit Mississippi State, stranding eight of the eleven Bulldogs who did reach base.
The Tiger offense wasn’t prolific either. It was just efficient. “They had eight baserunners and scored five runs,” Coach John Cohen said. “I thought Preston put us in a great position to win the ball game and we didn’t support him offensively or defensively.”
The Dog defense did have its share of breakdowns, charged or otherwise. Brown was responsible for the first Tiger runner to score, with a leadoff walk of Daniel Robert in the second inning. Two ground balls later Robert was on third base when Cody Nulph pounded one into the turf. 3B Matt Spruill charged only to have the high carom clear his glove for the RBI single, by a batter who was 2-of-26 coming into the weekend.
The third inning was the disaster. The top of Auburn’s order was up a second time, with Anfernee Greer running-out an infield single. Damon Haecker repeatedly showed bunt before walking, then Jordan Ebert put the ball in play to the left side.
Spruill got the slow roller and had to hurry a throw that pulled 1B Wes Rea off the bag and left the bases loaded with no outs. Robert went after the first pitch and lined it to short leftfield where LF Cody Brown charged, dove, and missed for a two-run double. A hot grounder again to the left side got through Spruill’s legs as he didn’t put the glove down and the ball shot under for a 4-0 scoreboard.
That left Robert on third base and Auburn executed a slick safety squeeze as Melvin Gray dumped the ball a couple steps in front of the ball. C Gavin Collins grabbed it but Brown wasn’t able to get to the plate for any play, as Robert ran across behind both Bulldogs.
Down 5-0, Brown did settle into a better groove. He retired 11-straight before a leadoff single in the seventh. That and a couple of base hits in the ninth did no harm, as Brown (3-3) was allowed to stay and spare the fragile Bulldog bullpen. He finished with seven hits, seven strikeouts and two walks.
“The third inning had some tough luck for him, but he didn’t pout about it,” said Vickerson. “He kept doing what he does and pitched well.”
Only one Tiger run would have sufficed since State couldn’t score anything. Lipscomb did get himself in some second-inning issues with two walks, around a two-out single by 2B John Holland. A double-play kept that from ever developing into a real threat. A leadoff infield single by CF Jacob Robson in third was erased on a caught-stealing, and Vickerson’s sixth-inning leadoff single only led to stranding.
Epitomizing MSU offensive issues, a leadoff walk of Robson in the eighth turned into a freak double-play. Robson was running on a 1-2 pitch Vickerson missed, and in the process the batter interfered with the catcher on his big swing so Robson was ruled out too.
That play was with Wingenter on the hill after Lipscomb (4-0) went a career-long 7.0 complete with four hits, four walks, seven strikeouts. MSU made a last bid to avoid blanking as 1B Wes Rea got a two-out walk in the ninth and Holland reached on a scratch single. SS Ryan Gridley struck out to strand both.
Gridley was playing short in place of regular SS Seth Heck, up to now the only Bulldog to start every game and in the same spot. Heck had two of State’s six hits in Tuesday’s 3-0 loss in Pearl but Cohen said the move was to give better defensive range in the middle infield. Heck played anyway, replacing Spruill for the fourth inning.
Holland was 2-of-4 for State, while Grier and Nulph each had two of the Tigers’ seven total hits.
State has now suffered consecutive shutouts for the first time since March 2011, at Vanderbilt. More than the lack of hitting though Cohen noted getting six walks—“very few” to him—and no hit-by-pitches. The coach did point out too that to Auburn’s credit they forced errors while Bulldog batters coaxed no mistakes from Tiger defenders.
What it comes down to, in Cohen’s mind, is an offense that is just pressing. And not only in games. “Our kids will keep working hard and to be honest I think our kids are working too hard. They’re spending too much on the offensive side and working too hard on their swing. I think it’s biting us a little bit right now because they’re putting too much into it, trying too hard. We have to relax, take some deep breaths, and have better at-bats.”
But it’s not a situation lending itself to relaxation. After losing their first two SEC series, dropping this one could be a crippling blow before March is out. Saturday, it will be RHP Austin Sexton (3-1, 3.09) asked to hold the line while the offense tries to break loose against Tiger workhorse Keegan Thompson (4-2, 4.10).
“I don’t think it’s anything to stress about,” Vickerson said. “Obviously we’d like to get the win there and get some big hits, but that’s just how it goes sometimes. You just have to have a short memory and come back tomorrow.”