Mississippi State’s amazing 2017 season continues after a Monday sweep of host Southern Mississippi at the Hattiesburg Regional. Up against elimination and facing an unbeaten, the Bulldogs first forced an extra game by an 8-1 final.
There, the wear and tear of playing twice both Sunday and Monday should have caught up. No.
“We came out and did our job,” 3B Cody Brown said.
Did it in so much the same way as in so much of this season. The Bulldogs patched together enough relief pitching, sufficient offense, and a whole lot of brilliant defense. The result: an 8-6 comeback and ticket to the Baton Rouge super regional round.
“Just everything about this day and this game summarizes who we are as a team,” Coach Andy Cannizaro said.
Nothing summarized it better than how State got back in front. Having battled back from as much as a 5-1 deficit, the Bulldogs were still down 6-5 in the top of the eighth. An excellent chance to tie or lead had been missed in the seventh after loading the bases with no outs, as Southern Miss reliever Nick Sandlin rolled a clutch double-play and allowed just 1B Brent Rooker to score from third base.
When LF Elijah MacNamee’s bullet was snagged at shortstop to keep a 6-5 Eagle advantage, it could have deflated the Dogs.
Again, no. How they tied and took their second and last lead epitomized the team and for that matter a strange Regional weekend all around. Sandlin cracked the door by one-out walking C Josh Lovelady, then with two outs passing 2B Hunter Stovall as well.
Cannizaro sent OF Brant Blaylock to second base to run for a tired catcher. It didn’t seem to matter when Sandlin got Rooker to under-cut a 1-2 offering. “He made a good pitch,” said Rooker who had briefly put State on top in their first with his solo homer.
This didn’t go nearly so far, only behind first base and barely fair. “I was a little disappointed coming out of the box I didn’t get a better piece of it. But I knew the way the wind was playing it might be trouble.”
Only a longball would have been better placed. The high ball came straight down away from a couple of Eagle glove. Blaylock and Stovall had been running all the way on two outs and scored for a stunning 7-6 lead. Hayden Roberts replaced Sandlin and picked Rooker off without a pitch, though the Bulldogs argued it was a balk move.
No matter. Not with RHP Spencer Price giving his finest relief performance in six weeks. Price had entered in the fifth and other than a solo homer by Hunter Slater that frame was handling the Eagles. He sat eight-straight while the offense chopped away at the deficit, aided by that Dog defense.
A leadoff single and ball-one was cue for RHP Riley Self to take over. Though on short rest Self had enough in his tank and arm. He fielded the expected bunt, then went right at USM slugging star Matt Wallner and won with a comebacker. This still put the tying runner on third base and he was coming home as Daniel Keating bounced to the left side.
SS Ryan Gridley kept calm, fielded and made as strong a throw as he could muster to nip Keating by a cleat’s length. USM Coach Scott Berry was so incensed by the close call he was ejected for protesting.
So he did not see State pad the margin with help. Gridley reached on a two-base error, was on third with two outs, and came across when MacNamee came through. His 0-2 punch off the mound got up the middle for the priceless RBI.
So Self could cope with a two-out single and strand that runner on a foul-fly caught by Rooker. “Riley was nails,” Cannizaro said as Self got his eighth save on 2.0 tough innings with just the one hit and nothing else.
In the process Price (4-1) earned the decision. After several struggles recently, all resulting from the mid-April ankle sprain, Price found his stuff and the zone. He went 3.0-plus with just the one run on two hits and a walk. Price only struck out one and didn’t try much fanning anyway, letting the powerful Eagle batters put balls in Bulldog leather instead.
For that matter reliever RHP Trey Jolly deserved some sort of statistical note. Taking over for a struggling starter he put in 3.1 innings with only a run allowed on three hits. He took didn’t try to dominate, striking out just two.
“Those guys were outstanding tonight,” Cannizaro said of Jolly and Price. State had given RHP Cole Gordon the start, knowing it was a risky matchup of his fastballs against a team that attacks straight stuff. Leadoff Eagle Dylan Burdeaux showed it in their first at-bat with a solo homer to match Rooker’s first inning shot.
Gordon was touched for a couple of doubles and single for four runs before Jolly could take over. Yet going down 4-1, then 5-1 in the fourth as LeeMarcus Boyd soloed off Price, didn’t crush the Dogs if only because all expected a slugfest.
And Brown was the right Dog to slug what was the game-turning blow. Starter Kirk McCarty worked into the fifth with just the Rooker run against him. A scratch single from DH Harrison Bragg and walk of Stovall brought in Sandlin, a ten-game winner. Two quick outs later he met Brown, easily the hottest Dog of the Regional. He already had a three-run homer to his credit on Sunday.
This was as similar situation, not that Brown was looking to go long. “I was just trying to put my best swing on the ball, drive it into a gap somewhere. I just got my pitch, a changeup out in the middle of the plate and I hit it as good as I could.”
The deep fly carried over right center to suddenly tighten things to 5-4. Even when USM got one back in their half the Bulldogs were in striking distance. And, they struck.
Sandlin (10-2) took the loss on 3.2 innings with four runs on four hits, walking three and striking out five.
The all-tournament team voting had begun during the first game, and little changed after it. Brown was Regional Most Outstanding Player while Stovall, Gridley, Mangum, and game-one winner RHP Jacob Billingsley represented State.
They get to represent the program another weekend at least. “It was a great championship Monday,” Brown said.
“Wow, guys, what an incredible win for our players,” Cannizaro said. It was for the first-year coach, too, as he takes his Bulldogs to play his former program in the super round. The schedule was still pending for when Mississippi State rematches with old SEC rival Louisiana State. The Tigers swept the regular season series and will be prohibitive home-field favorites.
Meaning, the Diamond Dogs will be right back in their improbable element.