“I kind of started off a little rough,” Houston explained. “I didn’t have my arm where I wanted to, was kind of getting long.” So were his innings. Though the junior righthander wasn’t throwing a lot of pitches total, he was taking too, well, long to sit Nicholls State swingers.
So even with a 2-0 lead, pitching coach Wes Johnson and Houston got to work. “His first two innings were kind of shaky with his command,” Coach John Cohen said. “Credit Wes Johnson, he just took him down to the bullpen after the second inning and got his delivery ironed-out.”
And, leaving the Colonels high-and-dry-cleaned. Houston went back to the mound, put in four more frames, and kept Mississippi State on track for an 8-0 shutout victory. With their fourth win of the weekend the Bulldogs are 6-2, while Nicholls State left 4-5.
They also left after being blanked by Houston (1-0) and a trio of short-stint relievers. Houston allowed just three hits and two walks in his 6.0 full frames, more than offsetting that with a career-high ten strikeouts. The fannings were just about equally issued to right- and left-handed Colonels, too. “He made a great adjustment, he was really in the zone,” Cohen said. “I thought he commanded two or three pitches after the second inning.”
Two pitches mostly, Houston said. “I didn’t really have my splitter, I figured that early. So I went with what I had. My fastball was working and I felt I could do what I wanted to with my breaking ball.” Houston didn’t cruise the rest of the way; four of his six innings a leadoff batter reached. None got past second base as State scored its second shutout of the weekend.
It didn’t hurt Houston that he got enough immediate offensive support to win the game. Mississippi State scored twice in the first inning and four more runs in the second which gave the starter plenty margin to pitch with.
NSU starter Alex Ernestine (1-1) probably felt he could have used some mid-inning instruction after giving up all those runs on six hits. He didn’t make it through two, in fact. Ernestine began his own downfall with a leadoff walk of CF Jacob Robson, who stole into scoring position. A couple of fly-balls later 3B Gavin Collins dropped a single in front of the Nicholls rightfielder for the RBI.
LF Reid Humphreys singled and took second on a poor throw for Dogs in scoring spots. SS Ryan Gridley was nicked on the arm to load the bases, before Ernestine threw four balls to 1B Nate Lowe for the free RBI. He needed centerfielder Justin Holt to run down a drive by 2B Hunter Stovall to strand three and keep it 2-0.
Not for long, though. C Elih Marrero led off State’s second turn with a double and Robson worked his second walk of the afternoon. DH Jack Kruger lined a single just past the third baseman’s glove to fill all bases, before RF Brent Rooker doubled to leftfield for two RBI.
Collins walked to re-load the bases, and Humphreys dropped a base hit down the left-line to score Kruger. A fly ball by Gridley was deep enough for Rooker to come home, and finally brought a pitching change. Lefthander Mike Hanchar was able to end the inning with a double-play, then keep it 6-0 into the State sixth.
“The first two innings we were really locked-in,” Cohen said. “They brought in Hancher who pitched really well, mixed pitches. We hit some balls hard and couldn’t put anything together.”
It didn’t matter with Houston keeping his shutout through the sixth. “I wanted to go back. But I had reached 95 pitches and they wanted to stop right there. And we had a healthy lead.
NSU’s Robbie Petty relieved Hanchar an out into the MSU sixth and held the six-run deficit into the eighth. With a pair of outs the top of State’s order was back up and Robson singled. Colonel Zac Thiac took over, while State made an interesting matchup move. Hot righthanded hitter DH Jack Kruger was replaced by lefty OF Cody Brown. It worked.
Brown drove one deep, missed a Colonel glove at the track and raced around with a RBI triple. Rooker brought him home with a single for his third RBI.
Freshmen Kale Breaux and Noah Hughes threw the seventh and eighth innings, with Breaux stranding a pair (walk, plunking). Up 8-0, RHP Paul Young was given the ninth and made fast work of it despite again taking a hard-shot off his body. Last week it was the elbow, this time his leg. He was fine.
Rooker and Humphreys each had two of State’s ten base hits, while Robson scored three times.
Mississippi State is scheduled for a Tuesday home game with Alcorn State (6:00). Weather is uncertain but Cohen wants this game to be played after last Tuesday’s contest with Memphis was weathered-out.
“We’ll wait and see how we’re going to do that,” he said. “I really want to be focused on that and not the trip this weekend.”
Staying focused on a SWAC squad isn’t easy most times but especially not with the coming weekend. The Bulldogs leave Wednesday for Los Angeles and three games. They play on the home fields of UCLA (Friday 8:00ct) and Southern California (Saturday 4:00), before a Sunday 1:00 game with Oklahoma at Dodger Stadium.