"You get a couple of runners on and you never know what can happen," Sneed said. "Once a few plays happen, we get some timely placed hits. That's how you come back." In fact it was State's third comeback of the evening, though by far the most dramatic as the Diamond Dogs converted a couple of fluky infield hits, a pair of walks, and Sneed's honest smash into success.
"It's great to finally catch some breaks, it took long enough!" said starting pitcher John Lalor. "But I guess if we're going to catch any breaks tonight was a good night." For Mississippi State (23-32, 9-20 SEC) anyway. For Arkansas (32-22, 13-15 SEC) it was a bad break to take as they suddenly are in danger of missing out on the SEC Tournament.
"Arkansas had that game won," said MSU Coach Ron Polk. "Then, they didn't."
Certainly the Razorbacks looked ready to win this one up 5-2 in the final inning with Stephen Richards on the hill. The southpaw reliever had given up a tying run in the bottom of the eighth on RF Nick Hardy's triple, scoring SS Ryan Powers from second base. Stephens kept it even, stranding Dogs on opposite corners with hard-slider strikeouts of Sneed and LF Jason Nappi. Then the Razorback batting order seemed to seize control at the expense of bullpen Bulldogs Chad Crosswhite and Greg Houston, taking advantage of four walks in the top of the ninth.
Casey Coon's bases-loaded single off Houston scored a pair of Pigs and Brett Eibner padded the margin with a RBI-double. State lefty Andy Wilson came in to roll a double-play and end the assault but it seemed mere formality at the time. Polk even thought it was over the way Richards had dominated with his power breaking ball.
"All of a sudden Duffy gets a two-strike hit and it looked like Richards lost a little bit," State's skipper said. As in C Ryan Duffy's leadoff single through the right side, followed by a walk of 2B Jet Butler and clean single from DH Jeff Flagg to fill the bases with the tying runners and no outs. Arkansas called on righthander Mike Bolsinger to save their day and he might have as Powers lashed a one-hopper right to the third baseman's glove.
And off it for a scratch single scoring Duffy. Hogue's succeeding ‘single' was even more annoying for the defense as his dribbler to the left side of the mound was where nobody could cover in time, scoring Butler. For his part Hardy didn't even have to swing for the tying RBI, walking to bring pinch-runner (for Flagg) Mark Goforth across.
With sacks still filled and no outs, Bolsinger did manage a force of Powers at the plate on a 15-foot nubber from 1B Tyler Moore. That just gave Sneed his chance to be the hero. "The first pitch happened to be a fastball and I knew they weren't going to throw another. So I was sitting off-speed, he threw a slider and it was right there."
Wilson was the right (or, lefthanded) reliever at the proper point, earning the decision for a 3-0 record by facing one batter and retiring two men. Bolsinger (4-1) took the loss on a third of an official frame, charged with one run on three hits and a walk.
The last-inning explosion belied an evening dominated by the starters. Razorback lefty Cliff Springston, the Baylor transfer, worked seven-complete innings with just two runs on four Bulldog hits. He walked one and struck out three. In his own way Lalor was even more impressive. Making only his second season start, and in his final appearance at Dudy Noble Field, the righthander made the most of a Senior Day stint with a career-long 7.0 innings, two runs, seven hits, a trio of walks…and twelve strikeouts. It was the most Ks of anyone this State season, and Lalor's highest total ever.
"I just wanted to leave it all out there, the last chance I have to pitch here. And it's a good feeling to go out on a good note." Lalor said his strengths just happened to match up well with what weaknesses the Razorbacks batters had. "The breaking ball was a good pitch for me, every now and then they'd be aggressive and ground-out or something." Like, strike out.
Springston didn't need strikeouts to hang four zeroes, retiring the first seven Dogs faced and 12 of 14 in his starting stretch. Lalor faced more challenges in his first three turns but escaped damage from putting a pair on in the first and two more in the third. He was a strikeout into the Arkansas fourth when Eibner dropped a single in front of Nappi. Hardy made a sparkling stab over the rolled-up tarp for a second out but Razorback catcher Ryan Cisterna's check-swing ended up with the pitch catching him on the left hand. Polk didn't argue the call, and Cisterna had to leave the game, his place on first base taken by Jeff Nutt.
Ninth-batter Jeff Smalling ended the shutout with a single through the left side, scoring Eibner from second. Lalor was able to work around another hit and walk in the top of the fifth with a strikeout of Eibner to keep the Dog deficit at one. Which was what the bottom of State's order was able to manufacture in the bottom of the inning, as Duffy led off with a drive into the right-centerfield gap. Butler bunted the runner over to third, and DH Flagg did his job with a fly ball deep enough to left—though called by the centerfielder who had no possible throw—for the sacrifice fly and tying tally.
The top of Arkansas' order was back up in the seventh and Leavitt's chopper turned into an infield single. With State playing in on the corners Ben Tschepikow made it work against the defense on a hot hopper Sneed didn't have time to stab. Leavitt eventually scored on a one-out sacrifice fly by Coon for a 2-1 advantage at the stretch. Richards was called in after Powers' leadoff hit in the eighth, only to give up Hardy's first triple of the season for the 2-2 deadlock that set up all the ninth-inning dramatics.
"It was good to finally put together a comeback in the bottom of the ninth," said Sneed. "It was a great win for us, the crowd was behind us and it was the first time some of the guys have experienced that feeling here at Dudy Noble." Which was likely why a Bulldog squad that has endured so much for so long this lost season piled on their hero-hitter as he came around second base.
"Arkansas was playing for something, we were playing for pride or whatever," said Polk. "It was like they'd won a championship out there or whatever, but I was happy for them."
Now the Razorbacks go into Saturday's 3:06 finale needing to both win and have either South Carolina or Ole Miss lose so they can earn the eighth and last slot in the SEC Tournament. The Bulldogs are indeed playing for pride…and something else. Because with the final out of this year's last game, Polk's 29th and concluding season as Mississippi State coach also ends. There will be a pre-game recognition of his retirement prior to the game, which itself is to be regionally televised by SECTV. Polk downplayed the significance of Saturday, but the Diamond Dogs know very well.
So as Sneed said, "Hopefully we can send Coach Polk out with a sweep."
State will start senior lefthander Justin Pigott (2-3, 4.53), while Arkansas is expected to throw sophomore lefty Dallas Keuchel (4-2, 3.97.)