That's when Mississippi State took full advantage of ineffective WKU relievers to push six runs across in the bottom of the fifth and take control. Almost half of State's 11 total hits came in the frame with a score or hit charged to all four of the Topper pitchers that worked the turn. "We really started finding some barrels in the middle part of the game an put together that six-run inning," said Cohen.
The outburst keyed the Bulldogs to their fifth-straight win, coming at the end of a 12-game homestand. "We're 5-0 right now and we're feeling pretty good," said CF Jaron Shepherd. "We want to keep it going."
Cohen and pitching Coach Butch Thompson welcomed enough break in Wednesday's weather to get the midweek game in, as they wanted to give a number of moundsmen work prior to a weekend tournament in Texas. Tyler Whitney drew the start and while the linescore showed 3.2 innings it was a rather lengthy stint, as the senior lefthander was charged with two runs on four hits with three walks and six strikeouts. Still it was just about what was asked of the veteran, who did not get a turn in the previous four-game weekend.
"We're trying a couple of different things, he's throwing from a different spot," Cohen said. "Tonight he just didn't have the command that he's worked so hard for, every AB is five or six or seven pitches. It's the third inning and he's got 80 pitches. But the guys who pitched behind him did well."
Primarily freshman C.C. Watson, entering in the fifth to stop Western Kentucky's best threat of the night and work an official 1.2 innings to get the decision. Watson (1-0) allowed no hits or runs with a couple of walks and one strikeout. Caleb Reed dominated the next 1.1 scoreless, hitless innings with two strikeouts before turning it over to closers Devin Jones and Ben Bracewell.
Western Kentucky didn't let the bullpen gate get rusty either, running in no less than seven pitchers including the quartet in the decisive sixth. Starter Brian Edelen had the longest outing with 4.0 complete, yielding a lone run on four hits with four strikeouts. When he left it was with a win in the making, but none of his successors had much luck. Craig Stem, the third moundsman-up, took the loss for his first decision this spring.
Both starters stranded running in scoring spots in the first inning. In the bottom of the second LF Trey Johnson led off for State with a double and was bunted-over by SS Jonathan Ogden. Shepherd earned the RBI with a fly ball to centerfield. Edelen shook that off and left a pair on in the bottom of the third; then got a break when with two in scoring positions C Wes Thigpen flew-out to short right and Johnson checked-up between third and home for an easy rundown.
All those pitches Whitney was having to throw caught up with him in the top of the fourth with a one-out single and two-out plunking and walk of the bottom of the WKU order. Matt Payton singled in both teammates for a 2-1 Topper lead. Righthander Corey Collins kept it there with a one-pitch groundout of K. Carter to end the fourth. But in the fifth he was touched for a leadoff single and walk. It was a bunting situation again and when Casey Dykes dropped it left of the mound Collins slipped making the grab for all-hands-safe.
That brought freshman starter Watson in for emergency relief work earlier than planned and he did the job well with a double-play, conceding the runner from third, and another grounder to get State back in the dugout down only 3-1. That was all the offense the visitors would muster as things turned out. "We really pitched it well after that, we defended it well for the most part," Cohen said.
Western Kentucky picked this as a good point to change their pitching, giving lefthander Andrew Keltner the ball and lead. An out into his stint he walked 2B Nick Vickerson, and served up a fat one for RF Kyje Adkins to double into left-center for a RBI. Stem was rushed in for real relief work but he only got to throw one pitch to Connor Powers, as the first baseman roped it into center for the tying RBI. A Stem wild pitch advanced Powers to second, and when DH Cody Freeman lifted a drive that had the leftfielder running hard for the line Powers gambled on advancing within a few steps of third in case the ball wasn't caught.
It wasn't, and he came on around for a 4-3 Bulldog lead. Stem was immediately yanked for lefty Garrie Krueger, who only loaded all bases with free passes of Johnson and Ogden. Shepherd wasn't walking, he was swinging and running as a bouncer got under the WKU shortstop's glove for two RBI and a stretched-single. And, the fourth pitching change of the inning with righty Tyler Gilliland inheriting a pair of Dogs in scoring positions for Thigpen.
The catcher came through with a base hit to left, though he pushed his luck by trying for second and was caught short of the sack. Still he'd pushed the Mississippi State margin to 7-3.
Watson got two outs and two walks into the top of the sixth, bringing Reed in relief to fan Rice and keep it a four-run margin…which the Bulldog batters, specifically Powers, expanded in the bottom of the frame. With Vickerson and Adkins on via walks and advanced accordingly on a very wild pitch, Powers lined a single into short right for two more RBI and the final score.
Jones wasn't his sharpest and loaded the bags with one out, but steadied to fan the second and third Toppers in their order to maintain the margin. "He found it, and then Bracewell pitched well," Cohen said. "And of course Caleb was outstanding, that's something we didn't have a year ago with someone to create a different matchup." And using regulars like Watson and Reed in a midweek setting wasn't out of the ordinary, the coach explained.
"In order to be sharp on the weekend they've got to throw in the middle, so instead of throwing a bullpen today they just throw an inning. We really wanted Kendall Graveman to get an inning but he threw 80 pitches on Saturday so we backed-off at the last second."
Powers had a 3-for-5 evening at the plate and added three RBI to his team-leading total, now at 28. Vickerson was 2-of-official-2 and scored twice, while Shepherd drove in three runs. The Bulldogs did draw one error, on a pick to first by Thigpen, but made all the needed fielding plays and continued a stretch of smart glovework that began in a four-game weekend sweep of the BankFirst Challenge.
"We've been working on it, practicing and getting comfortable and staying relaxed," said Shepherd, whose work in centerfield has been spectacular at times these past five wins. "When we do that we're able to make plays. It was our weak spot for a little bit but it's starting to come along as we put it together."
The Diamond Dogs need to have everything together though as they head to the Whataburger Classic in Corpus Christi, Texas this weekend. State will play Oklahoma in a 1:30 Friday game, meet UCLA at 4:30 Saturday, and have a double-header with the hosts on Sunday. The first, second, and fourth games are scheduled for local-area and internet broadcast, while Sunday's game-one with Texas A&M-CC is a network game at 2:30.
"We're facing two of the hottest teams in the country in Oklahoma and UCLA," Cohen said. "That will be a tremendous challenge. And Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is going to be ready to play in their own tournament. Hopefully the kids will have a good time going to Texas."
One expects to. "I'm kind of excited," said Shepherd, signed out of Blinn CC in the Lone Star State. "I've got a couple of buddies playing on one of the teams and it's gong to be good playing against them and hopefully we'll come out with an undefeated record. It's going to be pretty good to see how we do on the road."
The Bulldogs will have a practice at the stadium at 6:00 Thursday, followed by a Home Run Derby contest sponsored by Whataburger. Powers and Ryan Duffy will represent State.