When OF Jake Vickerson was signaled safe at the plate to conclude Saturday’s 12-inning victory, it did more than avoid a sweep by #1-ranked Louisiana State. Or more than allow Mississippi State seniors to walk off Dudy Noble Field as winners one final time. Not that either of those outcomes don’t count.
What matters more is that with two weekends left Mississippi State (24-24) remains in the race for the SEC Tournament. Salvaging one win has the Bulldogs 8-16 in league play. Which after Sunday’s scores means a tie for 11th place with Alabama, and a lead on both Georgia (7-16) and Tennessee (7-17). Everyone has six league games left, weather permitting. And weather can always be a factor since standings are first based on pure percentages, something Georgia may benefit from when rain spared them a sweeping by LSU.
No, this isn’t a secure grip on the league ladder. Bulldog fans know Alabama has the head-to-head tiebreak in that event, that State won’t face Georgia, and a week from now the schedule ends with a trip to Tennessee. That’s after this week’s visit to Ole Miss (25-24, 11-13) to face a Rebel team that beat the Bulldogs last Tuesday 11-1 in Pearl.
Regional play is not a realistic topic for the Bulldogs as of today of course. Ambition has boiled-down to playing in Hoover, meaning a regular season finish of 12th or better.
“Yeah, we’re going to take it one game at a time,” said 3B Seth Heck, whose hit drove in Vickerson for the winner. “But we know that’s the place we’ve got to get. And we have to play well when we get there.”
When, not if… It’s a bold ballplayer comment to say ‘when’ when his team at the moment has the last qualifying spot. A team that has lost seven of eight SEC series, and is guaranteed to have a losing league record. This however gets back to the ‘you never know’ doctrine of baseball. Coach John Cohen had said for weeks his team needed something good to happen to, hopefully, snap State out of its April skid.
A walk-off win is good. So were other circumstances to Cohen. “It’s fitting that all our seniors get to leave this ballpark with a win like this.”
“We would like to take the series,” Heck said. “But coming in today we were just trying to get a win and not get swept at home. And we were able to do that.”
Another point is that by salvaging game-three, and yes along with rivals’ losses, the Dogs went from two spots out of Hoover to temporarily in the Tourney bracket. In just one day. That is how fluid things are in and around the SEC cellar these waning days. While the top of the standings will get most of the attention obviously, the other end has become entertaining, too.
While his team celebrated its win, Cohen was still caught in what-if mode. There was another extra-inning game with LSU, won by the Tigers in 14 frames. Or rather, lost by the Bulldogs in the ninth and beyond. With 3B Luke Reynolds already headed home to tie it winning runner Matt Spruill was rounding third when a stumble and tumble made him an easy out to keep it 3-3.
So, “The greedy part says we’re one trip at third base away from taking two out of three from the number-one team in the country, and getting back to where we need to be,” said Cohen. He also said in his 24 years of coaching he’d never seen a play like that. (As a player? Yes, in 1988 at the very same spot and against the same opponent.)
“I might not ever get over Thursday night. I hope I get to stay around this planet for a while but I’m telling you I might not ever get over that. It’s not about our kids but the things you do as a coach. Our kids deserved to win that game.”
It says something positive for State’s kids that they had enough emotional strength to withstand a blown 7-4 lead in the game-three ninth inning and not let Thursday repeat itself two days later. The Bulldogs didn’t break. Nor for that matter have they been broken by the rest of a struggling season. Only they know what their realistic goals for 2015 were; it’s safe to say Hoover was taken for granted.
It isn’t now and hasn’t been for weeks. Still this team isn’t writing-off anything, as Heck’s comment reminds. It all hinges on first earning a place at Hoover and then doing big things there.
Motivation won’t be lacking in either Oxford dugout, never mind the rivalry aspect. If the Bulldogs are playing to stay alive for Hoover status, Ole Miss is trying to get to the SEC Tournament with enough margin to leave there better than break-even. The Rebels did some game-three salvaging of their own this past weekend, holding off Missouri 4-3 to avoid a road sweep.
And speaking of sweeping, by winning the Governors Cup last week Ole Miss can try to blank the Bulldogs which they last did with four victories in 2010. Rebels teams have won three of the last four SEC series in the rivalry.
Neither team has a non-conference game before beginning the series late Thursday evening. Mississippi State will have had one more rest day, though it’s too early to say if this could allow Cohen and Coach Butch Thompson to tinker with the rotation. They are working the practice schedule around final spring exams this week.
Unofficial SEC standings: 1.Vanderbilt 17-7 2.LSU, Texas A&M 16-7 (LSU won the series) 4.Florida 15-9 5.Arkansas, Missouri (do not play) 7.Auburn 12-12 8.Kentucky 11-12 9.Ole Miss 11-13 10.South Carolina 10-14 11.Alabama, Mississippi State (Alabama won series) 13.Georgia 7-16 14.Tennessee 7-17.