Tigers Feast On State Pitching For 17-3 Win

It's not breaking news of course. But a coach has to say something about every game, and John Cohen had no choice but to repeat the theme after LSU teed off on Bulldog arms. "We're not good enough to pitch in this league right now," Mississippi State's skipper said after a 17-3 rout at Alex Box Stadium. "We have to find some guys that can pitch at this level."

Mississippi State didn't find many of those Friday evening in game-two of the season's final weekend. Four of the Diamond Dogs to toe the rubber combined to allow all those runs on 13 of LSU's 14 total base hits, as well as issue eight walks and one run-scoring plunking for bad measure. And, all of this came in just the first five innings. The only bright pitching spot for State came as senior Greg Houston ran out the final three full frames with just a hit and no more scoring.

Of course, by then the Tigers had done plenty damage to secure both the series as well as a SEC Tournament berth. The win, combined with a Kentucky loss, locked up LSU (36-19, 14-15 SEC) for the eight-team field. Mississippi State's season-ending skid extended to 14-straight league losses and a 22-33 overall mark, 5-24 SEC.

The Tigers didn't just pile up a lot of safeties, as well as accept all those free passes. They piled everything together into three very big bunches with all their runs coming in the 3-4-5 innings. The biggest outburst was their first with an eight-run third turn, all at the expense of State's Devin Jones. The sophomore was making just his second start of this season, as Cohen opted to push usual game-two opener Chris Stratton back a day. And for two scoreless innings usual late-reliever Jones (2-4) looked the part, only to have everything crumble.

"Devin did fine for two innings," Cohen said. "Then his delivery just fell apart and he tried to do too much." Jones would be charged with eight runs on just three hits, walking four and hitting one."

Chief beneficiary of all that offensive largesse was Tiger starter Austin Ross, who evened his season record at 4-4 with seven sound innings. Five of them were scoreless as he limited the Bulldogs to four hits in his stint. The only flaws in his box score were that three of those allowed hits left the yard, albeit for solo home runs so the overall damage was limited. Ross struck out eight and walked nobody.

Ross certainly had an efficient opening, facing the minimum through three. Good defensive aid was required just once as centerfielder Leon Landry robbed LF Ryan Duffy of a leadoff-double in the second, making a dramatic lunge at the warning track. By the time he came back for the fourth it was with all the lead a moundsman could want.

Jones also sat the side his first two turns, locating the fastball and keeping Tigers guessing on sliders. Even a leadoff single in the third by Matt Gaudet didn't look dangerous initially as two outs later the runner was only as far as second and Jones was 2-2 on order-topper Trey Watkins. Jones lost him, then loaded the bags with a tough walk after being two-and-two to Leon Landry.

The close calls just seemed to take something from State's sophomore. Most obviously his location, as he plunked Micah Gibbs forcing in the first run, then no-question walked Blake Dean for another. Ensuing pitches got farther and farther from the zone as Jones visibly slumped on the hill. And when he did put anything across the plate the Tigers finally swung with consecutive seeing-eye singles by Austin Nola and Mikie Mahtook for four combined RBI.

"That's absolutely what happens when you walk too much," Cohen said. "That's what young guys do in a hostile environment." One more run-scoring walk was the end for Jones. But freshman Luke Bole had no better fortune as LSU hit him, too. Alex Edward singled in a pair and Tyler Hanover one more to cap the eight-run outburst.

The top of State's order did calm the home crowd somewhat as 3B Nick Vickerson opened the fourth with a home run, his eighth of the year; and after two went down Duffy crushed a solo shot over rightfield for his tenth homer of the senior season. This relief was temporary though and LSU got those two back, and more, in the bottom of the inning. A walk and single finished Bole for junior Trey Johnson, who was immediately hit by Dean for yet another up-the-middle single and RBI. A grounder to second by Nola scored the next run, then Mahtook roped a solid hit into center for a 11-2 margin before Johnson could roll a double-play.

As if they needed any further offense, LSU played longball in a six-run fifth inning with five of the RBI coming on a trio of homers. Hanover and Landry both soloed and with two on Mahtook cleared the fence off a Corey Collins offering for the 17-2 margin.

Which was far more than enough as State mustered only one other run, that in the sixth when 1B Connor Powers hit a huge loft well up the backdrop behind centerfield for his 16th homer of the season and 54th career shot. Ross ended his stint with a called strikeout at 92 pitches.

"He threw strikes," Cohen said. "When you have to play defense 15, 20 minutes an inning; and then a guy is throwing it in the strike zone he's going to speed things up. We found barrel several times and the only hits we had flew out of the stadium. But he had a good, solid SEC performance tonight."

Chris Cotton worked the last two innings with two hits and a strikeout. Houston fanned five in what might be his final college appearance. State managed just six hits, all by different Dogs, while Mahtook and Hanover each hit safely three times for LSU. Mahtook and Nola both drove in four runs.

Mississippi State ends the season in Saturday's 2:00 contest, with freshman righty Stratton (4-3, 5.80) taking the hill opposed by LSU lefthander Chris Matulis.

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