Bases-Loaded Strikeout Gives Vandy 4-3 Win

It wasn't a blowout on the order of the first two games. But a much closer defeat was no less painful to the Bulldogs and just as damaging to their record, as Vanderbilt took advantage of a few MSU miscues to earn a 4-3 Sunday victory. "When you're down it seems everything goes against you," said relief pitcher Aaron Weatherford. "It definitely seems like we're snake-bit right now."

It wasn't any reptile nipping Mississippi State to complete the Commodores' first-ever series sweep in Starkville. An unearned run in the top of the ninth proved the margin of Vanderbilt victory as after the Bulldogs got back within one in the bottom of the frame closer Russell Brewer struck out Bulldog DH Jason Nappi swinging on a full count, with full bases, to finish Vanderbilt's perfect weekend at Dudy Noble Field. Along with earlier 15-8 and 16-0 wins, the Commodores (24-10, 8-6 SEC) scored their first league road-sweep in 15 season. Vandy also finished the first half of SEC season fifth in the Eastern Division.

Mississippi State fell to 14-21 overall and even further into the SEC cellars, both West and overall, at 3-12. The Bulldogs have lost all five of their conference series this season. Only 1,185 turned out for the Sunday affair, making the weekend turnstile total 5,318. The smallest crowd of the series did see the best contest, which didn't ease the outcome any for State.

"I'd rather lose 16-0 than 5-4 and someone makes an error," Coach Ron Polk said. Which is just about what happened in the final frame of the weekend. Vanderbilt took a 3-2 lead into the ninth as neither side had scored in four previous innings, with MSU's Weatherford on the hill for his second turn. He'd struck out three, around a hit batsman, in the eighth, and should have been out of the ninth despite a one-down triple to right-centerfield by David Macias.

But with two outs Pedro Alvarez grounded to the right side; 2B Jet Butler made the diving stop, only to lose the handle as he prepared for the short throw. This let Macias scored an unearned run. "It's one of those things, what can you say?" mused Weatherford.

A two-run cushion made all the difference in State's last chance, as Reid walked leadoff Dog 1B Tyler Moore and was hit by C Ryan Duffy for a one-out single. Mark Goforth, pinch-hitting for RF Andy Rice in the nine-spot, bounced a medium-fast roller that second baseman Harris literally fell on with no chance for a throw, loading the bases for CF Grant Hogue.

Reid very nearly gave away a score as his first pitch got past the mitt, but pinch-runner Nick Hardy was taking no chances and stayed near third. It didn't matter because Hogue dribbled a grounder that both Reid and first baseman Andrew Giobbi charged, leaving nobody covering the first bag. Hardy made the plate unchallenged for the one-run difference, and a pitching change as Richie Goodenow inherited the one-out, all-full jam.

The lefty did his job, striking out LF Ryan Collins watching a high 2-2 fastball, and came to the dugout so righthander Brewer could face Nappi. On full count he slipped the fastball through for his third save of the season. Fittingly the finish was on a fanning. "They pitched well at the end and got the pitch when they needed," said Polk. "I thought we pitched well today, we struck out 14 guys. They struck out 15 of us, so it was a strike-out contest today."

Ten Ks went to the account of VU starter Nick Christiani, as he put in seven full frames with ten hits, two runs, and a pair of walks against him. The freshman righthander improved to 4-1 with his decision. Reid worked 1.1 innings with a run on three hits and two strikeouts.

State gave righty John Lalor the start, his first since May of 2006, and the senior did his job well. "I felt pretty good, they'd talked about getting 15 outs," he said. Which was what Lalor (1-3) gave in five complete innings. He was charged with six of Vanderbilt's eight hits and three runs, but struck out six against a walk. "The control wasn't as good as I'd liked it to be and they hit some pretty good pitches."

Freshman Forrest Moore threw two-full with a hit, three strikeouts and two walks. Weatherford struck out six against a hit and a run.

After piling up 31 runs in the first two days, it wasn't so surprising for Vanderbilt to score in the first and second innings Sunday. But Lalor kept it to lone runs each time. Alvarez got his one a 0-1 swing that sent the ball beyond the second right-field fence, his fourth homer of the season. In the second inning Parker Hanks singled and Brian Harris took a pitch off the shoulder, which moved the lead runner along where he could score on Macias' base rip into rightfield.

But after Lalor retired the third-inning side on three strikeouts his offense got it going too. With two down Hogue worked his way on via balls; then Collins got all the way around on Christiani's fastball and cleared dead-rightfield for a tying two-run homer, his second longball of the season.

Vanderbilt regained the lead as what should have been a second out in the fourth, a pop-fly which didn't get as far as the mound, somehow fell between four uncertain Dogs. More conventional singles by Hanks and Shea Robin filled all posts and put Giobbi on third base, where he came home unchallenged on a fielder's choice grounder by Harris to the right side.

Christiani's first serious trouble came in the bottom of the fifth as he walked the bases full with passes to Duffy, Collins, and Nappi. With two outs Collins, who'd taken over for Connor Powers after the starting third baseman tweaked his hamstring running out a fourth-inning single, fell behind 1-2 and watched a high fastball go by that umpire Ken Couch chose to call a strike. Butler reached to open the sixth on an errant throw by the Vandy second baseman. Except he rounded the bag, was slow getting back, and the covering catcher threw behind for the out. So SS Russ Sneed's single was with two outs and no ons.

Meanwhile Moore took the hill for the sixth and seventh. He sat his first five foes, then loaded all posts on two walks around a Alex Feinberg single that caromed off the second-base bag. A Ryan Flaherty fly ball ended that threat.

Yet the Bulldogs couldn't quite catch up a second time and left the tying and winning runners in scoring positions. It was just the opposite to Vanderbilt's ability to seize opportunities. "We just couldn't come up with big hit at the end and didn't make a couple of crucial plays," Lalor said. "That pretty much cost us."

"Jet makes a great play and has a hard time getting the ball out of the glove," Polk said. "A pop-up on the infield that the wind blows, tough play, the ball falls, that's the ball game." A game the Diamond Dogs desperately needed to end the first half of SEC season on some sort of positive note. "I feel we played better today," said Weatherford. "We made some mistakes but it was better than yesterday, and as long as we can keep getting better that's all you can ask for at this point."

Of course Bulldog fans are asking more a bit more than that Tuesday evening when Mississippi State meets Ole Miss in the annual Governor's Cup game at Trustmark Park in Pearl. First pitch is 6:30, and while the contest doesn't count in SEC standings it certainly means much to both sides. Polk said that based on the respective teams' status, with the Rebels first in the West and State bringing up the rear right now, it was likely to be a larger Ole Miss crowd this time around, though MSU is the designated home team. He could not say Sunday who will start for State, though expectation is with just one mid-week game almost everyone on the staff is available save Lalor and whoever gets booked for Friday's start at Alabama.

It still won't be a full-strength team going to Pearl though. Powers, who popped the hamstring hitting first base, is out "two to four weeks" Polk said. MIF Brandon Turner is still out with his own long-standing hamstring issues after a progress exam Friday. C Cody Freeman can't play backstop for another week, maybe two, after a kneecap injury but might be available for DH duty. And senior LHP Justin Pigott is expected to be ready for his first action since March 15 this weekend in Tuscaloosa.

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