Ryan Larson’s botched squeeze bunt still turned into the game-winning hit, as the pop-up came down in front of a charging and sliding Bulldog first baseman. The scratch single scored Peter Alonso from third base to break a 1-1 tie in the top of the seventh inning.
Alonso himself had driven in Florida’s other run, on a seeing-eye single in the fourth for a short-lived 1-0 lead. Compared to the other nine base hits, all struck well without real results, this pair of almost-incidental contacts were puny.
But against a Mississippi State squad which struggles for any sorts of hits, much less runs, it was sufficient for Florida (30-10, 11-6 SEC) success. Frustrating, too, to the home team.
“Those things happen in a low-scoring ball game,” MSU Coach John Cohen said. A low-scoring game with high attendance, as the announced crowd of 13,004 would be the tenth-largest to pack Dudy Noble Field since the 1987 re-opening. Only a handful were happy at the end though.
”They’re over there celebrating and they literally have a ball that bounced ten times to go through the hole in the middle,” Cohen said. “And a popped-up bunt that they score on. Three’s some good fortune involved but you have to earn the good fortune. And we have to find a way for those things to happen to us.”
Setting aside for today admission Mississippi State needs luck more than contact to create offense, the Bulldogs (22-18, 6-11 SEC) was in position to square the series Saturday. RHP Preston Brown gave another solid performance, working 6.1 innings and for the most part around nine Gator hits. Brown (5-4) did take both runs to his account but walked none and struck out a couple.
Nor could the defense really be scapegoated. They were charged no errors and made the quota of excellent and exceptional plays expected of this lineup. Even the bobbled bunt was a do-or-die attempt by 1B Wes Rea to get to the popped-up ball on a dead run and damp field. His slip, trying to set the feet and catch the ball for a play at the plate, couldn’t be held against him.
Once again it all came down to Bulldog inability to score much. And belying Cohen’s complaint about luck a little, the one MSU run was set up by a Florida mistake. In the bottom of the fourth CF Jacob Robson reached on a single, then went first-to-third as UF starter Dane Dunning’s bounced pitch got away. Rea delivered the RBI with a two-strike base hit that tied things up.
State even got another sort of break at Dunning’s expense. He collided with a teammate going after RF Jake Vickerson’s bouncer in the sixth inning and was shaken up. Dunning seemed ready to continue but Florida took no chances and called in Aaron Rhodes.
He struck out C Gavin Collins, then Vickerson’s two-out steal try was easily shot down as the Dogs ran themselves out of a rare opportunity. Rhodes (1-0) picked up the win working just 1.0 total inning with a walk and strikeout. Bobby Poyner had the longer stint, 2.2 innings with a one-out hit by pinch-batter Brent Rooker in the MSU eighth. Nothing came of it and Poyner got his third save.
Dunning went the first 5.1 with four hits, the lone run, a walk and two strikeouts. The Bulldogs weren’t fooled or overpowered either with just three fannings. It was lack of driving balls hard and clean, with a series of easy air-balls early and late and too many routine bouncers in the middle innings.
RHP Trevor Fitts relieved Brown in the seventh with one out and the 1-1 tie. Florida had led off with consecutive singles before Brown got a hard bouncer from Jeremy Vasquez. Bulldog shortstop Ryan Gridley made a great run behind the bag to stop the ball but slipped down in the process. He did very well to reach over and thump the base with ball for a force.
Still the coach thought it might have been a double-play. Either way Gators were on corners, Alonso being the one which counted on third base.
“They score on a AD-hopper up the middle that finds a way to get through the hole,” Cohen said. “And they score on a pop-up bunt that we lose our feet on. The baserunner at third is stopped, we have a play at the plate.”
Fitts kept it a one-run margin the rest of his 2.2 innings with two hits, no walks and two strikeouts.
“Preston did a great job for us today,” said Cohen. “You talk about throwing six-and-a-third and 72 pitches, that’s really efficient. I thought Trevor did a great job.”
What they couldn’t do was score in their own support. Five Dogs—interestingly, in the 2-through-6 slots consecutively—each had a base hit. Alonso was 3-of-4 for Florida with a run and RBI.
Coming after Friday’s 6-3 final, the Bulldogs have lost five of six SEC series. With each setback State increasingly flirts with the ugly prospect of missing the conference tournament. The only comforts are that it’s a crowded bunch around the bottom right now with four-plus weekends left…and that there are four-plus weekends left.
Fitts wasn’t looking that far ahead, for his part. “We’re not focused on that right now. I’m really excited about this team, I know it’s weird saying that. But we had 13,000 fans show up for us today and I feel our team has just been playing great this weekend. The wins haven’t showed up but they will if we keep pitching like we are, and the hits will come around.”
State is expected to start RHP Austin Sexton in Sunday’s 1:30 game-three. LHP Vance Tatum has opened the last two third-games but Sexton missed his midweek turn when Tuesday’s non-conference contest was called off.