State Clinches Arkansas Series for Record Ninth Won-Weekend; Tie Record with 20 SEC Victories

He already had a couple of doubles and had solved the previous game’s issues. But it is the scratch single in that eighth inning that Ryan Gridley savored more. “I guess the runs, obviously!”

As in the two Bulldogs coming across on Gridley’s clutch contact, expanding Mississippi State’s margin of victory to 5-1 and sealing the series with Arkansas. With the win State (39-14-1, 20-9) not only clinched a record ninth SEC series, but tied the program mark for league victories.

They also are now one more win away from at least sharing and potentially outright claiming the Southeastern Conference championship. “Worst to first, baby!” proclaimed RHP Austin Sexton, reflecting how 2015’s last-place SEC squad is playing for a 2016 crown.

“It’s awesome,” agreed Gridley. “We have a chance to do something really awesome that hasn’t happened here in a long time.”

Arkansas (26-28, 7-23) did their part to keep the home team focused though. After Thursday’s ugly 7-0 loss, the Razorbacks put the pressure back on Mississippi State. They even took a brief lead with a second-inning score, and in the eighth it was still a two-run margin.

That was until Gridley came through with his two-out contact. He had doubled to lead-off both the fourth and seventh innings but been left on third base each time as Razorback pitching scuffled to keep their club close. In the eighth the Bulldogs loaded everything with singles by 1B Nate Lowe, 3B Gavin Collins, and CF Jacob Robson on what was supposed to be a sacrifice bunt.

Instead bases were loaded and nobody out. Or not until Razorback reliever Barrett Loeseke came in to get consecutive strikeouts. It was up to Gridley to get it done.

He did. Thanks, Gridley said, to a quick adjustment made after a 0-for-4 Thursday.

“I was focusing on having a ‘softer’ front foot-land, instead of trying to be so aggressive with it. And I feel I saw the ball a lot better than last night.”

The result was a hard grounder that second baseman Michael Bernal could finally field, but with little chance of forcing the fast Robson at the middle-bag. But Bernal made an off-target flip that went awry. Not only did Lowe score on the infield single but Collins crossed too on the error.

“It took a lot of pressure off,” Gridley said. “Just the way that whole play worked out for us, I can’t ask for anything more than that.”

RHP Reid Humphreys was already putting pressure on Arkansas. Taking over in the eighth for starter Sexton, he retired that side with a couple of strikeouts after RF/LF Jake Mangum robbed a leadoff double by the top of Arkansas’ order. Returning with a bigger margin Humphreys did allow a one-out single but erased the lead runner with a bouncer; then blew a fastball by Bernal for his seventh save.

Sexton (7-2) picked up the win with 7.0 complete innings, allowing just the one run on four hits against seven strikeouts. He said the curveball, usually his strikeout pitch, wasn’t working as usual. But Sexton’s best weapon was very much back in evidence.

“I had my changeup tonight. A couple of times this year it’s been iffy, tonight it was back to the old. Elih (Marrero) did a good job calling pitches and kept me down in the zone.”

Arkansas did get that second-inning score with some help. With a leadoff runner on first, Sexton fielded a chopper and threw it away putting Razorbacks in scoring positions. A Rick Nomura grounder plated Clark Eagan, then Collins kept it just one with a fine stop to hold the lead runner on third base and long throw.

And Sexton more than made up for the mistake by covering the plate on a wild pitch that wasn’t wild enough. Marrero recovered and flipped for the in-time tag.

It was the first time in seven games the Bulldogs had trailed. It wasn’t a big deal.

A one-out plunking of 2B John Holland in the third put the tying Dog on, with the top of the order up. Mangum singled, of course, and DH Jack Kruger walked to load everything. 1B Nathaniel Lowe tied it with his fly ball to leftfield.

Arkansas starter Isaiah Campbell re-loaded the bases which also advanced a pair into scoring spots. That mattered when Robson chopped one to the right side. Eagan fielded the high bouncer but fearing Robson’s speed rushed his throw wide. Mangum and Kruger came around for the 3-1 lead.

Sexton made it stand up by sitting 11 of 13 faced in one stretch. He stranded a pair in his sixth with a called strikeout of Grant Koch, and left another Razorback un-scored in the seventh with a swinging strikeout of the nine-hole hitter.

Bullpen Hogs Jordan Rodriguez and Josh Alberius did keep it within two, not least by stranding Gridley on third twice. It was Alberius who got tagged for all three hits in the eighth though, with four total and both runs on his account. Campbell (3-1) took the loss on 3.0 innings with three runs, three hits, three walks and a strikeout.

The Bulldogs didn’t exactly beat-up Arkansas arms with eight hits. They needed mistakes to make most of the offense happen, and did with three un-earned runs. Which fit Gridley’s style just fine.

“Every single at-bat that’s what I’m trying to do, hit it hard and make someone make a mistake or put it where they’re not. That’s it.”

Cohen figured the win started with Sexton’s stint. “I thought Austin was just magnificent tonight. If he makes that one play he’s going to have a shutout. We didn’t have a great offensive night, we did not swing the bats the way we have. But nights like that you have to defend it and you have to pitch and I thought we did that.”

Now the Bulldogs will spend the night and morning thinking about Saturday’s stakes. Florida’s loss at LSU drops the Gators (18-9) behind Mississippi State in the SEC championship chase as long as the Bulldogs complete a sweep. At the same time Texas A&M kept pace at 20-9 by rallying past Ole Miss in their game-two.

If both Bulldogs and Aggies sweep-out, they will both be listed as SEC Champions. The Aggies will still have the top SEC Tournament seeding by tie-break; and the East winner will automatically have the #2 seeding. But Hoover is not on MSU minds right now.

Taking the first SEC title, outright or shared, since 1989 is. That team did it with 20 SEC wins, too, a mark that can be surpassed tomorrow. Cohen was a starting outfielder on that squad. He also coached Kentucky from last place one year to sharing the 2006 title with Alabama. But no conference club has ever gone from worst to outright first in all SEC history.

With a little help from the rivals, these Bulldogs can do so. Either way, “We’re playing for a SEC championship tomorrow,” Sexton said. “Outright or co-champs if I’m not mistaken. So there’s a lot at stake and the boys are focused. We’re wishing it was tomorrow already!”

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