Having a cool head, and hot right hand, on the hill was Mississippi State’s way of freezing Tiger bats in a 2-1 victory. Along with Friday’s 12-8 win, the Diamond Dogs (27-12-1, 10-7 SEC) clinched the series and took over sole second place in the Western Division behind 11-6 Texas A&M. Louisiana State (26-13, 9-8) dropped back into third.
It was Mississippi State’s first series victory in the rivalry since 2006.
For much of the past week Sexton’s status was in a little doubt, after pulling a hamstring in last Saturday’s third inning against Texas A&M. It turned out the muscle wasn’t any issue. The mindset? Having been battered by hot Aggie bats, that was a question to most.
Just not to Sexton. “You just have to bounce back.”
He did. Did he ever. Though second in State’s rotation the junior threw like an ace for 7.1 innings. Sexton (4-2) limited the Tigers to five hits and that lone run, coming in the bottom of the eighth. Control was outstanding with a lone walk, though he did nail a Tiger in the helmet in his final frame; and Sexton struck out four.
The key was a changeup that returned to fine form, Sexton said. “My changeup the last two weeks has been kind of in-and-out. Tonight it was moving, I was getting a lot of ground balls, I was getting under barrels. So it was a good job.”
Better than good, as after giving up a single to the first Tiger faced Sexton retired the next ten. And that leadoff single in the bottom of the first was erased by battery mate C Elih Marrero. With Antoine Duplantis trying to steal, and a covering batter not merely big-swinging but spinning down in front of the catcher’s arm-side, Marrero still shot him down. The freshman backstop would throw out another Tiger in the fifth.
Louisiana State swingers had enough trouble getting a read on Sexton’s changer. What made his outing more impressive was switching approaches. For four innings he used routine air-balls and strikeouts to cruise. Then he altered and coaxed ground balls for outs with Tigers on bases.
“That first inning I threw a lot of fastballs. But the second inning I was able to get a couple of changeups in there and my slider was getting down in the zone.”
He also had a lead to work with. Not a big one to be sure. But a one-out, solo shot homer by DH Jack Kruger proved huge. LSU starter Alex Lange fired his best 0-1 fastball and Kruger took his best swing. The bat won as Kruger’s no-doubt drive beat the breeze and landed in the leftfield bleachers, for his fifth homer of the season.
“It’s the second at-bat of the game so you definitely don’t expect to be a one-run game,” Kruger said.
But it was. Sexton wasn’t the only operating ace. Lange shook off the shot well and kept his club within that lone run. He stranded 3B Gavin Collins after a two-out single in the second, retiring 11-straight himself.
“He got better and better and better as the game went on, especially his secondary stuff,” Coach John Cohen said. “You had two guys battling it out, just shoving it in the strike zone. Two guys who controlled the tempo of the game really well and really engaged their defenses.”
If Kruger’s RBI was big in the first inning, the margin of MSU victory came in the sixth. With one down and the top of the order up CF Jake Mangum chopped a grounder fielded and fired in time. Tiger first baseman Greg Deichmann simply pulled his foot too soon.
Kruger put Mangum in scoring position with an opposite-way single; before Lange made the situation easier for State by walking 1B Nathaniel Lowe. LF Reid Humphreys had two short and tough previous at-bats against Lange. This third time he made a nice, tight swing for a liner to centerfield. Jake Fraley had been shaded to left and had to charge over-and-up to prevent the base hit.
There was no change at throwing Mangum out at home though as he scored on the sacrifice. “Huge,” Kruger said of Humprheys’ contact. “Reid stroked that ball and that was awesome.”
It would have been more awesome if State had not wasted a one-out triple by Mangum in the eighth. Lange left him there with a couple of strikeouts. The stranding loomed very large in the bottom of the frame as Sexton gave up a leadoff single and nailed #9 batter Cole Freeman in the helmet.
“Man, I felt bad for hitting that kid, you never want to see that happen,” Sexton said. After a grounder by Duplantis put the tying runners in scoring positions with one out, LHP Daniel Brown was called in to face a left-handed Tiger. Sexton really, really wanted to stay around.
“But coaches made a good decision. Danny came in and got two outs.” The first was a grounder to shortstop that SS Ryan Gridley wisely took to first for the easy out at the cost of one run. The second was a high and short foul-fly RF Brent Rooker ran down.
More drama was ahead. With one out in the ninth Brown was taken to right-center for a double by Kramer Robertson. RHP Zac Houston had warmed up, but pitching coach Wes Johnson went for another righty. The same one who’d closed Friday’s win. Humphreys warmed up quickly before outing two Tigers to seal the game and series.
“Reid came in and shut the door down,” Sexton said. It was Humphreys’ second save of the weekend, fifth of the season.
Lange (4-3) deserved better than a loss, going all nine innings with the two runs (only the first earned) and four hits. He only walked one and struck out seven. Kruger had half of State’s base hits going 2-of-4 with the RBI, himself, and run, ditto. Duplantis and Robertson each had two hits for LSU out of six total.
“The second run was huge,” Cohen said. “And we had a chance for the third run. If we had gotten that it would have been monumental. But we still found a way to win the game.”
The way, was with Sexton going deep and handing it to the right combination of closers. “Every time Austin goes out we expect it to be a win,” Kruger said. “We got a couple of runs and felt good going into those late innings.”
The Bulldogs have now won five of their six SEC series, and just about banished memories of last week’s letdown against Division-leader A&M. Taking two from LSU also will be a terrific boost to the team’s RPI since already competition is shaping-up for NCAA Regional seeding and siting. It’s easy to guess what a road sweep over a power program would do for Mississippi State.
“We feel like we’re the best team in the country,” Kruger said. “We’re not always on top, we’ve got a long way to go. But we feel really good.”
Cohen said LHP Konnor Pilkington (1-0, 1.69) will make Sunday’s noon start.