Trailing 6-0 midway of just the third inning, Mississippi State battled back repeatedly before taking a lead at last in the sixth and going on to 11-8 victory over visiting Columbia. Monday’s win completed an extended weekend that saw State (11-6) sweep pairs from both the Lions and South Alabama.
Down so far and so soon “We could have easily just caved, taken a loss,” 1B Brent Rooker said. “We didn’t do that and it shows a sign of growing up from this team.”
Columbia left 0-7, having stayed over in Starkville an extra day before bussing to Hattiesburg for a Tuesday game. After three turns at the bat the Lions were all smiles, too, battering Bulldog starter RHP Jacob Billingsley for a couple of runs in the first inning and four more in their third.
If the 10:00am start time found the home team half-asleep, State did come awake in time. “We didn’t do a good job at all of coming out ready to play,” Coach Andy Cannizaro said.
“As bad as the first two innings were, I thought the next six or seven were really good for us. In terms of quality at-bats, smarter, better baserunning, pitched it much better, defended it much better.”
And, hit it much, much better. Especially Rooker as he drove in six of State’s runs in three of his four official at-bats. Rooker’s bases-loaded double in the bottom of the third inning essentially kick-started State’s offense with the first three RBI. His two-run homer in the sixth staked the Bulldogs to their first lead all day.
For good measure in the seventh Rooker sailed enough of a fly ball for a sacrifice and sixth RBI. “I had a good day yesterday, swung it well, saw it well,” Rooker said. “So I just wanted to carry that in today. Obviously we needed some hits at times, fortunately I was able to come up with some of them.”
Besides his batting Rooker was working at a different position, rather than playing rightfield or more commonly of late DHing. Cannizaro not only had to worry about who to pitch on a Monday but just who to play. Or in case of 1B/RHP Cole Gordon, both.
With 1B Harrison Bragg not available today, Cannizaro asked Rooker—at 6:30am—if he minded playing first. This way OF/1B Cody Brown could play second base in place of 2B Hunter Stovall after a Sunday-tweaked hamstring. And true freshman C Dustin Skelton found himself behind the dish another day as C Josh Lovelady was also out.
“The tinkering had everything to do with getting available bodies on the field,” Cannizaro said. “Wherever they could go.”
Wearing a different glove didn’t affect Rooker’s hitting. All six of the cleanup Dog’s runners driven in were the trio of teammates hitting above of him in the order. They were a combined 5-of-9 batting themselves along with four walks, as Columbia pitching gave away 11 free passes and a couple of plunkings.
Keeping Gordon in reserve to pitch proved an unexpected key to victory as well. Billingsley lasted 2.2 turns with the six runs allowed on five hits, five walks against four strikeouts. Billingsley seemed over the two-run first inning as he struck out the second-inning side.
But in the third Columbia’s Randell Kenemaru made it 4-0 with his two-run shot. The lead increased by two more as Billingsley gave walks and hits almost in-turn. Finally Gordon was called on, and while he too began with a free pass he was able to leave the bases loaded. Bad as 6-0 looked, it could have been far worse.
It also was erased entirely in State’s half of the third. “Coach talked to us and said we’ve got seven more innings to hit and as a team we can hit pretty well,” Rooker said. “We knew once we got into their bullpen we’d be able to take advantage.”
The Dogs did that. Starter Ben Wereski loaded the bases without a State hit, and rather than work a walk Rooker swung. His drive almost got out, too, landing on the track and clearing the bases. Another walk finished Wereksi but Will West was no improvement. He walked both Dogs he faced to force in Rooker.
Bryce Barr took a turn and issued two more walks, the last of CF Jake Mangum for the tying RBI.
The first tie, that is. Columbia took the lead back in their fourth only to have SS Ryan Gridley’s high fly leave the yard in center. Gordon’s biggest trouble was in the fifth as two hits and a walk loaded the bases, before a one-out walking of Kanemaru put the Lions ahead again.
This time it was RF Tanner Poole answering with a solo homer for the 8-8 tie after five.
Gordon (1-0) otherwise was able to withstand the challenges, minimize damages, and just eat innings. 3.1 of them in total, with two runs on three hits. He walked three but fanned four to be in-line for his first college decision.
His first win, it turned out. Gridley led off State’s sixth with a double and Rooker unloaded over leftfield for the lead, at last, off Jordan Chriss. “He tried to come fastball-in, and I was able to get a barrel on it,” Rooker said of his fifth homer this season.
Now leading State put RHP Trey Jolly on the hill. With two outs he walked the order-topper and was touched for a double with Kanemara coming up. Rather than let him swing State walked him even it meant the go-ahead runner was on first and bases loaded. It worked. Jolly got a grounder to first base and covered the bag himself to strand everyone and keep the lead.
Rooker made it hurt worse with his sacrifice-fly to right scoring Mangum in the bottom of the seventh for the last Bulldog run. Jolly was able to strand lone Lions in the last two turns for his first save, on 3.0 scoreless innings with three hits, two walks and five strikeouts.
Columbia’s Ben Porter was 4-of-6 with two runs while Kanemaru drove in four with two hits and scored twice. Chriss (0-1) took the loss charged with four runs on six hits in his 2.0 innings as the fourth of six Lion pitchers.
“It didn’t start out very well,” Cannizaro said. “It ended much better, in some adverse conditions. I’m just glad our guys were able to push forward and not give up.”
As players left to try enjoying this first and now shorter day of spring break, Cannizaro and staff were busy evaluating who is healthy enough to play and rested enough to pitch Tuesday. State hosts Arkansas-Pine Bluff in a 6:30 game. Beyond that comes opening SEC weekend, at Arkansas, which further complicates Tuesday planning. Some Dogs who toss tomorrow might already be booked for weekend duty given the state of the March roster.
“We’re going to see who is available,” Cannizaro said. “It might be eight or nine guys one inning. We’re even more limited right now than a week ago. It’s frustrating but it’s the hand you’re dealt.”