Dogs Lose Lead, Game In Ninth To Tigers

Coach John Cohen says for his Bulldogs to win Southeastern Conference games they must play like the "scrappy bunch that has to overcome everything." Unfortunately this also means overcoming their own selves, a fact painfully pointed out as Mississippi State let a sure-seeming success turn into a 9-8 loss to Auburn.

Leading 6-3 in the final inning, Mississippi State left the proverbial door just enough ajar for the visiting Tigers to push six scores across. Auburn then had to some holding-off of their own, leaving the tying Bulldog on third base to secure the series-opening win and improve to 19-9, 5-5 SEC. State fell to 15-14, 3-7 SEC.

Before meeting with media Cohen called a quick locker room meeting. Whatever he told the team couldn't have been much more blunt than his opening comment to press. "We're just not good enough to win these games yet," he said, adding "We will be."

But for the much more immediate future the Bulldogs have to shake off their stunning last-inning collapse. After padding their margin to three runs in the bottom of the eighth on a RBI-double by LF Luke Adkins it appeared State would get this home set started right. Even when Auburn cut a run off their deficit with a grounder by Casey McElroy there were two outs with veteran Chad Crosswhite ready to finish the evening off.

Only he walked the tying run on base. On Crosswhite's first pitch nine-hole batter Justin Hargett grounded sharply to shortstop, and SS Ryan Powers didn't get a good jump to the right side. Even then State should have been leading 6-5 as Brian Fletcher scored from second; but sub-LF Ryan Collins misplayed the roller into an error that let pinch-runner Chezz McCann come all the way from first with the tying run.

The error also put Hargett in scoring position. But the Tigers got much more because Crosswhite walked Trent Mummey, forcing him to face Joseph Sanders. An inning earlier Crosswhite had struck the AU third baseman out with two in scoring spots; this time Sanders turned on a pitch in the zone and pulled it over leftfield for a three-run homer and 9-6 lead.

The change of scoreboard and fortune brought righthander Bradley Hendrix to pitch for Auburn, except he allowed consecutive singles to CF Grant Hogue and DH Cody Freeman. So harder-thrower Austin Hubbard was rushed in to save the victory. He struggled some too, walking 1B Connor Powers to load the bases and with one out giving up a RBI single to C Scott DeLoach. It was hit too sharply to risk sending another runner homeward so PR Justin Bussey stopped at third. He was able to make it a one-run contest as pinch-batter Ryan Duffy chopped a grounder to second base, too softly for a double-play.

That was as far as State was coming back though as Collins in pinch-bat role grounded on 0-1 to shortstop. The win went to Michael Hurst (2-0), the second Tiger thrower of the night though he only worked one inning and gave up the last MSU run. Much more credit was due Auburn starter Grant Dayton simply for his seven complete turns. The lefthander absorbed five runs, all earned, on 11 hits. But he walked just one Bulldog and struck out eight, meaning MSU couldn't get too far ahead.

Crosswhite (0-3), who'd entered in the Auburn eighth and put in two full frames took the loss. He was charged with six runs on as many hits with two walks and two strikeouts. But even as Auburn was coming back and beyond there wasn't much Cohen could do, having used a lot of pitching in a Wednesday night loss at Louisiana-Monroe.

"I feel horrible for Chad," Cohen said, "he's giving it everything he has. We're just a little bit short right now."

For a while it looked like State would be even shorter on staff as starter Tyler Whitney was hit hard and scored on twice in the opening innings. The lefthander steadied and was able to get into the top of the seventh despite ten hits, three runs, and two walks, because Whitney also posted a career-best nine strikeouts.

Four of those hits—and three strikeouts—came in the very first Auburn inning. Catcher Tony Caldwell drove in their initial RBI by scoring Sanders. In the AU second Sanders did the driving-in as his double to right-center plated Mummy. The top five in Auburn's order would combine for 13 base hits. Still Whitney survived the initial assault and stranded eight runners before he was done.

Dayton had his own troubles. A second-inning walk of Hogue and consecutive singles allowed LF Luke Adkins to get the Dogs on the scoreboard with his fly ball. It was Adkins tying the tally for the first time too as two outs into the MSU fourth he hammered a solo shot over rightfield.

An inning later the Bulldogs had the lead. SS Ryan Powers lined a single over the first baseman, and Hogue killed his bunt so well on the third base side he was able to outrun the catcher's throw for a single. An out later and after a pitch to C.Powers, Hogue drew Dayton's attention long enough for R.Powers to sneak over to third base. C.Powers delivered the go-ahead hit by singling through the box. State had two in scoring positions with one out and left each stranded, as second-sacker Hargett robbed C Scott DeLoach of a single to end the inning.

Whitney had a bases-loaded jam in his sixth when on his 120th pitch he got Sanders to fly out to centerfield. His stint ended with one on, one out, and two strikes tossed to Caldwell in the seventh. His decision got away too as reliever Jared Wesson, who took over with an 0-2 count to Caldwell, threw three balls before a RBI-single and 3-3 tie. Fletcher had a great shot of untying it with his drive off the centerfield wall. But Hogue covered the ball quickly, got it to shortstop Powers for a strike to DeLoach. Caldwell was not tagged but ran outside the path in the process for the out.

Two outs into State's seventh Dayton was trying to protect that tie with Hogue on base and two outs. Except he hung one where C.Powers could crush it over centerfield. Leading 5-3 the Bulldogs immediately went to the bullpen for Crosswhite, who almost as immediately got into trouble. A leadoff single, one-out wild pitch, and another base hit had tying Tigers on. And in scoring positions too after an unchallenged steal of second.

Crosswhite responded by striking out Sanders and grounding out Morris. By the time he returned it was with a larger margin. Dayton finally yielded to righthander Michael Hurst for MSU's last turn, but the reliever began by hitting DeLoach. A pinch-bunt by Frankie Radow advanced the runner and Adkins drove in another RBI with a double to the left-center gap.

But the lead didn't last as Auburn got four of their 18 base hits, as well as those two crucial walks, in the top of the ninth. State finished with 15 hits, four by Hogue in five turns and three more by DeLoach. "It's a tough loss," said Adkins who was 2-of-3 with three RBI. "We had it right there, at the end we gave it away."

Cohen could see how it got away even earlier, when the Bulldogs didn't maximize opportunities to score a run or two more and be far enough ahead that a ninth-inning letdown wouldn't matter. "There's two glaring things. We've got to keep the ball in front of us late in the game. And we're still running into swings-and-misses when all we have to do is put balls in play."

"It's just little things," added the first-year MSU coach. "But what we didn't do, and this is different, we didn't saw the world is against us and lay down and quit. I've seen that before and that's not going to happen with this group. We're learning, we're a long way away from where we want to be. But we need to come out and play with a chance to win a game."

That next chance is 2:00 Saturday as State sends lefty Nick Routt (3-1, 2.79) to the hill to match up with Auburn righty Jon Luke Jacobs (3-0, 4.78).

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