Hope was running much higher in the visiting dugout as Vanderbilt (23-10, 7-6 SEC) clinched the weekend along with their first series success at Dudy Noble Field since 1986. "This may be the best team we've played this year," MSU Coach Ron Polk said. Certainly with 15-8 and 16-0 wins the Commodores looked to be playing in another league than State.
Vanderbilt didn't just out-hit the Bulldogs 15 to seven, they had both extra-base hits recorded Saturday with a three-run homer by shortstop Ryan Flaherty and a triple by Jonathan White. The pitching numbers were just as mis-matched, maybe more so with a nine to three margin in strikeouts, while Vandy walked four Dogs to six passes issued by MSU arms. Yet the number of most concern was 2,044—the attendance for a sunny SEC Saturday afternoon. And most of those fans had departed by stretch-time, right after the Commodores hung six runs on the top line in the top of the seventh.
But that outburst only settled the final margin. Vanderbilt effectively put this one in the books with a 8-0 lead at the halfway point. "They're a veteran ball club with guys one-through-nine who've been there," said Hogue. It appeared the ‘Dores were hitting one-through-nine at times, though just five of the starters got a base hit. Yet the four who didn't collect a safety still either scored or drove in teammates some other manner.
Batting honors belonged to Alvarez with four base hits, for an RBI and four runs himself. It was Flaherty who did the most pure damage though, with six RBI in his three hits and the three-run shot off State starter Ricky Bowen in the third inning that was the biggest blow, both practically and emotionally, of the day. Five teammates, including subs, had two hit each. But the most interesting linescore belonged to rightfielder Dominic de la Osa; 0-for-3 in official appearances, he still scored twice and drove in three RBI!
Bowen (2-4) took the loss with 4.1 innings worked, charged with eight runs (six earned) on five hits. The righthander wasn't exactly battered. "The only really hard hit I remember giving up was the home run," he said. "But if you walk as many as I walked today, people are going to score." Indeed, Bowen issued five walks and two of those made it home. Jesse Carver threw 1.2 innings and allowed the other eight runs (just three earned) on six hits, walking one with a strikeout. Greg Houston took care of the last three frames with four hits but no scores.
Freshman righthander Caleb Cotham had a few control issues of his own, walking four in seven full innings. But he came back with seven strikeouts, and aided by excellent defense—including two highlight-tape catches by centerfielder David Macias—negated his five allowed hits.
"You've got to give credit to that guy, he pumped the zone and was effective," said Hogue. "And they got out and scored some runs early and we didn't respond. He just kept getting momentum and we couldn't make anything happen." Cotham improved to 5-2 with the win. Taylor Hill and Brett Jacobson each tossed an inning with a hit apiece to preserve the shutout, State's first blanking since 2006 to Ole Miss.
A first-inning walk didn't hurt Bowen; consecutive free passes to open the second did. "I just had trouble with the zone a little bit, couldn't find it when I needed to find it. And I had some close calls that didn't fall my way." Shea Robin wasn't trying to sacrifice but his nubber between hill and third served the same purpose, advancing both runners where a grounder to second by Brad French scored de la Osa.
Vanderbilt still didn't have a hit, an item the top of the order took care of in their third inning. Macias led off with a single into left, then with one down Alvarez lifted a fly that started foul and was blown back two steps fair and landed between a trio of Dogs. Which meant there were a pair on for Flaherty, who sailed a 1-1 offering beyond left-centerfield for his second homer of the series and a 4-0 lead.
"I thought Bowen was pitching well until the home run," Polk said. "And for a young ball club it just kind of snowballs."
Or it did in the fifth as Feinberg and Alvarez opened with base knocks and Flaherty drew a walk. Loaded bases brought pitching coach Russ McNickle out for a talk with Bowen, but it's unlikely he was told to hit de la Osa with the first pitch for a free RBI. Liddle followed with a fly ball into short left that LF Ryan Collins had to dive to catch, allowing Alvarez to tag and score.
If those two runs came cheap, the next two were simply State gifts as twice Vanderbilt double-stole. And each time C Ryan Duffy's throw ended up in leftfield allowing Flaherty and de la Osa to come home for a 8-0 scoreboard. In-between the pitching change was made after Bowen's last walk and Carver did end the inning with a strikeout and grounder.
Vanderbilt made it a double-digit difference in their sixth as Macias, Alvarez, and Flaherty all singled, the latter driving in the lead runner with Alvarez taking third. That way he was able to score on a grounder to deep second by de la Osa.
State's best chance to avoid blanking came in their half of the sixth as with two down Butler singled and Sneed walked. Duffy lifted a drive to the left-center gap that seemed sure to drop. But the wind held it up and moved it just far enough over for centerfielder Macias to dive at. Though it looked as if he snared the ball on, not off the grass, the out was signaled and Polk didn't protest.
The real frustration wasn't so much that Vanderbilt padded their lead in the seventh, it was how the Bulldogs helped them with errors, a walk, and a wild pitch. French and Alvarez singled in lone runs, Flaherty two more, and de la Osa's sacrifice fly accounted for the final score. Even Polk could come up with nothing positive to say about the shellacking.
What the players said among themselves in the meeting wasn't recorded. But Hogue knew what sort of tone would be taken as he met media before heading back to the locker room. Yes, the team has had injuries and played a tough schedule of ranked foes or league leaders lately. It is beside the point. "You can come up with every excuse in the book, and that's pretty much getting old," Hogue said. "We're here for a reason and we've got to show it.
"There are 16 games left in the SEC, everybody knows it ain't going good. We've got to stick together and tomorrow somehow come out and hit them in the mouth like they did us today."
For the 1:30 Sunday finale State will put righthander John Lalor (1-2, 3.63) on the mound, while Vanderbilt will start righty Nick Christiani (3-1, 3.78). The Commodores will be going for their first SEC road sweep since 1993.