He should. Just as Mississippi State should like moving him up a couple of slots. Swinging second for the first time since elementary school, Rooker delivered big-league results against Oregon. The rightfielder went 3-of-4 with a solo home run, two total RBI, and two runs scored leading the Diamond Dog offense to a 10-4 victory.
Friday’s series-opener was uncertain right up to game time with rain most of the day. A light drizzle even lingered after the first pitch, but nothing to stop play once started. The couple-thousand fans who showed up were rewarded as Mississippi State (10-3-1) topped a top-ten opponent.
“Certainly I think it was an entertaining ball game,” Coach John Cohen.
The offense definitely was. Oregon put gifted junior lefthander Cole Irvin on the mound, with his 0.82 ERA and 2-0 start on the season. The Bulldogs came after him, Rooker in particular.
Rooker’s first-inning single came to nought on a double-play to end that frame. In the third though he was up with 2B Ryan Gridley on third base with an out, and State trailing 2-0. Rooker lashed a bullet off Irvin for an infield single and the first Bulldog run. An out later it was Rooker tying the tally as he scored on a double by 3B Gavin Collins.
The next at-bat was more impressive as Rooker got all of Irvin’s offering and sailed it over the left-centerfield fence. It was the first home run of his season and gave the Bulldog a lead they’d keep. And expand.
Pushing Rooker from a classic RBI-slot to swing sooner was an intriguing move for sure. The obvious reason looked like a matchup of righthanded hitter Rooker against Oregon’s south-side act. Rooker didn’t think so.
“I don’t know if it’s so much righty/lefty, tonight I just got some good pitches to hit. And that’s a credit to Jack and Gavin.” As in Kruger and Collins, who built on Rooker’s success. The 3-4 batters were a combined 3-of-8 with an RBI each and three total runs.
Mississippi State totaled 13 hits in the win, six of them for extra bases. Rooker’s solo shot wasn’t even the biggest knock; that came form pinch-batter LF Cody Brown as he slugged an eighth-inning grand slam to assure victory. The ten runs matched the most Oregon had allowed in any full three-game series this young season.
All the offense made life easier for State starter RHP Dakota Hudson. The junior did have his shaky moments, most notably in the opening inning as Duck leftfielder A.J. Balta took him out to leftfield. It was a two-run homer as Hudson had walked the leadoff Duck.
But slow starts aren’t a big deal for Hudson. “I didn’t feel it was a terrible pitch, it should have been a pop-up. But after that I had to do everything I could to give our team a chance.”
Hudson (2-1) did, going 5.2 innings to get the winning decision. He allowed just the two runs on four hits, and while Hudson walked five and plunked a Duck he struck out nine. “When you’re as good as he his he gives you a chance to win every time,” Rooker said.
“It was a battle early on,” Hudson said. “I had to get in a groove as I went. And seeing how resilient our offense is and how good our defense is gave me confidence.” Seven of the eight other Ducks to reach on Hudson stayed stranded and the other was thrown-out trying to take third base by LF Reid Humphreys.
If not for the walks Hudson would have gone much longer. But he began the sixth at over 100 pitches and was relieved at 120. Hudson said he got mad at being lifted, until he heard his pitch count. “I was thinking I was around 90!”
The change was made with a 4-2 lead, as following Rooker’s homer Humphreys had tripled-in Collins. Oregon had runners on corners with two outs and RHP Zac Houston entered to get a ground-out and strand both. Houston returned in the seventh with a 5-2 lead as Kruger, who played in 2014 at Oregon, got an infield single to score SS Luke Alexander.
The run looked bigger as Houston plunked his first batter and was replaced by RHP Blake Smith. A wild pitch and two passed balls scored Balta and it took a great running catch by RF Mike Smith to strand another Duck. Smith, ironically, had subbed in just that inning…for Rooker. The better batter appreciated the defensive move.
“The play of the game,” he called Smith’s grab.
The pitcher Smith wasn’t as effective in the eighth though with consecutive walks and a bunt putting the tying runners in scoring spots. LHP Vance Tatum had entered for the expected and successful bunt. Order-topper Austin Grebeck scored Matt Kroon from third base with a sinking liner to left caught by defensive substitute Brown to allow just the sacrifice. Tatum bounced a one-hopper to shortstop to keep the 5-4 lead.
“Vance did what he knew he could do,” Hudson said.
And Mississippi State more than trumped the one run. Gridley’s one-out double in the bottom of the eighth set up another RBI opportunity, this time by another rightfielder. OF Jake Mangum batted for M.Smith and doubled down the right line. Oregon reliever Matt Mercer intentionally walked Kruger and more or less did the same to Collins to get at Brown.
All Brown did was line a ball that kept carrying until it cleared rightfield for his first career grand slam.
Tatum got his first save of the season on 2.0 innings with a couple of strikeouts. Irvin (2-1) took the loss on 5.1 innings with five runs off nine hits, three walks and two strikeouts. Mercer was charged with five runs on three hits, with two strikeouts and as many walks.
Cohen wasn’t happy with eight walks and two hit batsmen. But starter Hudson did enough to set up the bullpen, and the offense showed up big against a superior pitching staff. And every move made, whether shifting the batting order or subbing in defenders paid off. “We had some great bench support,” Cohen said.
Saturday’s game-two is scheduled for 2:00. But the forecast is for late morning rain that runs well into the afternoon. Cohen said the contest can be moved back but not too much. Sunday’s game is 10:30am, which comes on top of the time change. And Oregon must make their flight back for exams this coming week. The Ducks already had a SEC contest at Alabama rained-out Thursday.
“We’re going to do whatever we can,” Cohen said. “This is a great opponent that’s traveled a long way, we’ve got to get these games in.”
RHP Austin Sexton (1-1, 4.91) will start Saturday whatever the time. Oregon will go with another lefty, Matt Krook (0-0, 0.91).