State, Auburn Leave Field Tied for League Lead into Week #8

The rematch was much closer. The outcome was the same.

A 5-3 nightcap final gave Auburn both ends of a Saturday doubleheader at Dudy Noble Field. The visiting Tigers followed up a 17-8 afternoon rout with a faster and cleaner victory, to take the weekend series.

“They played extremely well today,” Bulldog Coach Andy Cannizaro said. “They pitched it well, they swung it tremendously and they played great defense.”

The double-dip allowed Auburn (32-14, 14-7) to head home now tied for first overall place in the SEC with Mississippi State (30-16, 14-7). Both lead Kentucky by a half-game since the Wildcats won’t finish their series at South Carolina until Sunday.

The Bulldogs had come into the day alone in first place after Friday’s win. Having to share top spot with the team that beat them wasn’t pleasant. Nor was it crushing.

“Today we didn’t play our best,” 1B Brent Rooker said. “And we showed we can compete with a really good, elite team when we’re not at our best.”

Bulldog pitching was not near its best all day. Auburn didn’t give away the same easy outs as on Friday and made every MSU moundsman pitch to their liking. The Tigers still only managed eight hits in the nightcap but bunch four of them into one great big and decisive inning.

That was the top of the fourth when all five runs crossed the plate. The assault was aided of course, started in fact by consecutive walks to the top of the order.

RHP Jacob Billingsley was rolling up to then having faced the minimum in three whole innings with just a hit against him. That was erased on a double-play. But the control got away, or the batters got pickier, and free passes to Jonah Todd and Jay Estes and a wild pitch set things up nicely.

Conor Davis cracked the door open with his RBI single, which also finished Billingsley. Trey Jolly didn’t improve the situation because Dylan Ingram kicked that door down entirely with a three-run homer sailed out of left field. A walk later, Blake Logan doubled-in the fifth run.

Jolly remained in to finish the inning and his stint with a double-play, charged with the last two runs on three hits and a walk. RHP Denver McQuary worked the next 3.0 turns with one hit and two walks but no damage. RHP Riley Self and RHP Spencer Price each took an inning at the end to prevent any expansion and stay sharp for next week.

They couldn’t do much for the offense. Though, with 13 hits the Bulldogs had plenty opportunities of their own. Six Dogs reached in the first three innings and none scored with three erased in the process.

Not until already down 5-0 did State get anything going. In their half of the fourth LF Cody Brown doubled to lead off and advanced on a wild pitch. With two on and one out he scored as 3B Harrison Bragg singled to left.

But a promising inning faded fast. 3B Luke Alexander reached on a one-out error and C Josh Lovelady tried to score from second base. He was easily out, so a strikeout of RF Tanner Poole left two stranded. In the fifth Rooker delivered a one-out double, followed by a bunt single from SS Ryan Gridley.

When starter Andrew Mitchell walked the bases full his evening was done, having gone farther than the Tigers likely hoped already. Elliott Anderson was the right choice, rolling a double-play off DH Elijah MacNamee.

Mississippi State’s best chance at coming all the way back was in the seventh. Even this was slightly self-destructed as CF Jake Mangum was forced at second for two outs and one on. Brown singled and MacNamee came through this time with a base hit scoring Gridley.

But again a pitching change worked as Calvin Coker struck out new C Dustin Skelton on three breaking balls. Coker got around Bragg’s leadoff single in the eighth, and in the ninth a solo home run from Rooker (#19) only narrowed the final margin.

Anderson (1-0) collected the decision with his 2.1 middle-innings with just the one run on four hits, no walks and a strikeout. Coker picked up a second save going the last 2.1 with two hits, a run and two strikeouts. Only three Bulldogs were walked, all by starter Mitchell.

By contrast the first four State pitchers walked six and hit two, with a couple of costly wild pitches as well. It was a smaller-scale showing of what had gone wrong in the first game with five plunkings and eight walks, along with six wild pitches. Billingsley (1-1) took the loss on those 3.0-plus innings.

“Just giving those guys a lot of free bases, a lot of extra outs,” Cannizaro said. “We just didn’t play great, clean baseball today. And we needed to do that in order to beat this team.”

Rooker was 3-of-4 with the one run and RBI, while Bragg was also 3-of-4 driving in one. Auburn’s Jeremy Johnson was 3-of-3 with a RBI.

State’s streak of five won weekends was snapped with the first lost home series since April 2016.

Because the SEC allowed the twinbill, both teams have a free Sunday now. Rain is expected in the afternoon but Cannizaro has already given the team the day off ahead of finals week. And, ahead of an early trip to College Station where the Texas A&M series starts Thursday evening.

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