Mississippi State wrapped-up the Starkville Regional with Sunday’s 4-0 victory over Louisiana Tech. That gave the host Bulldogs a three-game sweep of the regional field, and sends them to the super regional round.
Yet there was no frenzied celebrating, no dog-piling, none of the usual stuff seen after a team wins a NCAA weekend. Yes, the Bulldogs were excited, DH and Regional Most Valuable Player Brent Rooker said. “A big regional with really good teams in it.
“But we’ve got a bigger mission. We thought it fitting to treat it as a business meeting.”
Business resumes next weekend, and still on Dudy Noble Field. #6 national seed Mississippi State (44-16-1) was guaranteed super-round hosting if they could take care of the regional. They did in a minimum number of days and games. Now the Bulldogs will play either Louisiana-Lafayette or Arizona, who meet Monday in a weather-interrupted Lafayette Regional.
Rain delayed the championship game in Starkville, too, by over two hours. The all-business Bulldogs did not let any extra tensions build though. Least of all RHP Zac Houston.
“It wasn’t like a rain delay in the middle of the game,” the reliever-turned-starter said. “I was able to push back everything and do what I needed to do.”
It showed. Houston looked as if he’d been starting NCAA games his whole life, throwing six strong and obviously scoreless innings before finally getting into trouble in the seventh. When he took his leave, and received an ovation from the 9,000-plus crowd, Houston had allowed just two hits, walked three, and struck out ten Techsters.
“Zac went out with a purpose and really was dominant,” Coach John Cohen said.
Houston had dominated against Alabama in the SEC Tournament, too. There he found his formula: set a fastball tone, develop the breaking ball in middle-innings, and give the gloves chances.
“I tried to do the same thing. My fastball had good life on it. Later in the game, around the third inning, I started getting command on my breaking ball.”
It helped Houston was pitching at, or more by, a Tech Bulldog order that came to the plate looking to hit. Of his ten strikeouts nine were swinging, and the other a check-swing. If the opposition was going to help him, Houston would accommodate with pitches they could miss.
Or, put in play. “I wanted to get my defense work, and they made some amazing plays behind me.” An errorless evening proved his wisdom.
“Houston did a great job, he’s got a lot of sink in his fastball,” Tech DH Jonathan Washam said. “It was tough to hit the ball down. We just couldn’t seem to barrel any balls up.”
Tech came with righthander Braden Bristo, the last available starter on a staff shortened by a suspended game-one and two more contests including Sunday afternoon’s survival round with Cal State Fullerton. Bristo isn’t a big guy but had a big arm, delivering in the mid-90s and hitting spots early.
Then, Bulldogs began hitting him, gradually. CF Jacob Robson reached on a one-out infield single in the second inning and stole into scoring position. A walk of Rooker and plunking of LF Reid Humphreys on the hand—he would have to leave two innings later—loaded the bases.
SS Ryan Gridley bounced a ball that third baseman Chance Lunceford came home with for the force. But catcher Brent Diaz, catching after a late scratch of the scheduled starter, hit Gridley in the helmet with his relay. Rooker came on in for a run on the error.
Leftfielder Raphael Gladeau limited damage to 1-0 with a sliding catch in the gap to rob 2B John Holland of a two-run hit. But more was ahead, as the top of State’s order was up again in the third.
That meant RF Jake Mangum, the NCAA’s #3 hitter, and he turned a routine base hit into an aggressive double. He was bunted over to third but froze on the path as 1B Nate Lowe’s hot grounder put the Tech shortstop on the dirt. Chandler Hall got up to throw over to first getting Lowe, and Mangum likely could have scored on it.
No problem. 3B Gavin Collins gave a fine show of two-out, two-strike hitting with an opposite-way scorcher past the first baseman to score Mangum. Robson’s speed kept the inning alive as he reached on Hall’s throwing error, and Rooker made it hurt more with a single through shortstop scoring Collins.
That finished Bristo for Graham Ahlrich to work the next 3.0 innings. He absorbed the fourth Bulldog run as Lowe scored on a Rooker fly ball to deep leftfield.
Every State run seemed to make Houston sharper as he fanned three—around a rare walk—in the fourth, another in the fifth, and two more in the sixth. “It all worked around his fastball,” Cohen said. “There wasn’t a lot of contact.” But up 4-0, and over 100 pitches, Houston started missing arm-side in the seventh. He walked two around a bloop single.
Suddenly bases were full, and the unthinkable tying run coming to the plate. With a pair of righthanders up Rigby was the easy choice, though Cohen admitted the plan was to get one or at most two outs and make another move.
Instead, Rigby fanned the #7 and 8 Tech batters on seven total pitches. Cohen let him stay to fly-out the bottom of the order as well, stranding everyone and preserving the shutout.
“It was amazing,” Houston said. “You load the bases, a guy comes out and strikes out the first two and gets a lazy fly ball. Yeah, I had some emotions flying.”
After that, “I think we’d had have to had a crowbar to get the ball out of Rigby’s hand,” Cohen said. Rigby looked like he was taking a tire iron to Tech batters, as he retired all nine he faced with four strikeouts to pick up the first save of his season. “I thought he was the difference in the game,” Goff said. Houston improved to 6-0.
Bristo (5-6) took the loss on 2.2 innings with five hits and three runs, a walk and two strikeouts. Tech’s two hits were by Cody Daigle in the second and Michael Deceglie in the seventh. That was it.
State tallied ten hits, nine of them singles, with Robson reaching three times on infield jobs. He did not score but gave the Tech defense fits and created a key run. Lowe was 2-of-4 with a run, and Rooker had the two RBI.
For one great game Houston made the All-Regional team along with MVP Rooker, Gridley, Mangum, Humphreys, and C Jack Kruger. These Bulldogs also scored another piece of program history, as the first State team to sweep unbeaten through a home-field regional.
That’s nice and joins the lists of firsts and mosts and bests and all that the 2016 Bulldogs have achieved. But it is just another stage in the process.
“I have to admit, I was very impressed with the maturity of our team,” Cohen said. Which the squad showed in another way, after walking off the field at 11:46. The coach gave the option of reporting back to Dudy Noble for a morning practice, or resting to the afternoon.
They chose the morning. That way the Bulldogs can work on themselves first, before finding out their super regional guest and starting scouting.