The visiting Tigers clinched the weekend series with a second shutout victory, following Friday’s 5-0 final. It is the first time since 1988 Auburn has blanked a SEC opponent in consecutive games, and puts them at 17-10, 3-5 SEC as they go for the road sweep Sunday.
For Mississippi State (18-11, 2-6) a week of utter offensive frustration continued. Counting a 3-0 Tuesday final, the Bulldogs have now been blanked in three-consecutive contests…something that hasn’t happened since the 1975 season. The string of scoreless innings now stands at 28, and Auburn has limited the home team to nine total hits in two matchups.
“Very similar to yesterday,” was Coach John Cohen’s short and sour, and accurate, assessment. Auburn got a long and steady start just like Friday, this time from righty Keegan Thompson who went 8.0 complete innings; and an easy closing act.
Thompson (5-2) put in what for him is a routine 121 pitch performance, touched for just four base hits, a walk, and one plunking out of the 30 Bulldogs faced. He struck out five but fannings weren’t his forte. Thompson produced a dozen air-ball outs, only one of them requiring real effort to run down.
Auburn wasn’t pitching against the usual MSU lineup of late. Cohen made some interesting moves Saturday, putting struggling infielder Luke Reynolds in the order as designated hitter and giving 1B Trent Waddell his first start at State. After not starting SS Seth Heck in game-one, he put the senior back in the lineup but as the third baseman.
Cohen called it giving opportunities to players who he hoped would produce competitive at-bats. Reynolds was 0-of-3 with a walk and Waddell 0-of-2 before replacement in the sixth inning. The stat sheet did justify trying a left-side swinger against Thompson, who has been hit “150 points higher” by southpaws according to Cohen. Waddell was subbed-out for righty 1B Wes Rea the rest of the way, though Cohen did have a point; three of the four Bulldog hits and the only walk were by lefthanders, with SS Ryan Gridley the only righty to hit his way on base.
“We’re trying to do everything we can and trying to get more offense,” Cohen said. “And really just give some opportunities to guys you think are going to want to compete.”
RHP Austin Sexton (3-2) did compete and well for his first four innings. In those frames Sexton had his own shutout going, having overcome consecutive singles in the top of the first with three-straight swinging strikeouts. A third-inning plunking did no harm either.
But the fifth was a whole ‘nother matter. Against the bottom third of Auburn’s order Sexton began with a leadoff walk of Kyler Deese, then when he fielded a bunt by Cody Nulph the pitcher didn’t make a play. A sacrifice bunt pushed both into scoring positions for the top of the order.
Anfernee Grier dropped a drive right-of-center that CF Jacob Robson bobbled. Both runners were scoring anyway on the hit, it was the error that put Grier on second base. Defense broke down again on a bouncer that State tried to get an out at third base on. Grier was safe, and when Sexton missed the mitt he came on home for the 3-0 lead.
Sexton stayed in to walk one last batter before LHP Ross Mitchell entered to bounce a double-play. Sexton worked 4.1 official with the three runs on five hits, two walks, and four strikeouts.
“Austin was great,” said Cohen. “He had the one inning again, trying to do too much. The walk there, the bunt play.”
Mitchell didn’t go unscathed himself. After holding the deficit for two more innings he was scratched for an infield single in the eighth. A successful sacrifice had Damon Haecker on second base and two singles later he crossed for the final margin, the RBI going to Blake Logan.
All the while Thompson was in control. He did have a first-inning challenge when LF Cody Brown singled and worked his way around to third base. State tried to squeeze him home, only to have Robson’s bunt fielded for the tag at home.
The last real chance to avoid shutout came in State’s fourth as Gridley singled. With two outs Holland dropped a double to leftfield. Either Gridley missed a sign or the coach was being aggressive because he tried coming all the way from first to home and was easily out.
And Holland’s hit was the last of the Dog day, with just a walk in the seventh and plunking in the eighth against Thompson. Righthander Justin Camp took care of the ninth in-order.
Auburn tallied ten hits with two each at the top of the order for Grier and Haecker and a run scored apiece. Nulph was 2-of-4 in the eighth slot.
No players were available after the series-deciding loss, as an extended team meeting was ongoing when Cohen met media. There really wasn’t anything surprising or insightful to say after a trio of shutouts, not to mention losing a third-straight SEC series to begin the conference campaign.
“We’re giving some folks some other opportunities,” Cohen said. “But we’ve got to score. We’ve got to have more competitive at-bats.”
So as of the evening it seems just one part of Sunday’s lineup is certain. LHP Vance Tatum (3-0, 3.26) will start against Auburn righty Dalton Rentz (1-0, 3.43).