Mississippi State fell to 34-17 and 15-13 SEC. And while second in the Western Division, they also lost a place in the overall SEC standings when South Carolina rallied to beat Georgia and take third spot. The Dogs will now be seeded fourth at Hoover, and have to play #5 seed Ole Miss in the late game. After losing six of their final eight contests, and four of the five second-half SEC series, State goes to Hoover with the wrong sort of momentum.
Not that Coach Ron Polk wants his team taking a negative mindset into tourney-time. In fact he was able to positively spin the lost series. "What happened this weekend was both teams accomplished what they wanted. Alabama got in the (SEC) tournament, and we played well enough not to get swept."
That would have been a tough sell for the home portion of the 4,506 at the park. But maybe it was what the Diamond Dogs themselves wanted and needed to hear with the regular-season damage done. "That's baseball," said C Edward Easley. "We'll be ready to play next week during the tournament."
State made Tide lefthander Will Stroup, until recently a down-the-line reliever, look like a staff workhorse for too much of the afternoon. Stroup, only made a starter three weekends ago, plodded into the ninth inning simply keeping the Dogs sufficiently in check while his offense built their big lead. He might have made the distance if not for a trio of balls misplayed in rightfield, that accounted for or set up over half State's scores.
"He hit spots," 2B Jeffrey Rea said. "The umpire would give him that every now and then so it was kind of tough. He kind of pitched backwards, starting with his breaking stuff and ended up with fastballs so he kept you guessing." Stroup (3-0) threw to two in the last inning and put both on, so Austin Hyatt was summoned to keep State at a safe distance and get his second save of the season.
State starter Josh Johnson was hit for six runs (five earned) on seven Tide safeties over his 2.1 official innings. He struck out two and walked a pair. It wasn't the way the senior hoped to play on what might have been his last home appearance.
"My location was better than last week at Georgia but I still didn't have my off-speed stuff, couldn't cross them up, and in this league they're going to hit fastballs," Johnson (2-3) said. "They were pretty much sitting on fastballs and that's what they hit." Three relievers took care of the remaining 6.2 innings with Jesse Carver absorbing the other three runs (one earned) on four hits.
"It's tough when you get down six runs," Polk said. "And Josh didn't have great command against a good hitting ball club, especially the top of their order."
Indeed Emeel Salem opened the afternoon with a single and steal, taking third on a grounder by Brandon Belcher. He could just as well have stayed on second as on full count Alex Avila looped a double to the right-centerfield gap for one RBI, and Kent Matthes followed with his own two-bagger into the leftfield corner.
"He just wasn't locating his fastball," Easley said. "it's hard to be successful if you're not locating. Especially him with that being his dominant pitch."
A strikeout and ground-out ended the outburst but the Bulldogs trailed 2-0 before coming to bat. Johnson did strand two in scoring positions in his second inning, but the third time around brought the collapse starting with a leadoff walk of Avila. A strikeout later Johnson got behind Matt Bentley 2-0 and grooved one.
The contact didn't sound impressive but the drive carried into and through the wind, over rightfield for a two-run homer. A single and double finally produced the pitching change with Carver inheriting two on and one out. He couldn't be blamed for a sacrifice-fly off Kyle Moore's bat to score Ryan Rhoden; and he certainly did the job with a grounder to second base that should have ended the inning.
Except it stayed down and got under Rea's glove for a 6-0 Alabama lead. "They jumped out on us and held on to it," Rea said.
Because Stroup had the Dogs by the tail at first, retiring seven-straight until DH Russ Sneed got MSU's first hit of the day. CF Mark Goforth followed with his own single for runners on corners, and a balk call put the Bulldogs on the scoreboard at last. LF Joseph McCaskill made it 6-2 with a bouncer through the left side.
Stroup had his own bad break when Easley skied a fly to rightfield, except Matthes lost track of the ball for a cheap double and RBI. State still had cut the deficit in half, but Alabama wasn't sending anyone to the bullpen just yet. And Stroup did leave 3B Connor Powers on third base in the MSU fourth. When he came back it was a 7-3 score as with two out and Bentley on third Powers booted a grounder for a run-scoring error.
State got that one back and another in their portion of the fifth, as with two down McCaskill doubled. Again Easley hit a high fly to rightfield; and again Matthes just couldn't keep sight of the ball that landed at his cleats. McCaskill scored on the official double, and 1B Mitch Moreland plated Easley with his single to leftfield. Moreland tried to steal into scoring position and was out by steps.
Alabama wasn't through on offense though, as nine-batter Paiml hit his way on and Saleem took a pitch on the shoulder. Belcher's bunt would have advanced both easily and he might have made first anyway, except when Powers threw to the bag both Rea and LaNinfa were there and neither was sure who was supposed to catch the ball. Neither did and Paiml scored on the error while Saleem got all the way to third. Carver gave the a sacrifice-fly to Avila for Alabama's ninth run before Houston took over to leave two Tiders on the bases for a 9-5 scoreboard.
It stayed there into the eighth as Stroup kept going and throwing and rolling outs. Then McCaskill leaned into a tight one and was awarded first base, and Easley's high bouncer pulled Bama third-sacker Avila across the foul line for an infield single. Stroup fielded Moreland's bouncer for a force at second, leaving Dogs on corners for LaNinfa. He also grounded into the middle and Moreland was forced, but the relay was thrown away and McCaskill scored.
This rally ended there as Stroup caught LaNinfa leading off second too far, leaving the Dogs down three with one chance left. They did try to give the remaining crowd something to cheer, as Powers led off the ninth with a double over Matthes' glove, upon which the rightfielder was replaced. Butler's ensuing base hit to rightfield was also bobbled but by then Powers had already been stopped at third.
Righthander Hyatt was called in to squelch things against the bottom of MSU's order. Gimpy pinch-hitter Cade Hoggard was given the pinch-hit opportunity and struck out on three pitches, and Goforth looked at strike three. In his fifth at-bat of the day Rea managed his hit, hopping a single up the middle and scoring Powers, before McCaskill's grounder ended the afternoon.
"It felt like we were one hit away," said Rea. "As you get later in the game people start pressing and when we came up in the ninth that guy was going to throw fastballs. We felt like we did press a little bit."
When the game ended the Dogs thought they would be going to Regions Park as the #3 seed and playing Florida on Wednesday afternoon. Instead they face the Rebels in the optimistically-scheduled 8:00 contest. The teams split four games during the regular season but Ole Miss took two of the three that mattered in SEC play and State had to go 17 Sunday innings to avoid a sweeping in Oxford.
Polk originally thought to start lefthander Justin Pigott on Wednesday, but after the series ended he said the coaching staff will scout the first-day foe before deciding between Pigott and righthander Chad Crosswhite. Both lost their starts in Oxford.
And thanks to South Carolina's unlikely Saturday rally to nip Georgia, Mississippi State's hopes of hosting a Regional took a double-hit on the last day of the regular season. At #3 overall things looked good; at #4, and with Ole Miss practically even, Wednesday's game could realistically be a ‘showdown' for who will host NCAA play this year—the Dogs or the Rebels?
But first, Johnson said, the team needs to just put their end-of-regular-schedule slump behind them and approach tournament play as a fresh season. He hopes State fans will start over, too.
"We haven't played well for two weeks and we know it as a team," the senior said. "We just need the fans to stay behind us, not give up on us. But sometimes it seems they come here and they want to cheer against than cheer for us. That doesn't help us at all. We need everybody to stay behind us because just as quick as we fell into this slump we can come out of it and play well the rest of the season."
Because if they have their way in Hoover, the Bulldogs will earn the right to return home for Regional action. "That's a big part of having success in the post-season," said Easley. "We want to play right here."