Which is what Collins did. With two down and SS Ryan Powers on first base Collins worked the count full against Raider reliever Marshall Mears. At which point he had a pretty good idea what was forthcoming.
"He'd showed me that same pitch a couple of times in a row, and I was sitting on it." As soon as Collins made full contact on the curver nobody doubted it was gone, as long as the drive stayed inside the right foul pole. It was his third homer of the season, and completed a perfect night at the plate with the first 5-of-5 day for a Dog since Jeffrey Rea against Florida in 2007. He scored three times batting from the two-slot.
"It feels pretty good just getting things rolling, able to get some hits and finally some balls that actually fall for me," Collins said. "Some little cheap hits and then the line drives started to fall as well."
There wasn't much cheap about anyone's hitting this night, as the teams combined for 26 safeties and the 17 runs. In fact the Raiders had two more hits than State and as many homers, though both of the visitors' shots came from the same source as first baseman Blake McDade slugged his third and fourth longballs of the year. He finished hitting 4-for-5 with four RBI and three runs.
Collins' timely shot made a winner of Caleb Reed (2-1) as he tossed the final 1.2 innings, touched for one run on a pair of hits. One of those was McDade's second shot, to lead off the top of the ninth and pull the Raiders within 9-8. Reed was hit hard repeatedly that inning but the last knock, off Taylor Dennis, lined right into the glove of SS Ryan Powers where he could step on second for a force to end the game.
"We're pretty fortunate," Cohen said. "But Reed came in and threw enough strikes and you figure if you keep pumping the strike zone eventually they're going to get themselves out somehow! But for what Caleb's been through, a couple of weeks ago couldn't throw a strike and now he's competing the strike zone with two pitches, I'm really pleased with that."
State starter Chad Crosswhite got no decision but deserved recognition for giving his shaky staff seven complete innings. Six of them good frames, too, with a couple of isolated runs allowed, before the senior righty wore down in the seventh to lose the lead. But not the game.
Crosswhite's line showed five runs on 11 hits, four strikeouts and no walks…though he hit batters three times including a couple of plunkings of leading Raider batter/slugger Bryce Brentz. Cohen had originally planned to make Wednesday a ‘staff' night, but ended up riding Crosswhite as long as he could go. "He competed hard, and he's a good matchup for this club because they like to chase fastballs up in the zone. Chad got up in the zone and down in the zone and really mixed it well."
Mears, fifth hurler of the night for Middle Tennessee, took the loss in his first decision of the season. No Raider threw more than three frames and starter Nick Montgomery lasted 2.1 turns. He stranded Dogs the first two innings innings but a one-out walk in the third brought a pitching change. Not for the better, either, as Chad Coley gave up consecutive doubles to Collins and 1B Connor Powers, the latter a two-RBI shot to get State on the board. A walk of LF Luke Adkins meant another Raider reliever, except Tyler Hyde served something 3B Russ Sneed could crush over centerfield for a 5-0 Bulldog lead. It was his eight homer this spring.
Middle Tennessee cut into that deficit with runs in their next two innings. Catcher Drew Robertson singled for a RBI in the fourth, and third baseman Rawley Bishop made it a 5-2 score with his hit in the fifth inning that plated Brentz.
That margin held into the top of the seventh when with one on Crosswhite got ahead of Brentz only to hit him hard again. The Raider leftfielder took offense and both coaches got umpire warnings though none would imagine State intentionally bringing a tying run to the plate with no outs. A couple of well-hit flys later Crosswhite was ahead of McDade 0-2; instead of wasting one he came back with a fastball down the chute that the Raider first baseman cranked over rightfield for his third homer and a tied scoreboard.
"If he could just get that one pitch back, that's a pitcher's nightmare," Cohen said. "But he gave us a chance to win tonight, some great innings."
Hogue singled and when Collins bunted the pitcher and catcher mishandled it into an infield hit. Connor Powers didn't have to bunt; a fly ball to the leftfield warning track served to advance both runners. A lift by Adkins to right wasn't so deep but Hogue was more than fast enough to come home. Collins was running on ball-four to Sneed and made third ahead of the throw, which mattered greatly because C Scott DeLoach was able to punch a single past the diving shortstop for a 7-5 lead. And, another bullpen call as Mears struck out DH Cody Freeman to end the inning.
But righty Ricky Bowen, used this time in relief, threw seven-straight balls and walked the bottom two in Middle Tennessee's order. A fly-out later he filled the sacks with another walk, and while State held a mound meeting Bowen was left out to face Brentz. And, give up a first-pitch single that tied the tally again, though he had to go down and out to make contact. "He absolutely smoked it," Cohen said. "Then the change was made for Reed to cope with two on and one out. He did his job with a couple of fly-outs to get State back into the dugout all even, and give Collins his fifth and most dramatic opportunity of the evening.
"We hit the ball better today," said Cohen. "There were some crucial situations we didn't put the barrel where we needed to, but some guys we felt were going to be good hitters for us are starting to turn the corner. Collins with what he did. And we've been waiting for Frankie Radow to step up, he's going to be a great player for us in the future." The rookie was 3-of-4.
Brentz, who battered Bulldog pitchers in Tuesday's 10-6 Raider win, was 3-of-3 with two runs and two RBI…and two plunkings. Though Cohen had talked Tuesday of preferring to hit the sophomore rather than get him by him, it was simply a case of a great player doing his stuff. "There were times he beat us because there was nothing we could do," Cohen said of the son of former MSU wingback Charlie Brentz. "Gosh, if any more of our alumni football players' sons are out there who can hit that way I can assure you we'll knock on their door! But he's the kind of player that makes a difference."
State evened the record back up at 21-21 while Middle Tennessee left 28-11, having split a series with State for another year. "They've got a really good team," Collins said. "And getting a win like this, fighting it out, hopefully we can carry some good momentum into the weekend."
A weekend that takes State to Vanderbilt for the three-game inter-Division series. The Commodores are 24-17 and 7-10 SEC, while State is 6-12 in league play and has not won a series since opening conference weekend. But neither are the Dogs out of the SEC Tournament picture by any means, nor Vanderbilt sure of a berth, so it makes for a pressurized weekend.
"Vanderbilt has a good , young pitching staff," Cohen said. "They had one of the top three or four recruiting classes in the country show up on campus. They haven't been able to score the way they've wanted and haven't defended it like they normally have. But they are a very good club at home."
State will stick with a couple of young lefties to begin the series, with Tyler Whitney throwing Friday's 6:00ct game and Nick Routt the 1:00 Saturday contest. After that Cohen will pick whatever starter who is still available and healthy from a staff that is getting thin at the end of April.