Mississippi State was just happy to see Rooker drive a ball out of the yard again. The Bulldog first baseman’s three-run homer muscled Mississippi State on to a 4-2 victory over Ole Miss in the annual Governor’s Cup meeting.
Rooker’s 17th homer of the year, ended a shutout in the top of the fifth and gave Bulldog pitching enough support. In the process Mississippi State (29-14) completed a regular season four-game sweep of the Rebels, which no Dog team had done since 1997.
First-year Coach Andy Cannizaro, off to a 4-0 start in the rivalry himself now, has seen Rooker hit some big balls. This was really big. “He crushed it,” Cannizaro said. “Just a gigantic swing and a big confidence builder for our team.”
That swing and a few other timely contacts built enough margin to make a first-time college winner of RHP Denver McQuary in his first Governor’s Cup experience. The freshman threw into the sixth inning before handing things over to a quartet of relievers, with RHP Riley Self earning his second save of the season.
If Rooker and Cannizaro were excited by the big blast, “I was ecstatic,” said McQuary (1-1). “I knew that gave me a lot of confidence pitching with the lead.”
McQuary didn’t look much like a winner initially. Ole Miss made the rookie work, and work, and work some more. He had to escape a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of his very first inning on a ground ball; then leave two Rebels stranded in the second with a strikeout.
Somehow McQuary just worked around issuing five walks with a hit in the first three turns. “He wasn’t necessarily sharp the first couple of innings,” Cannizaro said.
“But the thing Denver had going for him was a tremendous feel for his changeup, by far his most distant third pitch for him. But somehow that’s the thing he had working.”
Really though what worked was continuing to just work. An early-game talk with pitching Coach Gary Henderson helped. “He kind of hit me with something, just trust your pitches. He told me my stuff was plenty good enough. I thought about that a second, closed down, cleared my mind. And I was a lot better.”
Better enough to get through 5.1 frames despite five hits and walks alike. He did end up charged with both Rebel runs but that was after Rooker had changed the game for good. Ironically it was the very size of the AA-yard which eased some of McQuary’s stress.
“There’s a few balls hit really hard that got caught. Lucky for this field, I didn’t have to deal with those!”
The Bulldog offense was even less productive early on against Rebel starter Greer Holston, also a freshman righty. Holston had his own shutout going with just a couple of hits through four-full.
But an out into the fifth #9 hitter 2B Hunter Stovall singled his way on and was running as CF Jake Mangum covered. Mangum’s contact was sharp enough to go off third baseman Colby Bortle’s attempt at a tough backhand grab, for an infield single. So two were on as Rooker got behind 1-2, just as he’d done in the third inning against Holston.
“The previous at-bat I got two strikes and punched out on a fastball. So I figured they were going to do the same thing.” He did, in fact the “Same spot as the one I swung and missed at.”
Rooker did not miss. The only question was had he hit it a little too high to clear left-of-centerfield. Ryan Olenek made a leap just in case, the drive landing beyond both his reach and the tall fence.
Holston did come back for the MSU sixth and erased a hit. In the bottom of the frame Ole Miss finally made something happen against McQuary. With one out Thomas Dillard pulled a double to rightfield, then scored as Cooper Johnson bounced a base hit through the middle.
RHP Peyton Plumlee was called on to get the #9 batter and did on a roller. But order-topper Tate Blackman slapped a double into right-centerfield cutting the deficit to 3-2.
Plumlee held it there with a grounder, and in the seventh with Rebels on corners LHP Trysten Barlow took the ball. Ole Miss countered with a right-handed pinch batter, only to have Michael Fitzsimmons bounced it right to SS Ryan Gridley to initiate the clutch double-play.
Mississippi State added valuable margin in their eighth at the expense of Rebel reliever Brady Feigl as Rooker lined a double into right-center. Gridley was trying to sacrifice him closer and Rooker was fortunate to get back, or get a generous call, on a strong pick throw by catcher Johnson.
Gridley failed to get any bunt down so was swinging away on 1-2 count…and singling through the middle for the RBI and final 4-2 difference.
Ole Miss did put tying runners on in the bottom of the eighth with a couple of walks. Barlow issued the first one, then with two outs RHP Jacob Billingsley the second. Will Golsan stung the ball, right to 3B Luke Alexander. He bobbled it a bit before rifling across to strand both.
RHP Self got the ninth inning call and sat all three Rebels faced to seal the Dogs’ deal. Holston (2-3) took the loss on 6.0 full frames with three runs on six hits, a walk and three strikeouts.
State held the edge in hits as well with nine, as Rooker went 2-of-4 with the three RBI and two hits. Stovall and C Josh Lovelady also had a pair of safeties. Golson and Johnson had two hits each for Ole Miss.
The sellout crowd of 8,536 saw Mississippi State take the Cup for a second-straight year and the seven time out of eleven this special non-conference game has been played at Pearl. Counting the old Mayor’s Trophy played from 1980-2006, Bulldog teams have earned a 20-18 edge in the extra annual meeting.
While the rest of the squad posed with the big glass bowl, Rooker was doing TV duty and accepting his smaller prize. Not a ‘Vette or even a Gator, sadly. “It’s a nice little trophy, though.”