‘em being an Arkansas team which took a one-run lead into the last inning. Then, left Hoover Met with a one-run loss after Mississippi State did it again. The Bulldogs tied, then took their only lead in the top of the ninth inning and made it stand up for a 4-3 final at the SEC Tournament.
“Gosh, what a tremendous win today!” Coach Andy Cannizaro said.
A win which sends the Bulldogs (36-22) to Friday’s third round and a first meeting with regular season champions Florida at 11:00am. Arkansas (39-16) faces Auburn in a Thursday late afternoon elimination game.
Yet for eight innings and more the Razorbacks figured they were going avoid a second contest. Arkansas scored three times in their first two turns. They still led 3-2 after handing State one more frustrating inning of stranded runners in scoring positions.
It was just the sort of 2017 situation Mississippi State has made its specialty.
“I think just the win, the way the game went was prototypical of how games go for us this year,” 1B Brent Rooker said.
Obviously so. Few teams ‘plan’ on a helping hand at crunch time. These Dogs must because when it mattered most Arkansas provided the assist.
Razorback reliever Kevin Kopps had limited State’s eighth-inning charge to just one run with a clutch double-play. He had the ball again with the 3-2 lead and top of the Bulldog order up for a last chance. SS Ryan Gridley singled his way on and opened the Arkansas bullpen door.
It would stay open.
Rooker’s double off Cannon Chadwick scored tying runner Gridley and put the go-ahead Dog on second base. Arkansas had an idea CF Jake Mangum would bunt from the left side against righty Josh Alberius and played it so.
Mangum still dumped the ball so well that he beat third baseman Jack Kenley’s throw for a single and Dogs on corners. Alberius loaded the bases by plunking 2B Hunter Stovall, which at least set up forces everywhere. Arkansas also looked for a matchup with lefty Evan Lee facing 3B Cody Brown.
The Bulldog won, working a walk which forced Rooker across for Mississippi State’s first lead all day. That was all the lead too because Kacey Murphy, fifth pitcher of the inning, did roll a double-play with forces at home and first; then ended the inning on a strikeout.
4-3 was enough for RHP Riley Self to take over in another save setting. He’d already warmed even when his team was still down a run. “Just knowing that the guys got me ahead, I had the confidence in my defense to just throw strikes and know they were going to make a play.”
Self got it done. He grounded- and struck-out the bottom two of Arkansas’ order. A two-out walk of Eric Cole did built a bit more drama, before Self coaxed Chad Spanberger into a fly-out.
Self earned his sixth save, all in the last half of this season. He finished out a win for RHP Peyton Plumlee in the process. Plumlee (6-1) had taken over in the fifth with two walked Razorbacks on and that 3-0 deficit about to expand.
It didn’t. “I tried to fil the zone up and get a lot of ground balls, and just keep us in the game.” Plumlee stranded those two, as well as isolated Hogs in the sixth and seventh, and rolled his own twin-killing to end the UA eighth. In all the starter-turned-reliever became a winner again, with 4.0 full frames of scoreless work. He only allowed a pair of hits and walked nobody, striking out two.
For that matter State starter RHP Denver McQuary had no reason for shame in his 4.0-plus. The freshman did get tagged early, and hard as a one-out walk in the first was followed by Luke Bonfield’s two-run homer (9 this season) over leftfield. In the second Razorback rookie Jack Kenley got his first college base hit, a double at that, to plate Jax Biggers for the 3-0 lead.
McQuary just survived, stranding two in the third inning and going in-order in the fourth. Limiting damage proved just what his team needed. He got big-time defensive help as RF Tanner Poole robbed Biggers of a likely home run with a leaping grab at the wall.
It too over half-a-game though before State’s offense got to Trevor Stephan. The Razorback righty didn’t overpower, or not at first, and did scuffle around early Bulldog base hits. Stephen seemed in trouble in the fourth with a pair reaching, at which point he bore-down for consecutive strikeouts.
The fifth inning was more of the same after two Dogs reached again. Two more strikeouts and a comebacker stranded those as well. Not until Brown led off State’s sixth with a double did State scratch as LF Elijah MacNamee’s one-out single got them on the scoreboard at last. Stephan did a solid 6.0-plus innings with just the one run on eight hits, two walks, and five strikeouts.
Plumlee also benefited from fine glovework on the right side, as twice Rooker saved a run or even runs with reflex-stabs inside the line. It was an Arkansas defensive breakdown that proved key for State though. In the eighth Brown’s high hopper was off the glove of first baseman Spanberger and thrown wildly by second sacker Carson Shaddy for two errors on the same play.
Brown was on third when C Josh Lovelady stepped in, and after one foul-off reliever Jake Reindle was replaced by Kopps. The Bulldog catcher was able to produce State’s second run with a grounder to shortstop, the only out being at third base so Brown could cross.
Chadwick (4-3) took the loss by facing just Rooker, with the tying hit and go-ahead runner resulting from that single at-bat.
Aggravating Arkansas more was how often they dodged Dog danger. State had a dozen base hits, drew four more walks with a couple of plunkings, and even once had two in scoring spots after a no-out balk call. Yet until the ninth only two runners had crossed. Of the dozen Dogs left on bases no less than ten were stuck on third or second bases.
“There were some situations and moments you kept thinking you’re going to get so many opportunities against a good Arkansas team,” Cannizaro admitted.
But all his own team needed was that last opportunity to complete yet another comeback.
“We scraped together a couple of runs when it mattered,” Rooker said.
Just like they'd gameplanned it all along...