Laster Starts Series Strong With Complete Win

He’d done in midweek work. Throwing a complete SEC game? “It feels pretty good, to be honest,” said Lucas Laster, after his full-route performance and a 13-2 Mississippi State victory over South Carolina.

The win was Mississippi State’s first in four chances to begin a SEC series, and has the host Bulldogs 20-12, 4-6. South Carolina is 20-10, 5-5. The teams return to Dudy Noble Field for a 3:00 Friday start, the game time advanced from the scheduled 7:00 due to expected weather.

Two weeks ago, Laster had gone nine innings in a rout of hapless Eastern Illinois. That and other strong midweek outings convinced State to move the senior southpaw into the SEC rotation for his first time ever. Plus, he was rested better than any other starter for a Thursday opener.

The move couldn’t have worked out much better. Laster even had an ESPNU audience for the occasion. The view through camera, from the grandstands, and out in the Left Field Lounge was of a pitcher in near-complete control.

Well, with a great big hand—and gloves—by the Bulldog defense. Laster (4-1) rolled 13 total ground-ball outs to go with a career-high eight strikeouts. Of South Carolina’s eight base hits only a handful were real drives.

“Early in the game I was getting ground ball after ground ball, and they made great plays behind me. Of course they scored 13 runs, it’s pretty easy to pitch with a big lead like that.”

Pretty easy indeed. Bulldog batters jumped on South Carolina starter Wil Crowe for a couple of first-inning runs; then piled it on with six more in the decisive third. From there it was merely a matter of Laster limiting any Gamecock rallies, and sparing the bullpen Bulldogs any work.

“Lucas really put our club on his back,” Coach John Cohen said. “He had the one walk, he had eight punchouts. He just kept pitching ahead all night and was very, very efficient. He was just trying to make sure he got balls over the plate and didn’t allow walks and manage counts.”

While Laster managed State’s offense was on the attack. Of the dozen Dog hits five fell for doubles, another could have been ruled a two-bagger, and while walks contributed to the margin most of the damage was done with good, hard strokes of the stick.

Crowe (3-3) took more of the hurt on seven hits for eight runs, two walks and two strikeouts in his 2.2 innings. “I think it was just leaving everything over the plate,” 2B John Holland said, after going 3-of-5 with four RBI and a run scored. “We were just taking more aggressive swings tonight.”

It showed on Crowe’s very first pitch. LF Cody Brown lofted it deep to centerfield. Gene Cone got back to the track but at a bad angle and the ball went off his glove for what was ruled a two-base error. RF Jake Vickerson was swinging early, too. He lined Crowe’s second pitch past the first baseman for a RBI double.

With two Dogs on base after a one-out walk of DH Reid Humphreys, Crowe got a bouncer to second base for a force at the middle bag. CF Jacob Robson was going to beat the relay anyway, but shortstop Jordan Gore made it easier by throwing wide of first base. Collins came on around for the 2-0 lead.

Crowe wasn’t hurt in the second inning by Holland’s double. Vickerson’s second two-bagger in the third was another matter. C Gavin Collins bunted him over to third base and Humphreys worked the count full. Crowe not only threw ball-four but was wider than his catcher could catch. Hunter Taylor recovered for a tag of Vickerson only to have the ball come loose.

Robson singled and 1B Wes Rea was drilled to stuff all sacks for SS Ryan Gridley. His scorcher was too hot for the third baseman DC Arendas to handle and caromed on off the shortstop as well for a scratch single and RBI. Next up, Holland’s hit was clean, over the third baseman and on to the corner for the fourth Dog double. This one produced three RBI as well with Gridley coming all the way around and the throw not even close to the plate.

“I think it was huge, every extra run we had was big tonight,” Holland said. “That took a little more weight off Lucas as well, for him to go back out there and relax a little more and keep competing how he was.”

Crowe stayed in to strike out 3B Seth Heck on a dirtball, which let the aggressive Gridley take third base. Brown finished the starter off with his single through the right side for a 8-0 lead, with righty Brandon Murray taking over to end the inning with a strikeout.

Meanwhile Laster had worked around a first-inning single, and a two-out double in the second after a brief issue with a contact lens. A third-inning hit came to naught as well.

“When we got the big lead I think he attacked the zone even more,” Holland said. Putting the ball in the zone did let Kyle Martin lead off the USC fourth with a double, and after consecutive strikeouts Laster uncorked two wild pitches to snap his shutout.

All he did was retire four-straight on ground balls. “I got a lot of them on fastballs. I really had a little bit of late sink on my fastball to my arm-side and I feel that really helped get some early contact.”

South Carolina’s other run came in the sixth with a two-out drive by Arendas that Brown nearly got a glove under. Max Shrock scored on the double. Laster got a swinging strikeout to strand what would be the last Gamecock to reach base.

Matthew Vogel took over pitching for MSU’s half of the fourth and retired six-straight, then led off the sixth with two walks. Lefty Josh Reagan inherited them with no outs, and walked the bases full on a pass of Vickerson. Collins and Humphreys used fly balls for sacrifice RBI and a 10-2 lead.

With Rea on second in the MSU seventh Gridley dropped a base hit in rightfield. He surely saw the fielder getting to the ball but kept running for second. His mistake became South Carolina’s error as a throw to second was off the glove and into centerfield. Rea made home and Gridley took third, scoring on Holland’s first-pitch single.

Just for good measure State got one final doublet, a one-out hit to leftfield that Robson turned into a two-bagger on plain speed. A Rea fly moved him up and Gridley’s single accounted for the final RBI.

SC reliever Preston Johnson worked the last 2.2 innings and absorbed three runs on five hits and a walk. Gridley was 3-of-5 with two RBI and two runs batting in front of Holland, while at the top of the order Brown and Vickerson each had two hits, a RBI and two runs apiece.

After three lost series, getting a leg-up this time was a definite change for the better. “We needed a big game like this,” Laster said. “We’ve been struggling the month of March wasn’t too great for us. But it’s a new month now and I think this is a great way to start out. And hopefully we can keep it going.”

Cohen was pleased with a better beginning as well. But, “The thing you know about South Carolina, they’ll take this personally and come out ready to play tomorrow. Our kids better be ready to play also.”

As of 11:00pm Cohen had not said who would start Friday. RHP Preston Brown is the easy choice as it is his usual day to throw. But Cohen saw what lefty Laster did in getting so many ground-outs and there will be temptation to advance LHP Vance Tatum way ahead of schedule, and leave RHP Austin Sexton for Saturday.

“We feel we have some good options,” Cohen said.

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