"We wanted to stay here a long time," Coach Ron Polk said. "It didn't happen." Instead State heads back to Starkville to await their expected bid and assignment in the NCAA Tournament. "We feel we still have some more baseball to play."
Wherever and whoever the Bulldogs play next week, they are unlikely to face the calibre of pitching talent that beat them in Hoover. Especially not like David Price, Vanderbilt ace and projected top-pick in the upcoming professional draft. As the teams didn't meet in the regular season State only knew Price by reputation. Thursday they saw the reality.
"He definitely brought his ‘A' game," RF Jeffrey Rea said. As well as a complete game and, for six of the nine innings, even a perfect game. Price didn't the first 15 Bulldogs faced to reach a base in any fashion. "He got ahead of us and kept us off-balance," said Rea, who broke up the no-hitter with his leadoff single in the seventh. "He had a great fastball and threw his slider for strikes, I thought that was the whole key."
Price (11-0) finished with just 114 pitches for the full-route, giving up the two earned runs on five hits with 11 strikeouts and no walks at all. The big southpaw made it look so easy Polk had to make it clear the Bulldog batters were not told to take any pitches; Price was just that good and moving around the strike zone and still hitting it.
Only compared to such an outing would the work of State starter Chad Crosswhite come off poorly. The righthander admitted to feeling some pressure. "I was kind of nervous coming into the game, facing Price," he said. Even so Crosswhite (7-4) turned in a quality start by lasting six complete innings with three runs on five hit and three walks, striking out eight.
John Lalor took care of the final three innings with just a hit against him and three strikeouts. "Our pitchers kept us in the game the whole time, that's all you can ask for," said Rea. "One hit here or there and it's a different game."
Only, State couldn't get a hit—or a walk, or error, anything at all—for two-thirds of the day. After Price mowed through five frames on 49 pitches with six strikeouts and only one decently-stroked ball, a fly to rightfield by 2B Brandon Turner, it appeared the Bulldogs were more concerned with humiliation than elimination. "It seemed we were always in a 0-2, 1-2 count. It's hard to hit like that," Rea noted.
Crosswhite wasn't too shabby either, even if he didn't get the same corner calls as his better-known counterpart. That contributed to walks in the first and third innings but Crosswhite stranded both along with a base hit and had four strikeouts through two turns.
But the third inning brought the top of Vanderbilt's order back up and Alex Feinberg drew his second free passing. With one out Pedro Alvarez singled and cleanup man Ryan Flaherty followed with a rap into rightfield and the first RBI. The ball was further bobbled by Rea, playing his second game ever in rightfield, so Alvarez could take an extra base. Shea Robin should have lined out to first base for an easy double-play but 1B Mitch Moreland let the ball go off his mitt for an (ruled) infield single and another run.
And there were still ‘Dores on the corners. Vanderbilt tested State's infield by sending Robin from first to see if it drew a throw down. It did, though at first SS Jet Butler did keep an eye on Flaherty to hold him on third. But after Moreland got the relay he focused on Robin and let Flaherty scamper across for the third and ultimately decisive run. At least that mental gaffe kept a fourth run from scoring with nobody on the paths when LF Joseph McCaskill just let a drive go over his glove for a double.
Not that the Commodores were worried about the bonus score since three runs in one inning looked sufficient. And through six that was correct, until the top of the seventh when Rea finally spoiled the unblemished effort on a trademark opposite-field single through shortstop. And two pitches after losing the no-hitter Price lost his shutout as well when McCaskill's drive dropped fair down the rightfield line, with Rea sliding in safely.
Price was able to fan C Edward Easley on three strikes but after going down 0-2 Moreland watched a close ball, then got around on one in the zone. The pull to rightfield would have left a couple of SEC campus parks; at AA-size Regions Moreland had to settle for a RBI-double and 3-2 score. Then as Turner punched a single through the box even though only one was out immediately Polk waved Moreland—a hard-luck runner all year—on around third and homeward. "You've got to be aggressive on Price," he explained, "because you don't know when the next opportunity will come."
As Moreland came on DH Brian LaNinfa saw the catcher's positioning and signaled for a hook-slide that took Moreland behind the plate. Centerfielder David Macias' throw was on the spot and Robin's tag went down in time, though some replays at least hinted Moreland might have gotten a hand in first. "I knew it was going to be a close play," said Moreland. "I think if I'd slid straight-in I might have got in."
As it was State made no protest, and a fly ball by LaNinfa to leftfield that with one out might have tied it up merely ended the inning with Vanderbilt still in front. Price had survived. "He geared up and got it done," Rea said.
The Bulldogs did have one last chance to extend the game and, maybe, their stay, as with one out in the ninth McCaskill hit his second two-bagger. Just in case, Vanderbilt had a reliever loose but Price was still in charge. He coaxed a pop-out from Easley and after fouling off three two-strike pitches Moreland grounded to the shortstop on 1-2.
"Two close ball games," said Polk after the early exit from a SEC Tournament. State was playing in the loser's bracket after falling 3-1 in a Wednesday night game that only ended at 12:40 Thursday morning. "But we had an opportunity."
Now they await word on what sort of NCAA opportunity they will be handed. After losing six of the last eight regular-season games and two-straight at Hoover, even the most optimistic Bulldog has conceded hopes of hosting a Regional are gone. So while they will watch Sunday's announcement of the sixteen #1 seeds and host sites, State players are really focused on Monday when the full field of 64 with sites, seeds, and pairings are made public. The field will be released on ESPN at 11:30am C.T.