The break with tradition engendered lots of fuss and some fury for obvious reasons discussed all during the week. Yet MSU administrators forecast a good turnout regardless and got it. The crowd of 9,378 was a legitimate count, not a ‘paid’ attendance as in the regular season.
“I want to thank our fans for coming out,” Cohen said. “I know 1:30 today was a challenge, for folks who work for a living and people in school. But we felt it was the best decision for our kids and our program. And boy, people showed up in droves and just made a really great atmosphere.”
As things played out, another of Cohen’s reasons came true. The 6:30 game started on time alright, then had to be suspended in the bottom of the third with a thunderstorm. Lightning delays meant a restart finally at 9:03.
Had they stuck to routine, that would have been the Bulldogs—and Redhawks—stuck in dugouts and killing time while Cal State Fullerton or Louisiana Tech rested up. Though in a respect Starkville was fortunate. Friday weather has thrown the Lafayette and Baton Rouge regionals totally off-schedule.
LSU was the other SEC school that picked an early game time for the home team. So did Texas Tech and Virginia. It was just that State defied decades of Dog tradition by going early. Fortunately enough fans to create a home-field advantage showed up.
Besides, “I think we gave some people an excuse to leave work early,” DH Brent Rooker said. “So they can thank us too.”
CENTER OF ATTENTIONS: The Redhawks weren’t exactly thankful during the game. Excited, sure, playing before a crowd that would have made 40% of their total home attendance in 2016.
“This is a tremendous atmosphere,” SEMO Coach Steve Bieser said. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for some of our players with this type of crowd and in a hostile environment. I told the guys you have to understand it’s all in fun, and the end of the game there was no disrespect.”
Dan Holst might have argued that point. He had a tough afternoon in centerfield, and played an unwilling part in State’s two biggest blows. It was Holst that drifted back, back to the track, up against the fence a few feet left of the wall to get under a Rooker high fly.
When the glove went up and the ball finally came down it looked like a catch. It wasn’t. The ball skimmed off Holst’s glove and caromed off either the outfield fence-top or a grill beyond it. Regardless, it was a three-run homer to tie things up temporarily.
By the eighth the Bulldogs had a 7-5 lead and were three outs from victory. Extra margin never hurts and C Jack Kruger got it. A single or booted ball would have sufficed to score RF Jake Mangum from third base. Kruger did better, though his high drive to left-centerfield was staying just inside the park.
Holst went a long way to get there and made a leap at the ball. And missed. Not only did Mangum jog home but Kruger ran home. Allllll the way home with a true inside-the-park ‘shot’.
Redhawks downplayed but didn’t outright dismiss the outfield fans as a factor in those missed-plays. Bieser was certainly surprised what happened to Holst.
“He’s one of the best defensive centerfielder’s I’ve coached. What I saw was he got a little lax.”
MOUND MEN: Redhawk starter Joey Lucchesi showed a distinctly old-fashioned delivery, when bases were empty. I high two-hand overhead reach, then a tuck and pause; turn; cock; and fire. It took longer to execute than describe, too.
By the second inning, the crowd had his timing down and were counting Lucchesi down through the five stages. To be sure it got less-loud as SEMO built a lead, but didn’t stop entirely. Whether it impacted the ace, well…
“I definitely did not expect them to count-down my windup,” Lucchesi said. “It was a little annoying at first. But then I shook it off.”
Of course State starter Dakota Hudson has his own unorthodox approach; a pre-pitch crouch with both arms extended and bent. He debuted the look at DNF in fall ball and Bulldog fans have had a whole season to get used to the look. It takes outsiders to remind that this isn’t ordinary.
As so often happens in tournament play, this matchup of aces didn’t go as scripted. Between them Hudson and Lucchesi gave up 11 hits and nine runs in just 8.2 combined innings; with four walks by Hudson. Lucchessi walked none but also struck out just four Dogs. ‘Just’ because he came in the NCAA leader with 145 strikeouts.
Hudson fanned two, giving him 109 on the season. That ties the junior for 9th-most in a season, with Eric DuBose in 1995.
POWER PLAYER: Rooker has had a multi-homer day already this season. It was May 14, when he slugged a pair out at Auburn. Doing it on the home field was another matter, though there was precedent on the team. 3B Gavin Collins hit two homers back on March 8 in the win over South Alabama.
His first homer was a solo shot and a not-much-doubter, even though righty Rooker did go the opposite way and sail this one over rightfield.
The second shot? That was special for more than just being a three-run job to put a real jolt in Bulldog hopes and tie the game up. Rooker hit it very high and just about deep enough, where poor Holst had his first bad break.
This was a case of a batter reading a pitcher. “I was talking to Robby (CF Jacob Robson) on deck and we both thought he would go breaking ball and try to get strike-one. So I was sitting in and hoping to put a good swing on it and find barrel.”
He did, it did. “But going to that part of Dudy Noble the ball doesn’t really fly that well,” Rooker said. “I actually thought he caught it rounding first base. I was pretty excited when I realized it went over his head.”
Those were Rooker’s eighth and ninth homers of the season, putting him second behind Collins’ ten. With a lefthander on the hill Rooker was going to be in the order anyway for a matchup—in this case at DH. Cohen was not at all surprised by the slugging show.
“Against lefthanders he just sees the ball very good. He has so much bat speed it’s ridiculous, he regularly hits balls 110, 112, 115 (mph) off the barrel. We have other guys that can do that but against lefthanders he sees it very well. But, later in the year he started seeing it well against righthanders, too.”
For his part, Rooker did think he had a touch of unexpected aid, certainly on the second homer. “It was similar to a ball I hit against Texas A&M, that one ended up getting caught at the same point of the fence. But the wind was blowing in that day.” This day, the slight breeze was headed straight-out and Rooker took advantage.
“It’s a strange occurrence when the wind is blowing out at Dudy Noble, and it’s helping us.”
Cohen went with the right-hand batting order against Lucchesi, of course, which included switch-guy Mangum batting in that box instead of his more-productive left side. With Kruger—who had that wild inside-parker--, 1B Nate Lowe, Collins, LF Reid Humphreys, et.al, “I felt one of those guys was going to have a big day if he could get a ball elevated,” the coach said. “And it was Brent Rooker.”
BACKSTOP NOT STOPPING: Cohen was maybe more impressed with Kruger’s homer. Not that the catcher hit one that hard and far, as the ball looked headed out before banking off the fence. It was how the backstop went home-to-home and was able to slide in safely in the bottom of the eighth inning.
“That last swing Kruger took, he’d been squatting down 150 times.” Including actual pitches as well as pick-throws and so on. Yet he had the legs left to get all the way around.
“That’s a pretty remarkable feat.”
KEEPING PACE: With a 2-of-4 afternoon, Mangum raised his batting average back to .425. That’s far and away leading the SEC. His nearest competitor, Texas A&M’s Boomer White, began the NCAAs at .395 and in a serious late-season slump.
At last check, White was 0-of-2 with the Aggies romping over Binghamton in their first-round game.
Mangum now has 79 hits. To set the program freshman record will take a lot more games no matter how hot the kid is. Rafael Palmeiro had 95 hits as a 1983 rookie.