“He told me to be ready for any kind of hitter, and whenever he (Grier) got up he was like be ready for two strikes,” Fitts said. “And it came to be.”
It did, and Fitts was ready to preserve the 1-1 tie at the half-way point. When the Mississippi State offense broke it with a couple of runs in their sixth, Fitts and the Diamond Dogs were on their way to a 3-1 win. A desperately-needed one, too, to salvage a split from the weekend and snap a three-loss streak.
Auburn was able to head home 17-11, 3-6 SEC and with their first series success in three tries. The Bulldogs are 19-11, also 3-6, and have yet to win a league weekend. But at the very least they avoided a crippling sweep, thanks to Vance Tatum and Fitts.
“I thought we got great pitching today, two guys just went out there and competed their hearts out,” Cohen said.
Southpaw starter Tatum surely did, shaking off a solo home run in Auburn’s half of the third inning to keep his club contending for a split. Even after running into fifth inning issues with a single and walk leading to two Tigers in scoring positions, Tatum was ahead of order-topper Anfernee Grier two strikes.
At which point Thompson left the dugout. Even fans familiar with this sort of MSU move and have seen it work at a near-perfect rate were surprised and displeased and let it be heard. Thus, Cohen’s post-game quip. He could afford to jest since it did work out as intended.
“Grier is their best player in my opinion. We’re three at-bats in, we get an 0-2 and I’m thinking our best breaking ball is in the bullpen. This is the game, we’re going to put that breaking ball in there and make him respect the fastball.”
The first fastball ought have been called a strike. The next two pitches missed by more, but Fitts wasn’t worried. On full-count Grier grounded directly to SS Ryan Gridley for the throw, out, and maintained tie.
Tatum hadn’t pitched in over a week, having missed the Kentucky trip with shoulder soreness. “It was great to get back out there and throw a couple of innings, it’s been a while since I went more than one or two.” Fitts doubled that by going the last 4.1 frames. Counting the inning-ending out he retired all but one of the 14 batters faced, with just a one-out single in the seventh against him.
Fitts (2-2) had no walks and two strikeouts in getting his win. Tatum worked the first 4.2 turns with the lone run on three hits, only one of which mattered, two walks and two strikeouts.
“It’s funny because Tatum, I know he was really upset to be taken out of the ball game,” Cohen said. “And that’s exactly what you want. You don’t want somebody who wants to get out of the game, you want guys who say I’ve got this. But I felt like we had a better matchup.”
What Mississippi State also had Sunday was scoring. Not a lot, but infinitely more than the zero runs scored in the weeks three losses. Going into the second, Bulldog batters had not reached home plate for 29 consecutive innings. State was one down that turn, too, when 2B John Holland turned on a fastball from Auburn starter Dalton Rentz.
“He went two changeups, and then a ball,” said Holland. “Then he slipped me a little gift over the plate.” Up to then Holland had not scored all season. As his shot cleared rightfield he got to touch all bases, at the expense of a familiar junior college face. “I actually played with the pitcher. So it was kind of neat to hit one off him.”
Holland would have a 3-of-4 day hitting in the eight-hole, the result he said of working to flatten his swing and improve a .240 average. “It was nice to have that under my belt.”
Not to mention break the scoring ice at last. Auburn admittedly was getting down on pitching and after a base hit and hard line-out Rentz was excused. Six more Tigers would toss, with the longest stint 2.2 innings from third moundsman Robby Clements.
Auburn also kept their sweep ambitions alive. In their third DH Keegan Thompson, Saturday’s winning pitcher, duplicated Holland with a solo shot over leftfield.
Other than Holland’s solo the Bulldog offense still sputtered early. Even three Rentz walks in the first were wasted on a bases-loaded grounder. Things changed when Trey Wingenter replaced Clements for the MSU sixth. C Gavin Collins tagged him for a single that normally would have set up a sacrifice situation.
Instead 1B Wes Rea was swinging. He missed big on the first chance, then on 2-1 got almost all of a pitch and sailed it to the deepest part of the park. Grier got back in time to glove the ball…
…then lose it instantly, slamming hard into the centerfield wall. As Grier stayed down Collins came all the way from first to home and Rea, in his 641st college at-bat, had his first triple. Gridley brought him home with a single.
This was after Fitts’ big test in the fifth. By all rights Tatum should have been coasting. But a leadoff fly to medium-left was miss-read by LF Cody Brown, falling for a single. A bunt later Thompson walked on full count and both were bunted along Grier. And, for Fitts to finish what Tatum started.
The one man to reach on Fitts was left after working over to second, as a fastball on the outer half froze Thompson for the called strikeout. Auburn finished with just four hits, all singles, and two walks. The Bulldogs did not give them any plunkings or errors either.
Nine base hits wasn’t really a barrage under the Sunday circumstances, but the Dogs would take it after their prior frustrations. “We scored enough,” Cohen said. “We left some guys out there but we took much better swings.”
Fitts was all-smiles meeting media, and carrying something rarely seen on any baseball field. It was the lower leg, knee-to-claws, of a turkey, something that had been sitting in Rea’s truck. “Wes had it last year’s Super Bulldog Weekend when he got the crazy double,” Fitts said.
“We were looking for a little something and he found it today. I went down the bats and did like a wind chime, all this kind of crazy stuff. Wes asked me if I wanted to take it to do interviews, and here I am!”
The humor showed how relieved this team was to win something again. One victory only stems bad momentum though, more success is needed to really turn State’s season around. The Bulldogs also have little time to enjoy it anyway. They go to South Alabama for a Tuesday evening game; then race home to prepare for a Thursday-Friday-Saturday series with South Carolina.
Cohen said pitching plans for Tuesday would be set Monday, because the thinking now is to give midweek man Lucas Laster the Thursday game. That would keep the regular rotation on their own routine, if it is how State decides.