“We’ve done that all year, we’ve been able to fight back and get wins late,” DH Brent Rooker said. “That’s one of the strengths of our team.”
Mississippi State called on its strengths to stave off opening-day upset and defeat Southeast Missouri 9-5. The #6 national seed and host Bulldogs (42-16-1) advance to Saturday’s 6:30 winners bracket game with either Cal State Fullerton or Louisiana Tech.
Southeast Missouri (39-20) will play the loser in a 1:30 elimination game.”
The Redhawks did throw a real scare into the 9,000-plus home crowd. They scored first and either led or were tied for six innings. In the process SEMO knocked out Bulldog ace and All-SEC starter RHP Dakota Hudson before four frames were done.
Down 5-4 in middle-sixth, though, Mississippi State flexed those strengths. Mostly mental strength, said Rooker. “We’ve had times we got down early, we never get in a hurry or sped-up. We know we’re good enough to battle back and compete to the last out.”
Rooker himself was a mighty strong point. He hits home runs in his first two at-bats, starting with solo shot to get the Bulldogs on the board in the second inning. In the third a fly ball got off a glove and the fence-top alike for a three-run blast to temporarily tie it up 4-4.
It was State’s third longball of the afternoon that clinched victory. Though, this one didn’t clear any fence. C Jack Kruger’s deep drive was missed by hard-luck centerfielder Dan Holst, the victim of Rooker’s second shot. It got off the fence in left-centerfield for a RBI already as RF Jake Mangum scored. But the ricochet gave Kruger time to touch all bases on a dead run for the inside-the-park job.
Considering how many pitches he’d caught, not to mention crouching for pick-throws, “That’s a pretty remarkable feat,” Coach John Cohen said of Kruger.
A 14-hit day for the Dogs was pretty remarkable as well. SEMO teased all week about the status of star left-hander and NCAA strikeout leader Joey Lucchesi, who had to work twice in their Ohio Valley Conference tournament win. He wasn’t announced as the starter until around 11:00am, with State following-suit by naming Hudson.
Lucchesi didn’t look sore to start. He was a sore spot for State for most of his 5.1 innings. Lucchesi did absorb ten of the hits and eventually allowed seven runs. He also had ‘only’ four strikeouts though that was enough to set a program career record.
But Lucchesi walked none and kept getting ahead in counts with smart location and selection. “Just a warrior,” Cohen said. Lucchesi even bounced back from a shot to the shin by Mangum in the fourth to keep battling.
“The quality of his stuff from a lefthander standpoint is one of the best we’ve seen,” said Rooker, the one Dog to beat Lucchesi badly with the two homers. “As it got deeper in the game it was hot, he was tired, he’d thrown a lot of pitches last weekend. We were trying to work counts and stick to our approach. We were able to get some pitches to hit.”
Hudson threw some pitches that were hit. But he also threw too many outside the strike zone, walking four to go with as many hits and just two strikeouts. The righthander struggled particularly with lefthanded batters and the pitch count climbed too high too early.
“I don’t think Dakota had his best stuff, that’s pretty apparent,” Cohen said. “But I want to give credit to SEMO. Dakota never gave up and he had a little help in the bullpen.”
A lot of help. After Hudson absorbed the first four runs RHP Ryan Rigby was able to settle State down with 2.1 innings. He allowed three hits with a walk, struck out two, and gave just one more run. That came in the sixth as SEMO broke the 4-4 tie, briefly.
“They are really left-handed and we knew Rigby would come in and give us ground balls,” Cohen said. “Which is what we wanted.”
The win however went to the third State hurler. LHP Daniel Brown entered after Rigby got ahead 0-2 to Branden Boggetto. With a runner on first and SEMO having just regained the lead it was an intense moment, and Brown threw three balls to begin.
Then he put a fastball on the corner for a called strike to keep it 5-4. SEMO did not know the upset bid was over. Because Brown (4-2) went the final 3.1 turns without a hit or a run, walking one and striking out four to get the win.
“Jack (Kruger) just told me to fill up the zone and trust the defense like we have all year,” Brown said. “I really wanted to attack with my best stuff from top-to-bottom of their lineup. Jack was able to keep me in the zone, the defense made good plays for me.”
SEMO took the 2-0 lead in the second with a RBI-single from Scott Mitchell and sacrifice fly by Brian Lees. After Rooker’s solo shot, an opposite-way drive over rightfield, the Redhawks came back with two more in their third. Boggetto doubled for one RBI and Holst dumped a slick bunt to score Chris Osborne from third base. Osborne provided their fifth run with a two-out single in the sixth inning.
Meanwhile Rooker had tagged his three-run shot, with an unintended assist by bad-luck Holst. The centerfielder was under his third-inning high fly, back pressed to the fence a few feet left of the wall. Either he miss-read, or as Rooker suggested ran out of room. The ball ticked his glove, caught the top of the fence, and caromed on over. That gave him nine homers on the season.
“I was excited, it was a big moment in the game.”
Bigger were ahead. Going back down a run, the Dogs needed an answer and got it. CF Jacob Robson bunted in leadoff, though SEMO had guessed right and third baseman Lack fielded. His throw was in time, first baseman Gandolfo just didn’t catch it cleanly. Redhawk Coach Steve Bieser called it the turning point of the game.
Because LF Reid Humphreys singled where the first baseman would have been with no Dog on base and Robson made third base. SS Ryan Gridley singled in Robson cleanly and Humphreys got around to third behind the hit as well. That mattered because pinch-hitter 2B Hunter Stovall entered for a right-vs-left matchup.
Lucchesi did get a ground-out but it also scored Humphreys for the first Bulldog lead all day. When Mangum was drilled in the leg Lucchesi was finally done with Jake Busiek inheriting the two runners. He did get a ground-out of Kruger but that advanced Stovall to third base.
So Lowe didn’t have to swing, just watch a wild pitch get through bringing Stovall across for the 7-5 lead. It would have been enough but Kruger’s inside-parker gave Brown more than enough insurance.
“We were able to get a lead, Daniel did an unbelievable job holding them,” Rooker said.
Lucchesi (10-5) took the loss. Seven State starters had a base hit in the win, six of them multiple hits led by a 3-of-3 day from Humphreys. Kruger was 2-of-5 with a run and two RBI, and of course Rooker drove in four; two of those himself.
Cohen was critiqued by fans for urging a 1:30 game time, but 9,378 still turned out for the early start and were rewarded with a NCAA victory. The Bulldogs are rewarded with a chance to scout the opponent under no game-prep pressures.
“It’s huge,” Cohen said. “We get to watch two really good teams play, we get to make some adjustments and take some notes. And it gives our kids a little bit of rest.”
Cohen was awaiting that late-game result before picking Saturday’s pitcher. He has three solid options in righthanders Austin Sexton (7-3, 3.83) and Zac Houston (5-0, 1.93) or lefty Konnor Pilkington (3-1, 2.08).