Kelly Price, Mississippi State Athletics

South Alabama Longballs Score Four in First-Round Win; Bulldogs Face Flame in Elimination Game

HATTIESBURG – Mississippi State tried playing to win a tournament. Now the Bulldogs must win a game if their 2017 season is to continue.

South Alabama jumped on starting pitcher Cole Gordon for three first-inning runs, including a first-pitch home run, in a 6-3 Hattiesburg Regional win. The #3 seed Jaguars (40-19) advance to face host and #1 seed Southern Mississippi tomorrow evening.

#3 seed Mississippi State (36-25) faces Illinois-Chicago in the 1:00 elimination game.

“Obviously the game didn’t go the way we envisioned,” MSU Coach Andy Cannizaro said. “Most of that had to with how well South Alabama played.”

The Jaguars played well enough early to set the early tone. They certainly pitched well enough for the whole contest to continue that tone. Righthander Randy Bell did the job asked and probably more with a complete-game performance.

Bell (7-3) used that instant lead to frustrate Bulldog batters over the 9.0 turns, using 132 pitches to get there. He only struck out three, having entered post-season with 93 fannings. But Bell also walked just two Dogs and was generally able to scatter the six hits allowed.

“Any time the starting pitcher goes a complete game, you’re probably not going to win,” Cannizaro said.

Bell didn’t overpower people, using fastballs in the high 80s. Location was his trump card, along with well-chosen changeups Cannizaro thought. What he did best was leave most Dogs which did reach un-scored. In both the second and third State had tying runners in scoring positions. He escaped on a fly ball one turn; and a swinging strikeout the next.

“Any time you can pound the zone and make you swing the bat it’s phenomenal for the other team,” SS Ryan Gridley said. “It’s a great jump start to your game.”

So was going to the hill with a lead already. This came at the cost of Mississippi State’s Gordon, tabbed by Cannizaro earlier in the week as a semi-surprising starter. Only semi though, Cannizro made clear when asked about regrets not going with ace Konnor Pilkington in the opener.

“Absolutely not. There’s no saving of Konnor Pilkington. We felt Cole Gordon matched up extremely well. He just didn’t do it tonight.”

He definitely didn’t on his first fastball. USA’s Dylan Hardy hadn’t hit State well in any of the three regular-season games. He was looking for something straight from Gordon to begin, got it, and turned on it to clear the billboard behind leftfield. It was his fifth homer of the season.

The Bulldogs could have shrugged that one off. But Gordon didn’t, walking the next two faced. Centerfielder Travis Swaggerty doubled for one RBI, and a Drew LaBounty fly ball served for the sacrifice and 3-0 lead.

“The leadoff hitter hits the first pitch into the woods,” said Cannizaro. And it didn’t seem we were ever able to get into the rhythm of the game after that.”

Though, State did scratch one off their deficit in the first. Consecutive singles by Gridley and 1B Brent Rooker offered immediate comeback potential. CF Jake Mangum showed bunt, swung away on the first pitch and grounded into a force of Rooker. That did put Gridley on third base to score on a 2B Hunter Stovall fly ball.

But it was all the Dogs would get until the sixth. By then they’d trail 6-1 as State’s bullpen had issues as well. Gordon did get through the second with no more damage, then loaded up the bases on three walks to open the third. RHP Peyton Plumlee did very well to strand them all.

The top of the fifth was another matter. Colton Thomas doubled in leadoff, a walk put Brendan Donovan on, and Swaggerty came up a third time. His high fly didn’t travel as far as Hardy’s shot but far enough to clear the fence in left-center for the 6-1 lead and all the offense USA needed.

State would give scoreless stints to RHP Trey Jolly, RHP Spencer Price, and LHP Trysten Barlow to run out the remaining innings. They couldn’t help the offense much though.

The best and last Bulldog chance was in the sixth after a leadoff walk of Stovall. 3B Cody Brown hit a high fly to about the same spot as Swaggerty, only it didn’t quite clear. It did miss two gloves for a RBI-triple, and Brown himself scored on RF Hunter Vansau’s sinking fly ball caught on the dive in left.

No other Dog would reach base until a two-out single by C Josh Lovelady in the ninth. Bell left him on first base with a fly ball. State only stranded six but five of those had been in the first three innings when it was still a game.

Gordon (2-3) took the loss on 2.0-plus with three runs on as many hits and five walks. State issued ten total free passes not counting a plunking. “As a staff if you walk ten guys like we did, you’re not going to win,” Cannizaro said.

By going with a Gordon in the first place, State seemed to say the one way to win this tournament was going with Pilkington (7-5) on Saturday. Now it is up to the ace to stretch this surprising season at least another day, Cannizaro did say.

“Backs are against the proverbial wall,” he said. “We expect (Pilkington) to throw a very mature game and put us on his back tomorrow, and extend our season.”

The PTP field was tarped Friday night ahead of weekend weather. The forecast shows a 50% chance of rain by noon and steadily increasing afterwards.

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