Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

State Knocks Off Gators In Top-Five Showdown; Maintain SEC West Lead Over Upcoming Aggies

Stealing a SEC road win is big. Stealing a SEC road series? That’s big-time. And doing it at the nation’s #1-ranked team?

Series successes don’t get a lot bigger even for Bulldog baseball than taking two from Florida. Bouncing back from an 8-2 opener loss, Mississippi State rocked the top-ranked Gators with a 10-4 victory to square things. And in their first rubber game of the season, SEC or otherwise, the Diamond Dogs ground-out a 2-1 win.

Coach John Cohen used another word for ‘ground’ though on post-game radio. “Our kids gutted this out.”

Cohen was speaking for Sunday specifically but the theme held for the whole weekend. By shaking off Friday and the first league setback to ace pitcher Dakota Hudson, the Dogs showed real resilience. Never mind the rankings, since State was itself #5 in a leading poll so it was a straight-up matchup.

What stands out is how for the first time this season State didn’t win a weekend in the first two games. They had to come back and take a real rubber game at last, something every contending club must do sometime, somewhere. The Dogs rose to the occasion.

The opportunity, really. “Our kids believe, and they’re just gutting it out,” Cohen said.

The Bulldogs are making believers of the rest of the league and country. Now 23-9-1 overall, they are also 8-4 four weeks into SEC season. That is good for a one-game lead over Texas A&M in the Western Division and second only to South Carolina in the entire conference.

It also puts State ahead of the hypothetical hosting curve for analysts already looking to June’s NCAA seedings and sitings. It’s not something Cohen cares to hear at the moment.

“This is a marathon. And we ain’t even halfway through the marathon. We have maybe the best team in the country coming in, we have to go to LSU.”

It is A&M coming to Dudy Noble Field this weekend. And yes, the Aggies also held the #1 ranking…for a week, before being swept at Florida. They have bounced back themselves and are 7-5 SEC heading in for a Super Bulldog Weekend which has potential to re-write even Mississippi State's weekend attendance totals.

Then again, ever since the SEC slate was announced Mississippi State folk had been looking to April as 2016’s pivot point. And this wasn’t even allowing for the opening weekend, at Vanderbilt. Even when State upset the then-#3 Commodores by taking the first two games, all eyes were on April.

Now? All eyes are on Mississippi State. Once again. After ending years of frustrations with a successful weekend at home over Ole Miss, the Dogs have won another elite road series. It’s a nice bookend to Vanderbilt, Cohen agrees.

Those are two of the toughest places in the country to get wins,” he said Sunday on air. As for the marathon angle, State is half-way into the April murderer’s row with four wins. Not only that, these Dogs now own the first four-won-weekends for the program since 2001. They also have State’s first series success over Florida since 2007.

Signs are certainly trending in the right direction for the Bulldogs. Though being Bulldogs, they will think about the five-run Florida Friday outburst which turned the opener the wrong way. Still in retrospect it might prove a greater confidence builder to have won a weekend A) by battling back in the second and third games and B) without Hudson being Hudson.

Because, every Dog and likely all upcoming Friday foes know the elite righthander (4-2) will regain his stride just fine. Besides, even in defeat “I thought Dakota had pretty good stuff,” Cohen said. “I’m not sure you could have thrown balls into holes better than they did with their bats.” Which was why Coach Wes Johnson left Hudson on the hill even in the five-run frame. Or as Cohen said, “Who are you going to bring out of the bullpen with better stuff?”

Another reason that loss did not rattle State was the offense still had 11 hits, only one less than the Gators. Plenty Dogs made base even in defeat, so had one or two of those hits come in other situations game-one could have played out very differently.

Saturday showed why Cohen reminds the club that they play three per weekend. And RHP Austin Sexton (3-1) made the most of his chance to be ‘the’ guy. Sexton only got 4.0 innings and allowed three runs, all on a single swing. But he did his job minimizing early damage while Bulldog batters crushed Florida’s starter for nine earned runs on ten hits, in just two innings. The big blow was a grand slam by OF Cody Brown in the second.
“He got a fastball and put a good swing on it,” Cohen said.

At the same time State’s recently-critiqued bullpen showed up big Saturday. In the form of RHP Ryan Rigby, going the last 5.0 full frames and working around four hits and a walk. Rigby had the weekend’s real gut-check as he repeatedly stranded multiple Gators to keep the home team from making a real rally.

Which set up the day that had been Dog downfall for three weekends. This game-three, was different. With rookie LHP Konnor Pilkington going the first 4.0 innings—the longest Sunday start of the last five weekends—and tough-minded relief work by RHP Zac Houston and RHP Reid Humphreys the staff shut Florida down and nearly out. Only a ninth-inning homer prevented blanking but Humphreys finished it with one more out.

And a longball again made MSU’s momentum. This was a solo shot by SS Ryan Gridley, not one of the more expected power-punchers. That fifth-inning homer was amplified by C Elih Marrero’s clutch fly-ball single in the seventh for a 2-0 lead that held up.

“The name of this game was situational pitching,” Cohen said. “But we did get some big hits when it really mattered.”

Bulldog batting did come up bigger and better, out-hitting Florida .298 to .286; and tallying nine extra-base knocks to five for the Gators, a real eye-opener for visitors to Perry Field. State offense also came out on top without the usual Dog at the top of the order. His injured left hand sidelined OF Jacob Robson and his .372 average and team-best 32 runs.

Replacing him in leadoff was simple, and moving up a slot Mangum was brilliant for two games at 6-of-10 before a hitless Sunday. The real worry was not having two hot sticks and fast runners atop the order. Fortunately others simply stepped it up. Marrero, for one, going 6-of-14 with Sunday’s crucial contact.

On top of that the true freshman caught all 27 innings, in his home state, from nine different Dog arms.

“You can’t say enough about what Elih did, not only behind the plate but offensively,” Cohen said. Such showings before elite opponents only raises the profile of Marrero and Mangum to make national all-freshman squads. The larger point is how different Dogs come up in crunch situations and deliver, regardless of average.

“We had some good situational swings,” as Cohen said.

The other encouragement for the ongoing season was better situational pitching. Soph transfer Rigby (4-1, 1.23) continues to develop as a unique long-relief righty with his side-style delivery. And if he can come in on a day after batters have been baffled by Hudson’s heat and Sexton’s changeups, Rigby is that much more effective. He has 23 strikeouts against just five walks, and his first-faced comebacker Saturday with bases loaded and no outs might have been the entire series’ key play.

Further good news was a return to form of a veteran righty. After struggling to throw strikes for a couple of weeks, it was the hard-throwing Houston (2-0, 2.04) setting up Humphreys to finish Sunday off. “He just beat people with his fastball over and over again,” Cohen said. “He looked like what Zac Houston should look like.”

Of course the pre-weekend pitching topic was about who’d go on Sunday at all. Three-straight lost game-threes were the only blot on State’s fast SEC start. Maybe it’s early to say Pilkington (1-0, 0.89) has locked the job up. Or maybe not. Not only did the kid transition from midweek winner to SEC starter, he did it against a top-ranked team on their mound.

That, impressed a coach who has seen some. “Konnor came out like he’d done it ten times before.” If the southpaw does it six more SEC times this season, Gainesville was where it began.

Yet this does not leave LHP Daniel Brown (2-2) in limbo. There also must be a new midweek starter found, as State hosts Memphis at 6:30 Wednesday. RHP Keegan James (2-0, 2.87) seems a good option and there’s no lack of other arms to work either in real relief or in scripted stints for tune-ups. Though, even with the strong SEC start, Mississippi State cannot treat remaining midweek games lightly.

Those count in RPI and SOS calculations after all. Of the remaining non-conference games only SEC foe Ole Miss will help either figure, but losses to Memphis, Lousiana-Monroe, and Troy would hurt badly.

By the same token, a squad that just stole a SEC road series against a legitimate national contender—something State is quickly earning attention as too—can guard against having anything stolen from them.

Or as Cohen said, “To be champions you have to play like champions every time.”

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