Three Bulldogs knocked balls out of Taylor Park for a combined six RBI as Mississippi State beat South Alabama 7-3. The Bulldogs (38-25) survived their second elimination game of Sunday and will meet host Southern Mississippi at 1:00 Monday. Should State win that one there will be a rematch at 6:00. All this is weather permitting.
The Sunday evening skies were filled with high-flying Dog drives. “This certainly a hitters park,” Coach Andy Cannizaro said. “And we certainly were able to take advantage of it.”
Hunter Stovall, Cody Brown, and Cole Gordon did take full advantage. 2B Stovall’s two-run homer in the top of the third inning was shortly—or longly?--followed by 3B Brown’s three-run blast for a 5-1 Mississippi State lead.
Pinch-hitter Gordon added his solo shot in the ninth for the final Bulldog score and a little late insurance. The other run came in much more mundane matter as a ground ball by RF Hunter Vansau pushed across what was still an important-at-time tally in the State eighth.
“Guys won at-bat all night,” Cannizaro said as his squad out-hit the Jaguars 12 hits to four.
Ironically two of South Alabama’s three runs also came on longballs, and both by first baseman and Mississippi native Wells Davis. Both came with Wells leading off innings as well.
His second-inning shot over leftfield gave South Alabama their only lead, which Stovall soon erased. In the fourth Wells went out to rightfield to keep his team in some sort of striking distance. There just wasn’t enough other support from the rest of the order.
Not against a Bulldog tag-team of Denver McQuary and Peyton Plumlee. The righthanders limited South Alabama damage to those scattered scores and gave Mississippi State’s stressed pitching staff exactly what was needed.
“Both of those guys really stepped up and allowed us to win the game,” Cannizaro said.
Giving freshman McQuary the start was something of a gamble. When he hit his first-faced and wild-pitched him along as well, it seemed State was in instant danger. A quick talk from teammates settled the rookie righty down though, and McQuary put his stuff to work.
Rather, put his defense to work. With USA’s Dylan Hardy on third base and one out State shifted the infield a bit, and Brendan Donovan bounced it to a perfectly-placed SS Ryan Gridley. His throw home easily beat Hardy there, and McQuary grounded-out Jag star Travis Swaggerty to avoid harm.
“I thought getting through the first was really big for Denver,” Cannizaro said. “Gridley made a terrific play to throw the guy out at the plate, and that was a really big boost.”
McQuary wasn’t out of the woods quite yet. Davis’ leadoff shot and a four-pitch walk had the bullpen busy with alternate starter RHP Jacob Billingsley. McQuary settled down to out the bottom-three of the order and sit down. By the time he had to stand up, it was with a 5-1 lead.
South Alabama threw something of a curve at State by starting Andy Arguelles. Not because the righty lacked credentials, but because regular third starter Thomas Huston had thrown very well against the Bulldogs back in March.
Huston would get to pitch this one but only in relief and only after Arguelles had given up five runs on the first two homers.
Vansau reached on an infield single and was bunted over. An out later Stovall was facing Arguelles a second time. The sophomore hadn’t hit a home run until the last weekend of the regular season. Here in the post-season he wasn’t looking to go long.
“I’m always trying to shoot balls through the infield, line drives,” he said. “He got me 2-0 and I knew a fastball was coming, catch it out front and get clean barrel on it. And it worked out for me.”
With a line-drive that cleared left-centerfield for the 2-1 lead. It must have rattled Arguelles because he walked 1B Brent Rooker and gave a single to Gridley. Brown had already singled once off the Jaguar starter. This contact went much farther.
“It was the same scenario, I got the 2-0 left-on-left. I thought in that situation they would try to try to surprise me and throw a fastball in. I was waiting on it and did what I did with it.” As in drive the ball over right-centerfield for the 5-1 lead that truly set the tone.
It did a world of good for McQuary. Wells did take him out again but McQuary was able to strand others in the third and fourth frames. He returned for a leadoff walk in the sixth, having thrown 99 pitches and given Mississippi State all that could be asked.
“Denver got us half-way,” Cannizaro said. “His fastball had a lot of life and he was able to keep it down in the zone. He had success the middle getting his breaking ball over for called strikes early. Then Peyton came in and did a tremendous job locating his fastball, throwing his curveball for called strikes. He threw a couple of good changeups in there, too.”
Plumlee ended the sixth on a double-play and rolled through the seventh. State stretched the lead in their eighth as Gridley doubled his way on and scored on a bases-loaded bouncer by Vansau that could not be turned for two. The bottom of that eighth reminded Plumlee had thrown on Friday and wasn’t truly fresh as he walked and plunked two Jaguars on.
A two-out single by Paul Russo did cut the lead to 6-3. Still Plumlee had juice left for a swinging strikeout to strand two more Jaguars, before Gordon rebuilt the margin with his pinch-shot on the first pitch of State’s ninth.
Plumlee returned to finish out his first save of the season with an in-order ninth. He went 4.0 complete with the one run on just two hits, a walk and strikeout. McQuary (3-3) had the 5.0-plus with those two hits, both Wells homers, two walks and five strikeouts.
“Our two pitchers were outstanding,” Cannizaro said.
Arguelles (3-3) took the loss with five runs on six hits, a walk and two strikeouts. Huston went 4.2 turns for a run on five hits, and Matt Peacock took care of the last five outs with the Gordon homer and a strikeout.
The four-hit total was somewhat deceptive, per Cannizaro. “The ball flies at this place. I thought South Alabama had some balls that I didn’t think were squared-up and caught on the track.” But they were indeed caught as State’s outfield ranged wide and deep all evening. The infield was even more efficient and at times special with the key stops by Gridley and Stovall that robbed hits and prevented runs.
“They just did some of the smaller things better than we did,” Jaguar Coach Mark Calvi said. The Bulldogs certainly did the bigger things better, as far as big blows and clutch plays. Brown was 3-of-4 with the three-run shot, Gridley 3-of-5 with two runs scored, and Stovall 2-of-5.
By taking care of this evening, McQuary and Plumlee saved Billingsley for Monday’s afternoon start. They also gave reliever Riley Self a break after his 40 pitches to close State’s earlier 5-4 win over Illinois-Chicago. There isn’t a lot else left in the pitching tank, and should the Dogs knock off the unbeaten Eagles it might mean putting CF Jake Mangum on the mound again.
No matter. “We’re excited about the challenge of playing a terrific Southern Miss team,” Cannizaro said. “But we feel we’re playing really well now and our guys are jacked-up for the challenge.”