It was better. Bigger, too. A week after a rough SEC Tournament outing, Sexton again looked like an ace. He got Mississippi State started towards a 4-1 victory over Cal State Fullerton, which sends the Bulldogs on to the Starkville Regional championship round.
“I knew I needed to come out and give my team a chance to win,” Sexton said. “Last week I struggled, but you have to put that in the rearview and focus on what’s in front of you.”
What is in front of the Diamond Dogs (43-16-1) is a 6:30 Sunday championship round game against the survivor of the 1:30 rematch for Fullerton (36-22) and Louisiana Tech. The Titans edged Tech 1-0 in a resumed game Saturday with a run in the ninth inning. Tech’s Bulldogs stayed alive by eliminating Southeast Missouri.
That Mississippi State is playing for the Regional title tomorrow is largely the work of Sexton. He had not been sharp, at all, against Florida in Hoover. Naturally issues with his trademark changeup were to blame, as Sexton figured he was ‘choking’ the ball and not getting around it. A week’s work fixed that.
No, made it better than ever. “I was able to make adjustments, get a lot of good sink, and got a lot of ground balls.”
A lot. Seven of his first twelve outs were on bouncers with just two fly balls. Sexton also had Titans chasing changeups and breaking stuff well-outside the zone early with four strikeouts. The result was six shutout innings, until with an out in the seventh Fullerton’s Josh Vargas timed it right and took Sexton over rightfield for a solo homer.
That was all Sexton (8-3) allowed to come home. He scattered four other hits, one walk and one plunked Titan, and stranded everyone…with the aid of some pretty special help by Bulldog glovemen.
“I’m proud of the way the guys played behind me, and swung the bat.”
State’s order didn’t batter Titan pitching exactly, and not until they put a pair on the board in the top of the seventh for a 3-0 lead. That made moving Sexton an easier call as RHP Blake Smith took care of the last 2.2 turns without a run or hit. Smith did walk two but struck out three to gain his fifth save.
Coach John Cohen had real concerns about matching any moundsman with Fullerton’s style. The Titans are pure West Coast baseball and thrive on close games settled by defense and pitching. “And they can situationally score. I thought Austin just took the ball and did a great job.”
That job began with a swinging strikeout of, ironically, Vargas in the bottom of the first with chased changeups. A one-out single did no damage. Nor did a one-out error by 3B Gavin Collins in the second followed by a two-out walk. Sexton stranded both with a grounder.
In the third a plunking and single had two on again, and they went un-scored again as Sexton struck out Scott Hurst. More tests were ahead. A pair of Titans had to be stranded yet again in the fifth with a strong play by 2B John Holland.
But the real crunch came in the sixth. Mississippi State had taken a 1-0 lead in the top of the third as Holland singled, got to third on a double by C Jack Kruger; and scored on 1B Nate Lowe’s grounder. Yet a 1-0 game was just up Fullerton’s alley, and in their sixth it was time to tie it up.
Hurst doubled in leadoff and was grounded to third. With one out Chris Hudgins crunched a grounder to the left side. Collins had committed another error in the fifth, and as Cohen pointed out the Titans’ style was to push balls at that side of the field and force mistakes.
“He still wanted the baseball,” Cohen said of Collins. He got it.
Collins had to go hard for the down-line bouncer, momentum carrying him out of bounds…but also clearing his angle to home plate as long as he could turn in time. He did, Kruger took the throw and got the tag down in time.
Another grounder stranded the tying runner on second. The Bulldogs took the defensive momentum to the plate in the seventh. DH Brent Rooker also led off an inning with a double, just his teammates made better use of it. Though he had four hits on the weekend already LF Reid Humphreys had no troubles bunting Kruger over to third.
SS Ryan Gridley attacked the first pitch from Colton Eastman, lining it off the diving shortstop’s glove for a single and RBI. After a controversial no-call on what surely seemed catcher’s interference, a strikeout of Holland had two down. But RF Jake Mangum was up, and after consecutive strikeouts was due.
He did lay off the first pitch, which was wild enough to put Gridley in scoring position. So when Eastman grooved a changeup Mangum naturally singled to right; not far, and Gridley had to find a late burst to slide across as the tag came down for a 3-0 lead.
Fullerton had saved Eastman (8-3) for the winner’s bracket game and it almost worked. He lasted 6.2 innings with the three runs on eight hits, striking out seven Dogs and walking none. But Mangum’s RBI-single finished him.
State got that home run run back quickly enough to keep Smith in comfortable position. Lowe reached on an error to open the top of the eighth, and was scored as CF Jacob Robson lined his drive over shortstop and on to the gap. This was off Chad Hockin in his 1.1 innings, with Maxwell Gibbs working the ninth.
The Bulldogs collected nine hits from seven starters, with Mangum going 2-of-5. Vargas was also 2-of-5 as Fullerton had only five hits. It wasn’t for lack of trying to time Sexton’s stuff or force mistakes that the Titans managed only one run and that on a fluke sort of shot.
“He made pitches when he had to,” Coach Rick Vanderhook said. “With our philosophy if you put a pitcher on the ropes three times, he’ll break once. He didn’t break.”
Instead Sexton broke the Titans. He admitted there were physical strains on the humid evening. “It was tough out there, I had to go into Grisham (the batting tunnel behind first base) and cool off.”
Because Sexton cooled-off the Titans, his team can wait and watch for tomorrow’s survivor and play for the Regional title. Cohen will await the winner of that one to decide between RHP Zac Houston or LHP Konnor Pilkington. He even suggested both might throw in the same game if it plays-out so.