Third baseman Dalbec showed why he is a stalwart of the Wildcat rotation. He got an out away from completing Arizona’s 1-0 shutout of Mississippi State in Friday’s super regional opener. A crowd of 12,913, second-largest ever at Dudy Noble Field for a post-season game, watched the blanking.
Arizona (43-21) now can take the series with a win either Saturday or Sunday and earn the College World Series berth. The Bulldogs (44-17-1) will try to stay alive and force a rubber game. To do so they’ll have to beat the Wildcat’s ace arm.
Which will be a mighty task if anyone can pitch better than Dalbec, who was drafted earlier in the day by Boston as a corner infielder. After putting in a crucial start last Sunday at the Lafayette Regional, the righthander came back on minimum rest to throw 129 pitches against a Bulldog offense that had beaten some of the country’s best.
Only five of those throws were hit to reach, as Dalbec walked just two and struck out nine. “He did a good job mixing,” 3B Gavin Collins said. “He had multiple pitches in the zone for strikes all night and he threw strike-one.”
But strikeouts were not Dalbec’s goal. Getting easy air-outs was and he frustrated State into eight try fly balls and another foul-pop that was caught against the Bulldog dugout rail. Once Dalbec got past some challenges in the first and third innings, he simply dominated. Everyone. In a stretch from the fourth into the ninth he got outs 16 of 17 chances.
“He was really tough for our guys to see,” Coach John Cohen said. “We knew that on scouting. He really had four different types of pitches he was throwing.” That included two types of breaking balls that State was unable to find the timing on.
“He had a great tempo and we didn’t slow him down and make adjustments,” said Collins, whose two-out double in the bottom of the third gave State’s best chance to take a lead.
The only thing breaking Dalbec’s tempo was the power outage, an area-wide blackout that hit just as the Bulldogs were coming up for their half of the eighth inning down the run. Power came back after 28 minutes and officials allowed Dalbec a few more to re-warm.
The break might have rattled him just a bit because he drilled C Jack Kruger in the helmet to lead off. But his right-side defense saved the day, literally. 1B Nate Lowe lashed a grounder that his counterpart Ryan Aguilar dove full-length to stop, then throw to force Kruger. Cohen called it the biggest play of the game.
But the next batter, Collins, hit one hard that second baseman Cody Ramer had to knock down and make a force at second as well. That, Wildcat Coach Jay Johnson called the play of the game. Either way, a called strikeout of CF Jacob Robson left the tying runner un-scored.
Dalbec came back for the ninth to strike out his first two Dogs swinging, before SS Ryan Gridley scratched out an infield single. It was State’s first base hit since the third inning. 2B John Holland followed with a clean single to the same side.
That was enough to call in lefthander Cameron Ming, with the top of State’s order up and the tying runner in scoring position. And, SEC-leading batter RF Jake Mangum stepping into the box. Going with Ming made Mangum change which box though, as he hit right-handed. Or rather missed, watching two low strikes before missing a third. Those three pitches gave Ming his second save of the season, while Dalbec went to 10-4 with his win.
Mississippi State of course put a first-round draftee on the mound one last time. RHP Dakota Hudson made the final start a good one, just not quite good enough.
“I’m never going to forget the one pitch I didn’t execute,” Hudson said. “Being here in front of these fans is something. But I felt my performance was a little less than what I wanted it to be.”
Just a little. Hudson (9-4) went 6.1 innings with seven hits, a walk, and six strikeouts. That and allowing just one run would ordinarily have been more than enough to win on a Friday.
Hudson even staved-off early adversity. Arizona led off their first and third innings with doubles and Hudson left them un-scored. A leadoff single in the fourth was no trouble either. The only stumble came in the Wildcat seventh, and that with two outs and Aguilar on first base via fielders choice. JJ Matijevic got behind on strikes, before figuring Hudson was going to come back in the zone.
Hudson did. Matijevic lifted it high and long enough that LF Reid Humphreys, not getting the best jump, couldn’t catch up. When the carom rattled off the fence as well Aguilar was scoring without a challenge. On that one swing hung a whole game and maybe tournament.
“The difference is a lefthander staying inside the ball, with the wind blowing form the southeast,” Cohen said. “That’s why we’re not playing right now.”
That, and State not making anything of some early opportunities. Kruger and Lowe reached with one out in the first inning on singles only to stay put on consecutive fly outs. In the third Lowe was on first base with two out as Collins drove his double down the left line. Because it was in that corner Lowe, not the fastest Dog, was stopped at third. Robson, the fastest Dog, nearly beat out his grounder to the first baseman but Dalbec got a foot on the bag just in time.
Rooker got as far as third base after walking to open the MSU fourth, before Dalbec really took over. “We could not put together anything against him,” Cohen said.
Hudson’s place was taken in the seventh by LHP Daniel Brown. He ended that inning on two ground outs and retired all eight he faced. But Brown couldn’t help the offense get anything going as State was shut out for only the second time.
The other, was on the second day of the season by Florida Atlantic. If the Bulldogs aren’t to let this shutout have been on the next-to-last day of their season, they have to beat Arizona’s best somehow. Though Coach Johnson was cute with his answer that Jake Arrieta would start for the Wildcats tomorrow. Since said pitcher is otherwise occupied with the Chicago Cubs, the expectation is ace Nathan Bannister will return from an ironman weekend in Lafayette to try to get the super regional done in two.
Cohen did not name a starter nor need to. Probably. RHP Austin Sexton is supposed to get the ball, since RHP Zac Houston threw long and hard last Sunday to clinch the Starkville Regional. However, Arizona had an order with five lefthanders, four in the middle. LHP Konnor Pilkington has been putting in strong bullpen showings since his last start, on the last day of the regular schedule when State clinched the SEC championship.
So State has choices. But State has to make the right one if they are to force a Sunday rubber game and get their shot at Omaha. “They’re SEC champions because they’ve been able to deal with things all year long,” Cohen said.
“I don’t think we need to change much,” Collins said. “We’re going to do everything like we have all year. We don’t get shut out very often and I think it’s going to be a different look tomorrow.”