The visiting Aggies used a pair of home runs, including a grand slam, for six of their runs to defeat Mississippi State 10-3 on opening night of the SEC West series. Texas A&M (27-7, 8-5) climbed into a tie for the Division lead with the Bulldogs (24-10-1, 8-5).
Smoke from the post-game fireworks was drifting as State players faced the prospect of needing to battle back from a second Friday loss. “There’s no attitude change in the locker room,” 1B Nate Lowe. “We’re still excited to play tomorrow.”
Texas A&M list up Bulldog pitching for 13 hits, five of them extra-base knocks. The decisive blows were yard-leavers. In the top of the fourth first baseman Hunter Melton upper-cut one of RHP Dakota Hudson’s fastballs and sailed it over leftfield for a two-RBI homer and 3-2 lead the Aggies never lost. It was Melton’s ninth home run of the season.
The margin was 5-3 in the top of the ninth after reliever LHP Ethan Small had loaded the bases without a clean hit and plunked a fourth Aggie to force home a run. The sacks had been stuffed on a protested nicking to open the frame; a bunt Small fielded but threw too late to second base; and another bunt the pitcher slipped after grabbing.
LHP Vance Tatum was handed the mess and promptly served up a second-offering that Nick Banks sailed high and just inside the left field foul pole. The slam was his fifth shot of the year and good for a 9-3 margin. Tatum stayed in for an out, single, and another plunking. RHP Blake Smith entered to give a one-out fly ball from Michael Barash for the sacrifice.
“Obviously we didn’t hold it together with our bullpen,” Coach John Cohen said.
It was the second Friday that the Bulldog bullpen was called on to limit damage after Hudson had to exit. The junior ace did get farther into this evening, with 7.0 innings. It was a labor as A&M collected four runs on ten hits with a walk. Hudson (4-3) still had good stuff as he struck out eight.
When Aggies made contact though it went a long way. “I just felt for me it came down to a few unexecuted pitches that a good hitting team like Texas A&M got ahold of,” Hudson said. “They were kind of sitting certain pitches in certain counts, which is a good strategy for a team that can really hit pretty much anything.”
It began early as second-Aggie up Banks doubled and scored on a following double by Boomer White. Hudson settled into a better groove to keep it one run through three, while State’s offense scored twice on Brigham Hill. The righthander allowed one run in the first inning as CF Jake Mangum singled, got to third, and came home on a fly ball by 3B Gavin Collins.
In the second RF Cody Brown singled and eventually scored on a wild pitch. Hill (5-0) survived that and only got better, locating in spots that suited the umpire. He struck out eight in his 6.2 turns, in one stretch fanning four of five faced, allowing two runs on seven hits.
“His stuff wasn’t what some of the other guys’ were,” said Lowe, who went 2-of-3 against Hill. “He’s a good pitcher, he put a lot of strikes in the zone and it worked out to his advantage.”
It could have been worse for Hudson than 3-2 and 4-2 after the fifth. He stranded five Aggies in scoring positions and had another called out on appeal for not touching second base.
“He gave up some hits tonight, but I thought he really competed well for us,” Cohen said. “He did not want to come out of the game. He kept us in it and really had a chance to do some damage there.”
State’s best chance to do real damage had come in the second though. With Brown on base, DH Brent Rooker drove one deep to leftfield that seemed sure to leave. J.B. Moss timed his leap perfectly for a rob-job.
“If a ball leaves the yard off the bat of Rooker it changes the nature of the game,” Cohen said. “We probably make a different decision coming out of the bullpen there.” Cohen said that different decision would have been RHP Ryan Rigby to hold a 4-4 tie. State never caught all the way up.
The chance was in the eighth down 4-2 when Rooker delivered a clutch two-out single to rightfield scoring SS Ryan Gridley. “This place was electric,” Lowe said. “It was nice to get this place going but we wish we could have finished.”
Because with tying runner Brown on third base, Ryan Hendrix came back from 3-0 to fan 2B Hunter Stovall on full-count.
The margin of loss was deceptive, set up by hit batters and miss-handled bunts. “They’re an older club and they’re going to put pressure on you,” Cohen said. At the same time, when presented opportunity Aggie bats delivered the fireworks.
Mississippi State seeks to square the series, and regain the West lead, Saturday with RHP Austin Sexton (3-1, 3.28) starting it off at 2:00. Righthander Jace Vines (5-0, 3.77) gets the ball for A&M.