Bulldogs Rally to Defeat Western Illinois and Texas Tech; End Opening Weekend 3-1 and Split with #14 Raiders

Most moundsmen would have at least watched, in hope the high drive would die or something. Not Riley Self. “As soon as he hit it I knew it was gone,” he said of the eighth-inning solo shot. “So I didn’t turn and look at it, I smiled.”

Smiled? At getting taken yard by a big-swinging order that had just pulled back within two runs? Yes indeed. Even teammates’ encouragement was unnecessary. “I said I know it’s alright, we’re still winning!”

Which Self and Mississippi State still were and still did. The Bulldogs knocked off #14-Texas Tech 8-5 to go with an earlier afternoon 10-9, eleven-inning win over Western Illinois.

“A huge win for us tonight,” Coach Andy Cannizaro said. “A gigantic day for our program.”

In stretches it was setting up as a gigantic Sunday letdown. Mississippi State trailed Western Illinois 5-0 in the sixth inning before a roller-coaster rally and the extra-inning escape. That was enough excitement for one day.

Then Texas Tech, a 5-2 winner over the Bulldogs on opening day, also jumped to a 4-0 lead…in just the first inning. It seemed a sweeping by the ranked Red Raiders and split of the whole weekend was in store.

It wasn’t. Shaken starter RHP Ryan Cyr contained the damage to that first frame, and handed freshman Self a 6-4 lead for the fifth.

Of course if Self had not gotten the call and ball, he would have been burned just in the bullpen. “I went down there after the first inning, a little sticky situation. They kept telling me hey, get loose; hey, sit down. Get loose and they’re two outs, he got out of it, come sit down.”

Self didn’t waste the warmups or the sitting though. “I was watching their hitters, relaxed and enjoying life I guess!” Oh, and wanting another shot at the Red Raiders after working a one-hit ninth on Friday for his first college turn.

“I’d watched them hit, I’d read up some stuff on them, and I pitched against them the other night.” So Self (1-0) knew to come at Tech with his mix of stuff and how to get outs. Fifteen of them in 5.0 full frames, with seven strikeouts against just one walk and one hit…which of course left the park off the bat of Hunter Hargrove.

So taking away the first inning with four of Tech’s six hits and all but one run, Bulldog pitching had their way. “Ryan settled in, really did a good job of putting zeroes up there and giving us a chance to get back in the game,” Cannizaro said. “Obviously Riley was incredible, fastball up to 91 with a wipeout slider and cutter.”

Cyr allowed five total hits and three walks with a couple of strikeouts. Hargrove got his first RBI with a ground ball plating Grant Little in the top of the first, followed by Zach Rheam’s one-run double. A single later Ryan Long made it 4-0 with his two-bagger.

Mississippi State’s hole would have been worse had not LF Brant Blaylock got back fast for a across-body reach and rob of Michael Berglund.

Tech starter Erikson Lanning worked around three baserunners his first two innings before all fell apart for him in the State third. #9 hitter 2B Hunter Stovall continued his hot opening weekend with a leadoff double falling fair in the right corner. He had to stop at third on a CF Jake Mangum single that was errored into two bases.

3B Luke Alexander made it meaningless with a bouncer inside the third base bag for two RBI. Lanning stayed in for a fly-ball out, which let Alexander take third, before yielding to Jose Quezada who State had seen briefly late Friday. His wild pitch plated Alexander. DH Brent Rooker worked a walk and stole into position to score on RF Tanner Poole’s game-tying single.

With Self on-record and striking out two in his top-fifth, Blaylock was leading off State’s half against new lefthander Jacob Patterson. “I was hunting a fastball and he gave it to me right on the inner part of the plate. I was able to put a good swing on it.” Good enough that Blaylock knew “off the bat” it was gone for the 7-4 lead.

Self mowed down the first ten he faced, making particularly mincemeat of lefthanders with the cutter. An out into the eighth Hargrove had his own cut, which didn’t rattle the rookie at all. Self came back with another strikeout and after a walk raced to first base to catch 1B Cody Brown’s throw after a leaping snag in the hole.

Self returned with the three-run margin restored as Mangum came home on a wild pitch by Parker Mushinski, who’d put Mangum on with a plunking.

Quezada (0-1) took the loss on 1.2 innings with three runs, three hits, two walks and three strikeouts.

This game had been optimistically booked for 3:00. Then the noon opener turned into a marathon ending at 4:36 when RF Brent Rooker doubled off the fence an out into the bottom-eleventh. Alexander scored from second to finish the wild affair.

“The first game had so many ups and downs,” Cannizaro said. “I’m really proud our guys continued to battle.”

This didn’t look like a long one early as both starters posted three scoreless innings. Western Illinois’ Ian Koch would put in 2.2 more frames after that. He looked like a winner too, as the Leathernecks got to State freshman RHP Graham Ashcraft for their first three runs. It would have been earlier and worse too had Blaylock not made his best defensive play of the long day in the second.

With two on base and two outs Justin Fitzpatrick’s sinking liner seemed sure to fall in short left. Blaylock ran, lunged, reached with the off-hand and got a grip to prevent a couple of runs. Still the third inning was tough enough for Ashcraft, with a walk, three singles, and a wild pitch producing three runs. It helped that Western Illinois ran themselves out of the inning.

Ashcraft fielded a comebacker to begin a rundown by C Dustin Skelton of the unlucky Fitzpatrick, tagged out trying to get back to the bag. Batter Roman Visintine had kept chugging during the play for second base…where teammate C.J. Schaeffer had never left. Eventually Schaeffer had to come off and was tagged.

DH Cole Gordon took over pitching for a scoreless fifth, only to get in sixth-inning trouble with two more Leatherneck runs for the 5-0 lead. But the Bulldog offense finally got to Koch in a big way, the inning sparked by a one-out fielding error. A walk and infield single loaded everything and Rooker got his team on the board with a one-run single.

With two outs Brown and Blaylock both were clutch, with two-RBI hits to tie it up. Lefty Preston Church ended that inning only to give up a Stovall double to open State’s seventh. Two outs later SS Ryan Gridley singled him in for the first Bulldog lead.

The margin grew to 9-5 as Brown drove in another run in the eighth, followed by Stovall’s two-run double. State wanted to use some young bullpen arms and it nearly bit the Dogs. RHP Parker Ford loaded the bases on walks around a single before yielding to senior RHP Blake Smith. He walked one run in, then fielded a comebacker for the easy force at the plate…

…and threw it away, scoring two more. A grounder tied everything 9-9 and Smith still had to strand a pair. Soph RHP Spencer Price entered with one on in the tenth and left him in scoring position, then stranded two more in his eleventh. It would make him the winner.

Because Alexander drew a leadoff walk from Javin Drake and got a free base as a squared Gridley was nailed. Rooker stroked his winning double to end the 4:34 contest.

Stovall went 3-of-5 with two RBI and a run in the nine-hole; while Gridley, Rooker, and Brown all had two hits towards State’s total dozen. The Leathernecks had eleven safeties and all but one starter had at least one hit.

“It was a good day, a good comeback, and I’m proud of the win,” said Blaylock. Cannizaro was even more enthusiastic, calling Sunday “Awesome!”

“It showed a lot about our young team, and to come back and play Texas Tech again.”

The Bulldogs come back to Dudy Noble Field for a 4:00 Tuesday game, hosting Morehead State. The starting pitcher will be picked sometime Monday, with an eye towards another four-game weekend ahead.

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