Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Starter is One Out From Finishing With Defensive Support; Big Evening at Plate for Collins

HOOVER – Zac Houston had thrown all of one May inning. He hadn’t faced a league batter in nearly four weeks. But this righty wasn’t rusty. Houston was ready for his big chance on the SEC Tournament stage.

Houston threw eight shutout innings and was an out away from completing Mississippi State’s 4-1 victory over Alabama.

The Bulldogs (41-14-1) opened tournament play with a 12th-straight victory, and advance to Thursday’s late game against the winner of LSU-Florida.

Houston will still be resting the arm. He put in a longest-yet appearance of 8.2 innings, throwing 120 pitches and coming within a slightly-different contact from his first college complete game.

“Zac was magnificent,” Coach John Cohen said. Houston himself felt…pretty satisfied with turning what was supposed to be a middling-length stint into a career night. Maybe he didn’t feel dominating at the front end.

But by mid-game? “Probably about the fifth inning, I felt I had command of all my pitches.” He certainly had command of the Crimson Tide offense right up to the very end.

“Zac Houston did a terrific job,” UA Coach Mitch Gaspard said. “He just overmatched us for the most part.”

He did just that. Through eight full frames Houston had a two-hit shutout going with five strikeouts and no walks. He got two ground-outs into the ninth as well. So when Georgie Salem flew a drive over LF Reid Humphreys it seemed a fluke. Then Chandler Taylor unloaded to right, the ball striking near enough the yellow stripe to merit a review. It changed nothing, correctly ruled a ground rule double to end the shutout but lleaving a three-run margin.

During the debate RHP Blake Smith was called on to end the evening. He needed three pitches to strike out Will Haynie and end the evening, getting a fourth save in the process. But the win and the evening belonged to Houston (5-0), who even into the ninth was still throwing in the 90s and wasn’t at all tired.

“No, I didn’t feel like it. I felt great. It helps when your crowd is going nuts!”

It was a very healthy Bulldog crowd filling the right side of Hoover Met, overmatching a fine turnout for the local team on the other side. Of course Mississippi State folk had much more to cheer on the mound, in the field…and especially at the plate.

Bulldogs knocked a pair of Crimson Tide pitchers around for a dozen base hits, led by 3B Gavin Collins. He put in a 4-for-4 showing, driving in State’s first run with a RBI-single in the first inning to score RF Jake Mangum. Collins would later hit a solo homer, then account for the fourth run in the sixth.

“The story of the night is these two guys,” Cohen said of Houston and Collins. “And our defense.” Which was not perfect with two errors charged; both ironically to Collins. But neither led to a run and the rest of the way Dog defenders made the routine plays, the tough plays, and a few remarkable ones.

Such as when Humphreys temporarily preserved the shutout in the eighth, leaping and reaching over the leftfield fence to rob Chance Vincent of a leadoff home run. “Right off the bat I was like OK, that’s a pop-up,” Houston said. “It kept drifting and drifting, he made the catch and I said, thanks!”

Everyone else was thanking Houston. He had last thrown a live pitch at Troy on May 11, and only an inning as the starter then. His most recent SEC experience was at, ironically, Alabama with six total pitches tossed. So there was some natural concern about running a rusty arm to the hill in a tournament setting.

There was no such concerns in the Bulldog dugout. Cohen reported that a minor mechanical adjustment made only a week ago had produced brilliant bullpen results. “The minute we were done with Arkansas, Wes (Johnson) cornered me and said we need to give the ball to this guy. And Zac wasn’t shy about saying I really, really want the ball at Hoover.”

Interestingly, Houston had already thrown in two AA-size parks; at Biloxi and at Pearl, the latter going 2.2 innings to get the Governors Cup win. However, “I don’t think it’s the ballpark,” Houston said. “I’ve had times when I struggled with my command but it’s something I’ve been working on.”

He also was adaptable. Having relied on fastballs early, and getting some long counts, Houston went to cutters and changes and rolled from the fourth-through-seventh innings.

Cohen did say they were watching Houston to see if the strikes matched the stuff. “We had a gameplan of getting him to the middle portion of the game and using some other guys. The ball just came out of his hand so good, his fastball was to both sides. He just seemed on-point with three pitches. So we let him ride.”

A gradually-growing margin to pitch with didn’t hurt, either. State’s other run was in the third turn as Mangum grounded to second base, scoring 2B John Holland from third base for a 2-0 lead. Collins’ second run came off a two-out single from DH Brent Rooker.

Considering Houston’s previous long outing was 6.0 innings, back in February against Nicholls State, as the game ground on to the eighth and ninth the bullpen got active. But as long as he kept producing out?

“We were going to allow him the shutout opportunity,” Cohen said. Which he was thissss close to.

Tide starter Geoffrey Bramblett (5-4) took the loss, working 5.2 innings with all four runs charged to him. He allowed nine of the dozen hits with no walks and four strikeouts. Sam Finnerty took care of the last 2.1 turns with three hits, a walk and no strikeouts.

The Bulldogs left the park to await word of their Thursday opponent with game time optimistically set for 8:00. Alabama (33-25) will play the loser in an elimination game. Cohen confirmed that RHP Dakota Hudson (7-2, 2.41) will start, to stay on schedule if he's chosen to open next week's Regional.


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