"Once again," shrugged RF Ryan Collins, as the Bulldogs reprised their tendency of putting together too little, too late in these series-openers. "Our record might not show it but we're never going to quit. You continually see it, we fall behind but we don't stop and come back in the later innings and try to win."
The problem being that the trying keeps coming up short. And a nine-run deficit in the eighth innings was a hole too deep to dig entirely out of, again. Though, the Crimson Tide might have kept it from getting too competitive by leaving Austin Hyatt on the hill a bit longer.
Because the senior righthander was the game's story- and stat-lines for seven excellent innings. Hyatt, who didn't allow a hit for four-plus frames and a run for six, had Mississippi State under complete control. "He's been there before, he knows how to win and he did very well," said Cohen. "And we did not take good swings against him." In his seven-plus Hyatt (7-1) struck out seven Dogs, with two runs on four hits against him as well as a surprising four walks. Surprising, because he came in #2 nationally in that category.
His three successors weren't as, well, successful and gave the home side just enough hope with only a strikeout between them and six runs on five hits.
For his part Cohen came with a new Friday thrower, giving long-relief regular Greg Houston his first SEC start. The righthanded junior responded reasonably well to the opportunity with 3.2 innings, that first 3.0 with only a lone run allowed on a two-out single from centerfielder Alex Kubal in the second. The fourth time around was Houston's downfall as with two outs he gave up a walk, a Kubal double that scored first baseman Clay Smith all the way from first, and other RBI hits to leftfielder Taylor Dugas and shortstop Josh Rutledge.
Still Cohen called Houston's outing "Very gutsy. He's a short inning guy who is going out and giving us what we needed. He ran into problems in the fourth but that's not been his deal all year long, he ran out of gas giving us everything he has." Houston went to 1-2 with the loss, charged with five runs on four hits with four walks and three strikeouts.
Hyatt had just a first-inning walk against him into the fourth, though it took a great diving grab by Dugas to rob State CF Grant Hogue in the third. DH Ryan Duffy finally scratched with a two-out two-bagger in the fourth that came to nought. In the fifth 3B Russ Sneed caromed a shot off his Alabama counterpart for a double. He was running for third when SS Ryan Powers struck out to end that inning.
Hyatt lost some edge in the sixth and walked Hogue and sub-C Scott DeLoach on. A great off-side dive by Jones kept Duffy's bouncer from getting through as Hyatt covered for the out, then 1B Connor Powers waved at something down-and-away to strand his teammates in scoring positions. Finally in the MSU half of the seventh Collins turned a right-center gapper into a leadoff triple, and the aggressive footwork meant a fly ball by Sneed broke up the shutout. Even a one-out double by 2B Jet Butler didn't get anyone warming for Alabama, and Hyatt lined Hogue out to keep a four-run margin.
The Tide also got that run back with interest. Chad Crosswhite had finished the fourth and begun the fifth for State and was replaced by fellow righty Caleb Reed. He kept it 5-1 into the eighth when three singles produced a run, off the bat of Rutledge. MSU's Devin Jones took over and coaxed a grounder to third base that should have ended the inning; except after getting the middle-force 2B Jet Butler sailed his relay over first. Dugas made home on the miscue. That left the door open and Alabama charged through. Designated hitter Brandon May roped a two-run hit through the box catcher Vin DiFazio made it 10-1 with his hit before Jones could be replaced.
Drew Hollinghead ended the ten-batter inning on a line-out to center on one pitch. In fact Hollinghead outed all three ninth-inning batters on a single offering.
Hyatt could have been left on the mound even with a leadoff walk in the MSU eighth, but Alabama opted to give the bullpen boys some work. Except their relievers entered from the dugout having warmed in private in the batting tunnel. Maybe that made a difference because Austin Evans walked Duffy and was hit consecutively by C.Power (RBI) and Collins to load all posts. That brought righty Jimmy Nelson off the bench to give up a RBI-single by Sneed and a run-scoring grounder to Butler.
Still State had the chance to close further as Nelson hit the top two in the order before replacement by Kilcrease, who walked the bags full. All three runners scored without a base hit; Duffy plated one with a grounder to first, Kilcrease balked in LF Brent Brownlee, and a wild pitch let DeLoach run on in. C.Powers reached on a full-count single and was stopped at third as Collins doubled off the fence.
Kilcrease survived a mound talk and fly ball from Sneed that did score C.Powers but was a second out. Butler's grounder to second was no problem.
"Their starting pitcher did a really good job," Collins said. "He kept us off-balance making his spots. We couldn't really get on him. But once we got to the bullpen we started putting some good swings on the ball." But by then State trailed just too far to make up entirely, due to what happened in the top of the eighth.
"The double-play ball we through away is crucial," Cohen said. "And nobody works harder than Jet Butler on double-play turns. We're not doing things the way we do it in practice." Five Tiders had two hits apiece and Alabama compiled 13 safeties to State's nine. Collins was 3-for-5 to lead the Dog offense, while Sneed had two hits and drove in three runs. But Hogue had to settle for reaching once on a walk and a plunking as his eight-game hit streak ended.
More to the point, State again failed to make much happen in the first half of a SEC evening and paid dearly at the end…even if they made the end interesting. "That's been the problem all year, we've struggled when we've got guys on in key situations," Collins said. "It happened to us last weekend at Vanderbilt and it hurt us early in the game tonight."
Meanwhile Cohen found another good sign, in that much of the light Friday crowd of 2,734 hung around for what turned out a competitive finish. "They had every reason to make it an early evening but they stayed here in support of these kids, and that means a lot to me. That's one of the many reasons I wanted to be at Mississippi State and we deeply appreciate it. I want them to know things are going to be better in the future. Hopefully, tomorrow."
Saturday's game has been moved to 6:30 to accommodate graduation ceremonies at Humphrey Coliseum. State will put freshman lefty Nick Routt (4-3, 3.41era) up against Alabama southpaw Del Howell (5-2, 4.79).