A 5-1 Mississippi State lead in the eighth inning was turned into extra innings and ultimately a two-out, bases-loaded single from Cesar Salazar in the bottom of the 11th. Kyle Lewis crossed the plate for Arizona’s margin of 6-5 victory.
The Wildcats (44-21) advance to the College World Series after knocking off the host Bulldogs with a pair of one-run victories. Arizona goes to Omaha having won 12 of their last 13 games.
“It’s just disappointing,” said RF Brent Rooker, who like his teammates could only watch Wildcats dog-piling on their field. “We’ve come this far and aren’t able to finish it.”
With a four-run lead mid-way of the eighth innings Mississippi State (44-18-1) appeared positioned to force a rubber game. Arizona had not scored since the second inning and that on a solo home run by Bobby Dalbec. State had RHP Ryan Rigby in relief of starter RHP Austin Sexton, and enough starting pitching depth to think Sunday could be a success.
But when Rigby hung one where Ryan Aguilar could crush it over rightfield for a three-run homer, quick as that the ‘visiting’ home team was playing for their post-season lives again. “That’s a game changer,” Coach John Cohen said.
State was able to keep the 5-4 lead into the ninth as RHP Reid Humphreys entered to fire fastballs by the bottom parts of Arizona’s order. But the junior, who hadn’t started in the field this day specifically for this purpose, gave up a most unexpected double to open the bottom ninth. Cody Ramer, 0-for-4 with three swinging strikeouts against other arms, ran into a Humphreys fastball and put it in the left-centerfield gap to lead off.
A strikeout later Alfonso Rivas singled-in Ramer for the tie. Humphreys loaded the bases with another hit and walk, bringing in RHP Blake Smith. The junior handled the near-impossible situation well with a Dalbec strikeout and ground-out of Salazar.
But the Bulldogs couldn’t regain a lead in the tenth or eleventh turns, with only 3B Gavin Collins reaching and that on a walk. In their eleventh Arizona got a one-out single from Lewis, who’d entered as a runner in the ninth; and a couple of walks to load everything.
Salazar didn’t hit it hard, just enough to bounce it between 1B Nate Lowe and 2B John Holland for the winner. It made a winner of Cameron Ming (3-2) as well, on 2.0 scoreless innings late relief. Ming had gotten the Friday save on just three pitches; he needed 22 this time with one strikeout
Smith (2-1) took a loss he didn’t deserve. “He was phenomenal,” Cohen said of the 2.1 grueling turns with two hits, two walks, four strikeouts…and that one fatal run. “But he pitched his heart out.”
Sexton certainly did in what was the drafted Dog’s last appearance at Dudy Noble Field. The junior went 5.1 innings scattering six of seven hits, the exception being Dalbec’s solo shot. He only walked one and struck out six, and was in-line for the victory.
That’s because Arizona ace Nathan Bannister wasn’t his best self, not surprising after being worked long and hard last weekend at Lafayette. He was touched for a second-inning run as well as Rooker singled-in Collins. In the third State manufactured another score with Holland plated on a Collins fly ball.
And in the fourth Rooker soloed a shot of his own. The Bulldogs made it 4-1 in their seventh on doubles by SS Ryan Gridley and LF Jake Mangum.
However, this was what in retrospect was another of the tale-turning points. Because Tyler Crawford loaded the bases with the one out, giving State a chance to truly blow things open. Arizona went back to the bullpen for Cody Deason to face Collins. The third baseman was on a roll and smoked the ball…
…directly into a well-positioned shortstop for the double-play. Yes, it was still a lead. And yes, an inning later Rooker would make it 5-1 with his second solo shot, his fourth of the post-season.
But “That’s where we really had them on the ropes,” Cohen said. The Wildcats were still there until Rigby, who’d been money for weeks, gave up a scratch single to open the Arizona eighth. A clean single had two on for Aguilar and he guessed right on a 1-0 offering.
“I wish we could have those back, including the home run I gave up,” said Sexton. “But I thought we competed, at no point in the game did I think we were going to lose. But that’s baseball.”
A game Arizona played just a little better at their best and State’s worst time. Now the Wildcats have scored consecutive NCAA Tournament weekend wins in road settings and carry on to Omaha for a 17th time. They also continue to add to an already-record total of road wins, in fact.
For the Bulldogs, no such ending would have been easy. Doing it in extra innings when a winnable rubber-game was within reach, almost sealed in fact, made everything tougher. The small salving grace was an ovation from a sizable portion of the 13,452 who stayed to the bitter end. That crowd was the second-largest ever to watch a NCAA game at State, and thus the second-largest such campus crowd anywhere ever too.
“It’s special,” said Rooker. “Fans are behind us all year, that’s why you come to Mississippi State. That means the world to us.”
Rooker was also one of a record 11 Diamond Dogs drafted in the three-day selections. He is one of a couple who could come back for 2017, but most underclassmen are headed on to professional baseball. There were only two seniors on the 27-man NCAA roster.
“A lot of guys in that locker room have some decisions to make,” Cohen said. “That’s another reason you come to Mississippi State, you have an opportunity to move on and become a professional baseball player.”