"He put our whole club on his shoulders and said hey, we're going to win this game today."
The win was doubly-important to the Bulldogs, not only for evening the home series but as a bounce-back from Friday's stunning setback when Auburn turned a 6-3 deficit in the last inning into a 9-8 victory. Cohen was concerned how his team would handle that letdown, but his fears proved unfounded.
"It was a quick turnaround and we knew if we came with intensity the win would come," said CF Grant Hogue. "And Nick Routt, you can't say anything else but he's unreal."
Certainly the freshman had opened eyes in his previous two SEC outings, going the distance at both Georgia and Arkansas and against the current Division leaders. But those road games involved throwing 'just' eight innings one weekend, and seven the next due to weather. This sunny Saturday match was sure to go full-length, and Routt had never had to work so long in his young life…which bothered him not in the least. Even when he put a pair of Tigers on bases in the final frame he wasn't stressing.
"It felt pretty good, it was the first time I'd ever thrown nine innings," said Routt (4-1). "I just went out and had to close the door in the last inning and finish it out." He had extra motivation too as his parents were watching Nick throw at DNF for the first time. Routt's linescore looked brilliant with 12 strikeouts against a single walk, that coming in the last inning. It turned out this lefty was the right matchup with Auburn's picky offense.
"They take a lot of pitches early in the count, that's probably why I had twelve strikeouts because they look at a lot of pitches and you can pick spots and throw changeups."
"He makes it very simple," Cohen said. "He makes you put balls in play and makes you a little uncomfortable, he has deception in his delivery."
Auburn only used two arms in the afternoon. Righthanded starter Jon Luke Jacobs (3-1) took the decision, working 5.0 complete innings with six runs allowed on eight Bulldog hits including home runs by 1B Connor Powers and 3B Russ Sneed. He only struck out one and walked three.
Though batting sixth in the order, Sneed was the leading offensive Dog as he posted a perfect 4-of-4 day at the plate driving in one run and scoring twice. The four hits were a career-high and a total turnaround from his Friday struggles. "It felt good after the ‘hat trick' last night. But coming off last night I felt all my at-bats I competed hard and I got my timing a little bit better today. So it felt good."
Hogue added three hits in five appearances with a RBI and run scored from his leadoff slot, while RF Ryan Collins was 2-of-3 with two runs and one RBI.
The Bulldogs didn't take long to get a read on Jacobs, either, rapping out four hits in the opening inning. In fact the first three-up all batted safely and scored; Hogue singled and stole into position to score easily as LF Luke Adkins doubled to right-center. C.Powers bettered that as he took Jacobs' first offering over left-centerfield for a two-run homer. "If he can find barrel he's going to hit balls out of here," Cohen said.
A one-out walk had C Scott DeLoach on first, but he didn't stay there long or for that matter stop at second on a single by Sneed. Instead the catcher kept going and Auburn made no attempt to stop him from taking third. He came the rest of the way on a fly-ball from 2B Jet Butler for a 4-0 Bulldog lead. "I was glad to see us get off to a good start," Cohen said. "I think our kids needed that after last night."
Jacobs kept it there for three more turns. "He had good stuff and he changed speeds well because he settled in," said Hogue. But two outs into the fifth Jacobs hung something Sneed could smack out to centerfield for a solo shot. "They'd been starting me out off-speed, he'd thrown me first pitch changeup all day. I was looking changeup and got it up and over the plate and luckily put a pretty good swing on it."
That extra score loomed larger when Auburn finally broke out against Routt. He had sat the first six-faced and stranded a pair in the Tiger third, then got a routine double-play in the fifth. But the top of the sixth saw a leadoff hit from the nine-hole hitter, and a one-out single. First baseman Hunter Morris foiled any shutout by pounding a shot down the left side between glove and bag for a double to score second baseman Justin Hargett.
"They score on a check-swing hit down the third base line, which is tough to swallow," Cohen said. Worse, with two down and two on Routt allowed another two-bagger, this by rightfielder Ben Jones that plated Joseph Sanders and Morris. His lead cut to 5-3, Routt had to fan Brian Fletcher to stem the assault.
And his offense got one of those runs back in the bottom of the frame. A leadoff single by Collins finished Jacobs for righty Zach Blatt, whose first pitch went to the backstop. Thus a sacrifice bunt from SS Ryan Powers advanced Collins to third for the top of the MSU order, and Hogue bounced a base hit past the diving shortstop for a 6-3 lead.
This time the Bulldogs didn't settle for a three-run cushion going into the last inning, but padded Routt's margin. Sneed completed his perfect afternoon with another single and was bunted along by sub-swinger Frank Radow. The runner would probably have scored from first anyway as Collins doubled for the RBI. And Collins came on home himself as R.Powers singled for the final MSU margin. "It gave us even more confidence," said Sneed. His coach agreed.
"Those were absolutely big, because they can make a run at any time," said Cohen. "But Nick came in and threw strikes." And got two quick outs before a walk of Fletcher and single by Casey McElroy. State wasn't worried about burning any bullpen though, and Routt rewarded the faith by rolling a grounder to Radow to complete his stint. It was the first MSU full-nine since Ricky Bowen beat Ole Miss last March on Sunday, and the dozen strikeouts were a '09 staff high to-date. And the eight Auburn hits were made by eight different batters as nobody got consistent contact on Routt.
"He had a heck of a day," said Sneed who certainly posted a fine afternoon of his own. "He filled the strike zone, he competes really well and keeps his composure." Then again the same could be said of the whole State team, which responded to a painful Friday collapse with a solid all-round effort on the hill, with the glove, and at bat.
For an example noted by Hogue, "We got every bunt down today, we had runners on third with less than two outs and most of them scored. That's what happens when you execute the game Coach wants." And while Hogue was caught on his second steal attempt, he made good on the first and has thieved 13 bases in the last 17 tries. He moved into a tie for 7th on the MSU career list with 44 steals in just two seasons.
The Bulldogs will try to win a second SEC series of the early season Sunday with, probably, Forrest Moore taking the hill first based on matchups. "We'd really like to start a lefthander," Cohen said, after using southpaws Tyler Whitney and Routt already. Moore threw a lot of pitches Wednesday evening at Louisiana-Monroe in a starting job so how long he could go tomorrow is a fair question. "It's four days rest but he's the odds-on favorite right now," Cohen said.
Auburn is listing junior righty Taylor Thompson as their presumed Sunday starter.