Sunday's setback was the 12th-straight in SEC play for Mississippi State, now 21-31 on the season and 5-22 in the league. The Commodores left Starkville on a roll, now 39-13 and 15-10 SEC going into the final regular-season week. Vanderbilt is sixth in the overall conference standings and could end up as high as third before heading to the SEC Tournament.
They had a much easier Sunday-time of it than in preceding games which, despite 13-8 and 13-7 final margins were competitive contests. Especially Saturday, which was 5-5 after the regular nine innings. Those outcomes were dictated by lack of effective relief pitching; game-three was decided by overmatched starting State pitching as well. Once Vanderbilt got to a pair of first-year MSU moundsmen they were able to rack up seven runs in the fourth inning and four more in the fifth.
"We need to pitch better," Coach John Cohen agreed. "That's all there is to it and the most obvious thing you could possibly say."
Starter Luke Bole (2-2) got through his first three full innings with just one run against him, but wore-down in the fourth and would ultimately be charged with five runs on four hits, four walks, and a strikeout. Transfer reliever Trey Johnson was responsible for the next seven runs on four hits and three walks. Each plunked a Commodore. Compared to that soph Caleb Reed's 4.1 stint was a success with just two runs on seven hits, a walk and strikeout.
Cohen was not hard on lefties Bole and Johnson, though, as each are being forced into larger duty than should be the case in a SEC program. And the way Vanderbilt was hitting this weekend it was just a matter of time before they broke out against first-season arms. "Luke threw 75 pitches in three innings, you're not going to win with that," Cohen said. "I was pleased with what Caleb did, he came in and threw strikes which is something our program desperately needs at this point."
Vanderbilt starter Jack Armstrong (7-1) threw his share of strikes, at least enough to compile four Ks in his 7.0 innings. And while he walked two and allowed nine base hits State managed just a pair of runs at the junior's expense.
"He did a pretty good job locating," said Powers. "He did miss up-and-down, not really across the plate. He'd expand in and expand away and it wasn't big misses. He was walking some people but he made some good pitches to me."
LF Ryan Duffy was one of the few Dogs who had much success against Armstrong, with two of his three hits against the starter. "I saw the ball pretty good," the left-side swinger said. "I had a good day on the last day I ever play here, so it was nice." Just not nice enough for the entire team which couldn't make enough out of their scattered opportunities. "We had 11 hits and only four runs. They did a good job stopping the big innings."
For a while Bole did, too. Vanderbilt's first run ought not have happened anyway as a fly ball lifted to left-center was in the crosshairs of CF Jaron Shepherd. Duffy kept coming over from left and interrupted the non-catch for a double. "That's just one of those things that it doesn't really matter how much you practice it, it just happens in baseball," Duffy said. Andrew Giobbi followed with a clean two-bagger for the RBI.
State's best chance at an early run came in the second too, when with Duffy on second after his own double C Cody Freeman lifted a drive to straight-center that carried better than expected. Fielder Connor Harrell had to reach up at the track to prevent a tie. State left a pair on in the third turn.
Bole overcame a pair of third-inning walks, and double-stealing, with two fly balls to maintain the tie one more inning. Because Joe Loftus led off the VU fourth with a double, and a swinging strikeout of Connor Harrell was negated as the dirtball got by Freeman. Nine-batter Bryan Johns was the first, but not last, Commodore to make use of the wind and sail a three-run shot over leftfield for a 4-0 lead. A four-pitch walk finished Bole.
But Johnson had no better luck finding the strike zone. After a bunt-over out he yielded consecutive walks to load the bases, and scored Brian Harris on a wild pitch. With two down it was Giobbi's turn to use that wind just enough to clear the leftfield fence for three more RBI and 8-0 lead.
The Bulldogs finally got on their own scoreboard in the fourth, though not quite as often as opportunity presented thanks to good Vanderbilt right-fielding. With two outs and Shepherd running off first Freeman bounced a single through for Dogs on corners. 2B Jet Butler lashed a hit into the right corner scoring Shepherd, though the hitter had to stop at first and Freeman at third. A double to the same general area, by SS Jonathan Ogden, also produced a lone run as rightfielder Loftus again covered quickly. It was only fitting then that he caught the inning-ending fly ball from 3B Nick Vickerson for a 8-2 difference.
And the Commodores had no problems getting it all back. Harrell singled and made second on a grounder. Ogden's reach was a few inches too low to stop Harris' liner getting over him for a RBI double; and a one-hopper took an odd carom off the shortstop himself and into leftfield for a ruled-error and another run. A walk and hit batsman set up Curt Casali for a bullet down the third base line and two more RBI.
And, a pitching change with Reed coaxing a fly ball to end this inning. State avoided more damage in the sixth with runners on corners and one out. Vickerson fielded a fast grounder and threw out the lead runner at home; then Duffy made the best catch of his senior season on a diving grab. Reed threw a scoreless seventh too, but Vanderbilt came out swinging freely in the eighth and padded with margins with two more runs on four hits. It took a line-out/double-play to stop the bleeding at 14-2.
Vanderbilt ran righthander Navery Moore to the hill for MSU's eighth. An oft-injured sophomore and former 26th-round draftee—"He was throwing like, 95," Duffy said--Moore was greeted by Duffy with a single; walked Sneed; and was hit up the middle by Shepherd to double State's run total. Shepherd hesitated just a little too long on a dirtball though and was thrown-out at second.
Drew Hayes put State down in order in the ninth with Powers left on-deck, unable to take one last hack at a hit in his homefield finale. "It's weird," said a senior with the fourth-most home runs (53) in program history. "So I wish it would have gone better. But these aren't going to be the things I remember about playing at Dudy Noble Field."
The Bulldogs have four games in an abbreviated last week, beginning Tuesday night at Hattiesburg with a 6:30 rematch against Southern Mississippi. Cohen plans a ‘staff' night for that contest because the final SEC weekend moves up to Thursday-Friday-Saturday. And that rotation may well have to be adjusted after usual game-two starter, freshman Chris Stratton, threw 143 pitches yesterday and likely needs all the rest his young right arm can get.