Sexton Holds Tigers In Check Until Offense Takes Charge; State Holds Second Spot in SEC West

There were all the tactical reasons, the plays and the pitches made and missed. Nathaniel Lowe had another reason for Mississippi State’s 4-3 victory over Missouri. “We were the tougher team.”

The Diamond Dogs were tough indeed. Shut down and shut out for half an evening and still trailing at stretch time, Mississippi State scored four times in the last three turns. Along with Thursday’s 8-2 win, the Bulldogs (32-14-1, 14-9 SEC) have sealed this series, their seventh in eight weekends.

Missouri is 24-24, 7-16. Yet mid-way of the seventh inning the Tigers were in position to square the series. With hard-throwing Tanner Houck and a 2-1 lead, it was a tough situation for the home team.

“Baseball is a game of patience and I think we waited around just enough and got the job done,” said RHP Austin Sexton.

The obvious story was the late offensive surge to take a 4-2 lead and then make it stand up, barely. Or, maybe, Sexton working one batter into the ninth inning before plunking what became the third Tiger run on.

The real story? That was the top of the sixth when Missouri was poised to give Houck a real lead to work with. He was already up 2-0 and watched his offense load the bases with no outs aided by some MSU miscues. After a leadoff single, C Elih Marrero fielded a bunt and skipped his throw past 1B Nate Lowe for Tigers in scoring spots. Even when Sexton struck out Zach Lavy, Marrero dropped the pitch and inexplicably forgot to throw to open first base.

Bases loaded and no outs, Sexton just had to scuffle through. He did better, beginning with a pop-up to shortstop. “I was honestly trying to get a ground ball, soft contact, limit the damage. Luckily I got under a barrel, he popped it up. The rest was what happens.” As in, a called strikeout and grounder.

Missouri still led 2-0 but the game had just changed. “That was a big momentum boost,” Lowe said. “It definitely shifted momentum a lot.”

Because the Bulldogs finally started chipping away at Houck. Through five frames the big righthander had allowed four hits, few on good contact, with a walk and a lot of made-plays.

“That dude was really good,” Lowe said. “Early in the game he didn’t make mistakes, so we had to grind him down.” It began with a one-out single by 3B Gavin Collins, and CF Jacob Robson reaching on a third base fielding error.

Another mistake, by the shortstop with two outs, did more than extend the inning. Marrero’s grounder was misplayed into a run as Collins came home to break scoring ice. Houck did strand two to keep a lesser lead only to have the Bulldogs tie it up in the seventh. Again, pressuring the Tiger infield paid off with a leadoff error at second base. With one out LF Jake Mangum avoided a double-play by getting to second base on a grounder.

Sheer strength let Lowe pound the ball past a diving shortstop’s glove and into left-centerfield for a ground-ball double and tying RBI as Mangum scored from second.

Houck still stuck to the job and it cost his record as State took the lead in their eighth. Robson singled and stole second as RF Brent Rooker squared to let a pitch go by. With 0-1 count, righty Rooker was replaced by lefthander Cody Brown for the matchup. If fans were confused, Missouri was lulled into figuring the sacrifice was off.

It wasn’t. Brown dumped the ball so well that three Tigers converged and more importantly first base was un-covered, putting runners on corners with no outs. “That really changed the nature of the game,” Coach John Cohen said. Marrero fouled away three 2-2 strikes before working a walk and loading all bases, moving Brown to second base.

State didn’t need base hits here, just a pair of fly balls. SS Ryan Gridley lifted one to leftfield for Robson to score and, just as importantly, Brown to take third base behind him.

That let him score on another fly ball to left, by Holland. It would be State’s margin of victory.

Now the leader and positioned to win, Sexton returned. He’d retired the last eight-faced and was mid-way into the order. But a two-seamer ran inside to nick Brett Bond.

“I started chuckling,” Sexton said, knowing his stint was done.

RHP Reid Humphreys was tagged for a single and Tigers on corners. With one out pinch-hitter Brian Sharp knocked a single through the right side for the one-run margin. Humphreys remained to strike out the #9 batter, then LHP Daniel Brown was called in for the top of UM’s order. He coaxed a roller that Collins had to charge and fire just in time to end the evening and pick up his second save.

Sexton (5-2) got the win on 8.0-plus innings with three runs on four hits, only one walk and eight strikeouts. If not for a one-out double in the third inning by Jake Ring that scored Missouri’s first two runs, he would have been toe-to-toe with Houck.

Cohen wasn’t sure if it is pronounced ‘Howk’ or ‘Hoke’ but “I’d better learn his name because I’ll be saying it for a long time in the big leagues. He just tied us up, he beat our barrels early on. But to our guys’ credit we hit some balls hard in crucial situations.”

Houck (4-5) went 7.1 innings with the four runs on eight hits, two walks and five strikeouts. Only two of the runs were earned as three Tiger infielding errors cost dearly. At the same time, for all the initial frustrations and Dogs left stranded the batters kept taking good cuts and forcing the issue.

Plus, “The real story was our defense,” Sexton said. “The defense just played outstanding, we got hits when we needed them, we pressured them. I thought it was an all-around good win.”

A win that once again has State poised to play for a sweep. Four of their previous six series wins have begun 2-0, and Dogs figure it’s high time they complete the job.

“We need to jump out to a big lead and put it on them,” said Lowe. “A lot of times Sunday we let teams hang around, tomorrow we need to throw the first punch.”

Cohen said LHP Konnor Pilkington (2-1, 2.37) will start this game-three. It might force Missouri to alter their left-leaning lineup, but that’s not the real deal he said.

“The third day of a series is all about who can throw the most strikes early in a game and get through the first four or five innings. Pilk has done that the last two starts, hopefully he can do it tomorrow.”

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