With the loss State slid to 34-20 on the season and, much more importantly, to 11-16 SEC. Combined with LSU's victory at Florida the Bulldogs are now on the very verge of elimination from the SEC Tournament. State now must win the next two meetings with the Rebels and the Tigers lose their two remaining games at Gainesville to avoid missing the league tourney for the second time in three years. There is no other scenario left that can take the Dogs to Hoover next week.
"I'm disappointed Florida didn't win," State Coach Ron Polk said. "I'm disappointed we didn't win more."
Disappointing didn't begin to describe the post-game attitude. The Bulldogs never led all evening and were down as much as 5-1. It took a pair of runs in both the seventh and ninth just to keep the game going, but that only made extra-inning defeat all the more painful for a team with no post-season margin to spare.
"It's tough," said Polk. "If we were like 42-8 now it wouldn't be, but when we've been struggling with close games…we're a snakebit club. And you've got to win close games."
If the Rebels were shaken by State's two-run rally in the ninth they didn't let it show. Instead they came right after the Dogs with Zach Cozart bunting the first pitch of the inning. Alex Pressley did the same, putting the runner in scoring position. MSU late-reliever Brett Cleveland was able to get a fly-ball out but Logan Power swung on his first chance and drove a single into leftfield that scored Cozart unchallenged with what proved the game-winner.
Cody Satterwhite, the third UM pitcher of the evening, got the winning decision as he ended the ninth on a fly ball and left the re-tying Dog runner on first base. In the process he kept Garrett White from being a loser after the Rebel reliever gave away a 5-3 lead. That would also have spoiled an otherwise solid effort from starter Will Kline. Even with the last league series moved up to a Thursday opener, and after throwing twice in relief last weekend, there was no question Kline was going to have first shot at State.
The sophomore had shut the Dogs down and out for eight innings in a 1-0 victory back on April 11, with just five hits that night in Jackson. Mississippi State did a bit better against the righthander this time with seven hits as well as the three runs, two on a home run by first baseman Brian LaNinfa in the seventh inning. Kline was able to put in 7.1 innings with six strikeouts and no walks before handing the ball to White with one on and one out.
Instead of closing he left the door open, and had MSU catcher Edward Easley's eight-inning drive with two runners on carried a bit farther things might yet have gone State's way. The Dogs also left the winning run at second base after evening the score at 5-5 in the ninth.
"We battled back, we had chances to win the ball game," said Polk. Three MSU players were requested for post-game comments but the message was not relayed to them.
Bulldog starter Brooks Dunn deserved a better outcome himself. The senior, making his last home appearance, battled through eight frames with four strikeouts and was touched for seven Rebel hits while walking a pair and plunking one. But only four of the five runs charged to Dunn were officially earned, and realistically three of the scores were either produced or directly set up by unforced infield errors.
Aaron Weatherford replaced the starter for the ninth and fanned two but also walked a pair, so Cleveland had to come in for a strikeout. The senior was unable to keep it deadlocked in his only full frame, though, and the loss evened his record at 1-1.
Much like in their last at-bat, the Rebels were putting pressure on the Dog defense in the first inning. With one out Chris Coghlan singled on his first pitch and stole second on the next one. The third baseman also took third while Cozart covered with a strikeout, but it wasn't necessary because Pressley's base hit into rightfield would have plated the runner from second anyway.
Dunn standed one in his second, a batter he'd hit. The top of the UM order was back up for the third and Justin Henry led off by bunting his way on. Coghlan made solid contact with a liner that Rea, leaping as high as he probably could, pulled down. But the second baseman tried to double-off Henry and threw the ball into the Rebel dugout for two free bases. "He was trying to be over-aggressive and (first baseman Brian) LaNinfa couldn't see the ball," Polk said.
Cozart bounced a single through the left side for one RBI, putting runners on corners, and a fly ball to centerfield by C.J. Ketchum made it a 3-0 game.
Meanwhile Kline blew through his first three frames practically unchallenged, getting ahead of most counts en route to retiring nine-straight Dogs with four ground balls and three strikeouts. Only once did he toss as many as three balls to a batter. Finally Rea, up for his second chance, garnered State's first safety with a two-hopper through the box. Kline struck Easley out and was full-count to Thomas Berkery, before the MSU shortstop fought the pitch off for a chink single. Rea was running and got to third base, and was able to come home as LaNinfa's chopper bounced high enough, long enough, that no double-play was possible.
But any boost breaking up the shutout might have offered was literally fumbled away. Dunn walked Henry and Coghlan followed with a single to centerfield. The lead runner took the extra base and it should have been Rebels on corners, but Rea tried to catch Coghlan off the bag. This time Polk said LaNinfa "took his eye off the ball" which went again into the first base dugout. This error would cost two runs, as Henry was thus waved home and Coghlan all the way to third. Cozart provided the sacrifice-fly to centerfield for a 5-1 score at the halfway point.
Kline didn't appear fazed by giving up his first run in a 13 innings this season against State. A double-play erased centerfielder Joseph Hunter's leadoff single in the MSU fifth and he sat the side in the sixth. The seventh was another matter as Berkery opened with a sharp single to rightfield, then on 2-2 LaNinfa got every bit of a 2-2 offering that carried over centerfield with no wind-help. Kline was able to shake this off as well with three quick outs, though rightfielder Andy Rice did give one a ride to the track, and keep the margin at those two giveaway runs from back in the fifth.
An out into Kline's eighth leftfielder Jeff Butts punched through a base hit, so the Rebels took no chances and called in a warmed-up White to face the top of MSU's order. Rea fought off a couple of full-count strikes and sliced a single past the third baseman, then Easley made a serious bid. His deep drive was caught by Pressley midway of the warning track. "Easley's ball, I thought off the bat he had a chance," Polk said. "I think the wind bit it down a little bit."
Still in front by two Mississippi played the percentages, walking Berkery intentionally to load the bags and face LaNinfa despite his homer in the previous trip. It was the right call because on 1-0 the first baseman popped out.
Having survived that threat, White almost blew it entirely in the ninth. DH Mitch Moreland slapped a little blooper that fell just behind the third baseman and dribbled on into leftfield. He took a chance and was able to reach the second post for a leadoff double. Aggressiveness paid off because on 3-1 Hunter singled through the left side. Moreland was supposed to hold at third but the UM leftifelder simply dropped the ball and Moreland had enough momentum to make home. Not only that but Hunter took second base on the miscue. Joseph McCaskill replaced Rice but instead of pinch-hitting he successfully pinch-bunted Hunter on over to third, giving State two chances to force overtime. They did, but only by the grace of a loose ball.
Because Michael Rutledge grounded right to the shortstop, who had a clean shot to the plate with Hunter sent that way. The throw and the tag were both in time but the ball came loose, seemingly as UM catcher Justin Brashear pulled back the mitt. Umpire Jack Cox hesitated before waving safe, tying the tally.
With still one out the Bulldogs had their chances to win it in regulation. White did strike out Butts but a walk of Rea brought a change and Satterwhite was able to get a routine fly from Easley and keep it even. In the tenth he got Berkery to ground out and LaNinfa to fly out before Moreland gave the home side hope with a single through the right side. A fly ball from Hunter squashed it. Satterwhite improved to 10-2 with his sixth-straight winning decision in relief work.
"They gave us an opportunity and we did a good job on White," said Polk. "But it was a close contest and they won." And State lost by a single score, something this squad is all-too-familiar with. "I hate to use the word ‘snakebit' but that's three one-run games in a row we've lost," Polk said.
Now all the desperate Dogs can do is hope Florida is able to keep LSU from locking up the eighth and final SEC Tournament, and that they can take care of their own business in game-two. State will put sophomore lefty Justin Pigott on the mound, while UM is expected to start freshman lefty Brett Bukvich. Gametime is 6:30, while the LSU-UF game is underway. Long before they finish the Bulldogs might well know if they are already finished, at least in SEC Tourney terms..
"We're certainly looking hopefully to win two," Polk said, "and hopefully Florida helps us out." A slender thread indeed, but all that Mississippi State has left to cling to now.