Instead visiting Belmont got it done in that ninth inning, and in a most unlikely way. Centerfielder Dylan Craig’s long line drive got beyond the Bulldog defense and turned into a two-run, inside-the-park home run for the 2-1 margin of victory. Belmont evened their record at 3-3 while Mississippi State took the first loss of the season and is 5-1.
Yet the schedule-opening win streak was oh-so-close to continuing as junior righthander Jones kept the Bruins in check through eight full frames. He only had the 1-0 lead for the last six of those, but had allowed only three hits and as many walks in easily his finest college performance.
So while relief was ready in the bullpen, Jones returned to the hill trying to get his first complete outing. “Oh, I definitely wanted to go back out there. I was confident about it and the coaches were confident in me. They weren’t seeing me all day long, it’s just one of those things that happens.”
Coach John Cohen had no second thoughts at the time or second guessing afterwards based on how Jones was dominating heading into the ninth. “You’re retired 13 out of 15 guys, my catcher is telling me he’s got unbelievable sink than in the first two or three innings, he’s not getting good contact at all.”
And even the hit that put Belmont’s tying run on first base to lead off the ninth wasn’t well struck as Jones came in hard to righthanded batter Derek Hamblen. “He jammed the daylights out of the guy,” Cohen said. Still Hamblen fought it off and dropped a single, bringing up #3 batter Craig. Jones had gotten him out the first two times and walked him in the sixth, and was ahead 1-2. Jones got a fine cut and drove the ball deep and straight to centerfield.
Brownlee moved in and aside at first, then recognized the true trajectory and reversed course a step too late to make a reach. By the time he got to the wall and ball Hamblen had scored and Craig was being given the go-ahead for home.
“Brent Brownlee has made that play a thousand times, I’m not sure what happened on that play,” Cohen said. “We probably should have had him playing a lot deeper than that, but he looked deep.” Brownlee might have also been affected by Thursday illness, the coach added. “It’s just one of those things.”
But it was two runs and Bruin Jon Ivie made it stand up with an in-order ninth to get his third save. Reliever Josh Davis (2-0) picked up the win working two innings with a hit, walk, and two strikeouts. They were both picking up for starter Chase Brookshire who did very well to accept just the one Bulldog run on five hits and three walks. Because the home team’s swinging wasn’t reflected in the box score.
“We had a lot of tough breaks early, we were hitting the ball hard,” said 1B Daryl Norris, who accounted for State’s lone run in the second inning. “It just wasn’t going our way. We kept swinging the bat good and just weren’t finding holes and they were making good plays.”
Belmont only had one error, in the fifth, and it did no harm. In fact that frame typified State’s offensive frustrations. With the wind blowing in all day the Bulldogs wanted to put the ball on the ground and force fielding. They did, such as when RF Ryan Collins led off the fifth with a bunt that became a two-base error. A one-out Brookshire walk and successful steal had two Dogs in scoring positions, but Brownlee’s grounder was right to the second baseman and after much chasing and charging Collins was run down.
Two Dogs had been stranded in the third as well, and would be so again in the seventh after Davis took over. But all State had to show for putting a dozen Dogs on bases was that run in the second turn. Norris singled, went to third on his own as Belmont was lax getting to a base hit by DH Cody Freeman, and scored on a double-play.
Officially just seven were left on State sacks, but it felt like many more. Still Cohen didn’t fault the offense.
“It’s hard to get upset about kids leaving guys on when they’re hitting rockets all over the infield, not average fly balls with the wind blowing in today. Just every hard ground ball was deflected, trapped, chested, caught, and that’s the nature of the game.”
Certainly Jones (1-1) deserved better than the decision he got, with five strikeouts, five hits, and three walks for his day. He had good velocity all eight-plus innings but it was the breaking ball that produced more outs. “I threw it more often, got a lot of swing and misses because they were sitting fastballs early.” Later he went to the two-seam fastball and was on track to finish strong. Until the end his biggest threat was a two-out, bases-loaded third inning that he ended…ironically with a fly ball, to center, by Craig.
Caleb Reed got the last three outs for State.
“The defense played great, in the end we struggled a little bit,” Jones said. “But we knew from the start this team was pretty good and it was going to be a close game.”
As close perhaps as a slightly deeper positioning or a better initial read on the ball, in fact. “It’s really one swing that beats you when you think you’re in position and think you have the right guy there,” said Cohen. “What are the chances of an in-the-park home run with maybe the best defensive outfielder in the Southeastern Conference playing centerfield? But that doesn’t make it any less agonizing to have a lead and be three outs away.”
Since the first setback was inevitable, the Bulldogs can quit worrying about one win streak and start on winning a series. The teams return for a 2:00 Saturday game where State will start righthander Chris Stratton (1-0, 0.00) while Friday first baseman Nate Woods (0-1, 15.00) will get the ball for Belmont. Cohen is confident soph Stratton will do his part.
“We’ve got to get some balls to fall for us tomorrow and hopefully get this thing going.”