Not after Mississippi State’s shortstop clocked in with three hits, a pair of runs and one RBI to lead a 5-2 Friday victory. With their win the Bulldogs (30-14, 14-5) stayed first in the SEC’s overall standings by a game over Kentucky. They also stretched some margin over Western Division contenders Auburn (30-14, 12-7) and Arkansas (13-8).
Mississippi State understood this game and the remaining series is for the league lead. “It is another game,” LHP Konnor Pilkington said. “But it’s a big game.” So big, that the level-headed lefty let himself show open emotion in the Tiger seventh inning.
That was when a leadoff single signaled a threat to the 4-2 Bulldog lead at the time. Order-topper Jonah Todd’s base hit went into leftfield and then foul ground and Todd tried for second base. LF Cody Brown gunned him down, coaxing a fist-pump from Pilkington.
“A terrific win for us,” Coach Andy Cannizaro said. “Auburn is outstanding, they’re the fifth-ranked team in the country for a reason. I felt our guys really rose to the occasion tonight.”
Gridley certainly did, with a 3-of-4 evening in the three-hole. The shortstop has had good numbers all season but saw a flaw with late hands. It made him susceptible to breaking balls and two-strike pitches.
So Gridley did something early in the afternoon about it.
“Pregame I was focusing on getting my hands ready, I was telling myself be on time. And it worked out.”
After a well-struck but caught fly ball in the first inning, Gridley got the timing. He led off State’s key fourth frame with a single and came home breaking a 1-1 tie on DH Elijah MacNamee’s fly-ball triple. MacNamee himself scored on a clean bouncer-double over third base by C Josh Lovelady for a 3-1 lead.
Gridley was leading off again in the sixth and this time he knocked the two-bagger into the leftfield corner. Brown followed with a double as well and State had a 4-2 margin.
The last at-bat was Gridley’s chance to put some icing on things. With a pair of Dogs on base after being plunked, Tiger starter Keegan Thompson was excused. Gridley greeted righthander Gabe Clobosits with a line-drive single to rightfield for the final margin of MSU victory as pinch-runner 3B Harrison Bragg scored from second base.
Two of Gridley’s hits were off ace Thompson (5-2) and that itself was a win for the Bulldog. “It’s tough because he’s seen me for so long and knows exactly my type of approach,” Gridley said. “But I think I had a good game.”
Pilkington had a good game as well. Very good after a couple of “average” starts and wins as the lefty rated them. This was better than average.
Pilkington (5-3) went 7.0 complete innings, working around four hits and three walks to allow just the two runs with four strikeouts. Only one of those scores was earned as Auburn’s best chances to beat Pilkington came on infielding errors.
Pilkington shrugged it all off. “It’s huge,” Gridley said. “I made the error, I went up to Pilkington and was like hey, man, that’s my bad. He just said don’t worry about it, I got you.”
He had Auburn for the first three innings, nine up and as many down. “The fourth inning I lost my rhythm a little bit. I fought through it, managed the inning and came out and put up some zeroes and gave our team a chance to win.”
Auburn did scratch out isolated runs in the fourth and fifth. After a 2-2 fastball at the knees wasn’t called such, Tiger Josh Anthony drove a bases-loaded liner caught in center to score Todd from third base. Pilkington did leave the sacks stuffed on a strikeout.
In the fifth Auburn began keeping balls on the ground and a few got through for hits or errors. One, by 3B Luke Alexander, allowed Todd to score on a grounder. Brown made his first standout play to keep it 3-2 by leaping to snag a liner from Anthony and again strand three.
Pilkington said fastballs and changeups were working best, along with “Keeping the ball down and side-to-side.” He also was able to get Auburn’s hitters, tempted by a brisk breeze going out to left-center, to swing big. That produced a total of 14 outs on pop-outs or fly balls.
After he stranded a Tiger in the sixth on a line-out to Gridley, the starter was allowed to continue.
“He said I’m going to throw you out there and let you go to the first hitter. I got the first hitter out and went from there.”
At 122 pitches, three-shy of his season high, Pilkington was replaced for RHP Peyton Plumlee to throw a hitless eighth. RHP Riley Self did walk a runner in the ninth but erased him with a game-ending double-play for his third save, all in the last seven days.
Mississippi State’s first run, in the first inning, was a gift. CF Jake Mangum walked and worked on around to third base where by making an aggressive move he coaxed Thompson into a balk. Thompson went 6.2 turns with the five runs on six hits, and five strikeouts.
“You’ve not going to beat-up a guy like Keegan Thompson, you just have to grind and grind,” Cannizaro said. “We were able to do that tonight. I’m proud of the way our guys competed and won the ball game.”
Todd had half of Auburn’s base hits with a 2-of-3 evening and scored both runs.
The threat of Sunday weather has brought a schedule change. Game-two will be at 2:00 Saturday now, and the 7:00 slot it had held will be used for game-three so the SEC Network has a telecast after all. Mississippi State will start RHP Cole Gordon (2-0, 4.55) in the early game against Auburn’s Davis Daniel (3-2, 4.14).
RHP Jacob Billingsley (1-0, 4.18) will start the third game for State while the Tigers have not announced anyone.