They did indeed. Mississippi State used consistent pitching and one decisive offensive inning for a 4-1 victory over the Rebels, and this year's SEC Tourney championship. Afterwards it wasn't easy to say what delighted the Dogs more, winning a conference trophy or beating a rival to get it. "After we lost to them in the regular season, to beat them when we think it matters, in the Tournament, that's huge for us," said first baseman Brad Jones.
"That's what we've been talking about," said catcher Ed Easley. "It's hard to beat any team five times in a row. We did what we had to do and we got the one that counted."
This won absolutely mattered to every Mississippi resident who crossed the border for day-five of the SEC event. And plenty did with a holiday Sunday crowd of 12,290 at Hoover's Metropolitan Stadium watching a Magnolia State feud fought out on neutral ground. Not that there was much neutral about the Met. "It was like a football atmosphere out there," Coach Ron Polk said. "I thought it was the 50-yard line of one of our Ole Miss-Mississippi State games. The crowd was in it right to the end."
With good reason as, despite never trailing, Mississippi State couldn't be certain of victory until reliever Brett Cleveland struck out UM's Zack Cozart, swinging, to end the top of the ninth. Only then did the Dogs let their emotions go and show with an all-out ‘Dog' pile on the diamond. ("I kept my fingers crossed nobody got hurt," said Polk.) Because with all the rivalry tension in the air, State players knew they needed to stay calm on the field if they were to come out winners this time.
"Coach talks about keeping an even keel," said Rea. "Ole Miss is like a rah-rah team. The fans were into it, it was a lot of fun. But you have to stay on an even keel in a game like that."
This poised approach proved perfect, especially when the first two innings flew by with no scoring from either order and only a hit for each. The Rebels might have piled up some impressive scores winning through their bracket, but it was the Bulldogs who were best prepared to wait for the right moment, strike, and make it stand up over the long haul.
Mississippi State also figured to have the stronger staff for day-five, having played just three games to UM's five with excellent starting performances so far. Once sure the Rebels would be in the other dugout, Polk chose to give the ball to Brooks Dunn. The sophomore lefty had thrown five good innings against Ole Miss back on March 29, in the Mayor's Trophy Game. Dunn lost that one but he was confident he could deal with a potent Reb order…no matter how they hit Florida in 14-1 and 4-2 Saturday wins.
"I just didn't watch it! I faced them in Jackson and knew what they had, I didn't need to watch them. I knew they'd won two games from a great Florida team so it would be a battle."
A battle the native of nearby Vestavia Hills was primed for in a more spacious Met. "I pitched here my freshman year when LSU routed us. It was better today!" Much better, as Dunn rolled three grounder-outs on nine pitches in the first of his 6.2 innings. Dunn (6-2) would be tagged with only five hits and walk a trio, striking out three and affirming his selection to start this matchup.
"The lefty guys we managed to stay away from with fastballs," Dunn said. "The rightys we used changeups mostly. I really didn't have to worry about calling many pitches, Coach Nick (Russ McNickle) had a great plan."
Ole Miss' plans were complicated by having used a lot more of the staff to get out of the loser's bracket. The call was ace Mark Holliman, and though the lefty had thrown almost 120 pitches in a Wednesday win over Alabama he had good stuff at the start. "They had their guy out there," said Rea, "and we didn't know how long he was going to go."
That was the key—could the Bulldogs take advantage when Holliman tired, presumably early. There was also the threat of weather shortening the title game, so when Holliman took just ten pitches to get through the first turn there was cause for concern. Needlessly, it turned out. DH Brian LaNinfa's two-out hit in the second didn't amount to much but showed State bats were ready for the right moment.
It came in the next frame as leftfielder Jeff Butts led off with a base hit. After fouling off on a run-and-hit try shortstop Michael Rutledge moved the runner in an even better way, bouncing a 2-2 single past the diving UM second sacker. This brought up a hot Dog hitter. "Getting those two guys on I think Ole Miss might've thought we were going to bunt," said Rea. Instead he was to swing away and after watching a first-pitch curve Rea guess rightly. "I thought he might throw a fastball to get me to bunt. It worked out real well."
Specifically for a double rattled into the left corner for the first RBI of the inning. And not the last, as Easley went to 2-1 before singling over second base. The centerfielder was playing deep enough that both Rutledge and Rea were able to score without a challenge for a 3-0 lead. The Reb staff apparently planned that this was Holliman's last inning anyway because there was no mound-visit, and the ace ended both the frame and his stint with a strikeout of Thomas Berkery and line-out of Jones to the second baseman for a double-off of Easley.
The lead made Dunn all the more comfortable as he followed the offense's outburst with three fast fly-outs. A two-out walk of Cozart in the fifth and 2-0 start to Barry Gunther brought McNickle out for a talk, and Dunn responded with a liner right to centerfielder Joseph Hunter.
The Rebel fifth was a tougher matter for Dunn, as with one out the top of the order was up and Cooper Osteen hit safely. A strikeout later Brian Pettway won on 1-2 with a single to leftfield, bringing up UM slugger Stephen Head. Dunn fell behind 2-0, sending Cleveland to the bullpen. Head then took two more balls to fill the bases so Mark Wright came to the plate as the tying run.
Except Dunn had an advantage. "It was funny, the guy was one of my friends and I played summer ball with him. I had a pretty good idea what he liked to do. I got to two strikes and knew he might not be expecting a slider so I went after him." And caught the outer corner with Wright watching, stranding all involved and bringing all Dogs from the dugout to greet the pumped pitcher.
A three-run lead was good; a four-run cushion looked even better as Butts, who had only one home run in the previous 56 games, caught Jon-Jon Hancock's offering flush. "With two strikes I was just trying to put it in play. I put a good barrel on it, I didn't think it was going that far!" But the ball carried and carried and caromed off the rightfield foul pole for a solo homer. That extra score was key because Head, who'd throw a lot of pitches in two other games, put in an impressive 2.2 to finish this game with four strikeouts, two hits, and no more runs.
The Bulldogs were not in the clear either, as the Rebels gave their best shot in the top of the seventh inning. A one-out walk and base hit meant another mound conference while Mississippi opted to pinch-hit a righthander. C.J. Ketchum did his job, dropping a single in rightfield that sent Cozart homeward. Bulldog rightfielder Brad Corley came up with the ball on the run-in, but didn't try to get the lead runner.
Instead he threw to third base which Gunther was trying to make from first. Those separate decisions combined for what might have been the key play of the day. "Ole Miss is a big-inning ball club," said Polk. "(Gunther) was just trying to win for his team. A lot of people thought Brad had a play at the plate, I thought his best chance was at three." It was, as Berkery fielded the one-hopper and got the tag down in time, and by giving up one run the Dogs staved off an even bigger inning.
They also changed pitchers so Cleveland could face the top of the UM order with only one runner on and he standing at first base. Switch-hitter Osteen moved to the left side of the dish which didn't matter a lick as Cleveland fanned him on a 2-2 changeup. "As soon as I let it go I knew it was a good pitch, it was just a matter of him missing it."
"After that all the momentum went to us," said Corley. "I knew we were going to win then." Cleveland blew through the heart of the Rebel offense on a strikeout and two fly-outs in the eighth, then sat the side in the last Rebel chance with a strikeout, groundout, and strikeout, earning his fourth save. "Brooks threw the best game he had all year, it was my job to take it home. I was glad to do it."
Butts was voted tourney MVP by the media, while Rea and game-two pitcher Todd Doolittle made the All-Tournament team. Polk was glad to see the victory and win his fifth SEC Tourney title, and Mississippi State's sixth since 1979. "I've been in this position before but this ranks as one of the nicer ones, maybe, because we came in as the seventh seed. It's not like we the upset champions of the world, we can compete with anybody. The kids can compete with anybody."
More importantly to many MSU minds, these Bulldogs showed that yes, they can only can compete with but beat the Rebels. Again. Even a kid not raised with the rivalry knows how much that means.
"I said I'll trade any of those losses we had for this one here," said Dunn. "1-and-4 sounds good when you win the SEC Tournament championship."