Yet at half-way of the evening Sacred Heart was up a run, and as late as the eighth still had a tied scoreboard. That was when Mississippi State put the game in the hands of two first-year moundsmen. The outcome was a career-first decision for both as Taylor Stark got the win and C.T. Bradford picked up the save.
“Our freshman arms did a great job,” said Cohen.
Stark, who put in 1.0-plus innings, assumed the 5-5 tie held by starter Chris Stratton for the first seven frames. He did so entering to face the 3-4-5 batters in Sacred Heart’s order, but that didn’t phase this frosh. “I like to be brought into tough situations and make the most of it. I told (Chris) if I won hey man, this is for you.”
He did win that eighth with a in-order inning and two strikeouts, including #3 batter John Murphy who had slugged a two-run homer off Stratton way back in the first. Not that he was firing for fannings. “I just wanted to keep my team in the game,” said Stark. “We wanted to throw a lot of strikes and see if they would put the bat on the ball and make outs.” And when Stark returned for the ninth it was with a lead and thus the potential decision as another Bulldog freshman, pinch-runner Adam Frazier, came home on a bases-loaded wild pitch to break that tie.
Stark’s stint stopped with a leadoff single in the ninth though. Cohen admitted temptation to leave the kid out there. “It would have been interesting to see if Stark finish that sucker out, but with the lefthanded nature of the bottom of their lineup you go ahead and let C.T. finish it.” But not before veteran Caleb Reed had taken care of one batter, who was absolutely certain to be bunting.
He did and Reed fielded for a force at first. Then it was time to summon Bradford from rightfield with the tying runner in scoring position and the #8 and #9 Pioneers coming up. “I felt comfortable with that,” Bradford said. “That’s perfect for me, I love coming in like that.” Cohen liked the matchup as the due-batters were a switch-hitter and a true lefty.
Southpaw Bradford saved it with a fly ball to center and called strikeout. “Coach (Butch) Thompson was calling pitches and it all worked out.” Between them the three MSU relievers allowed a single single with three strikeouts and no walks.
Stratton, the big Dog in this pitching rotation, was not so fortunate. He did fan five Pioneers but also issued three tough walks with four hits, and all five runs went to his account. He left with a no-decision for the first time this spring, after three previous victories. It wasn’t lack of velocity or movement; or maybe it was the movement that didn’t meet umpire approval in some mid-game stretches.
“The zone gave him a little trouble but he kept battling,” Cohen said. “And he so desperately wanted to come out, we decided it was just too early. I told him this is March, we want you to hold up through April and May. It wasn’t his best performance but it was still very good, just one pitch here or there and a ball stays in the ballpark.”
Sacred Heart’s M.J. Schiafano (0-1) took the loss. He began the game at third base and had one of his team’s hits and runs, but ended up working 1.1 relief innings after starter Troy Scribner had run his course. Scribner was charged with five runs on eight hits with four strikeouts and a walk.
He did have a brief lead after Murphy’s first-inning homer, a one-out shot with a runner on base that did hit the fence and pop on over. But the Bulldogs matched that in their own first turn. 2B Nick Vickerson singled and stole and Bradford delivered the first RBI. “Nick did a great job stealing, it took all the pressure off me,” Bradford said, “I just had to get one in the air and he’d score.” He did better than that as the drive got beyond the leftfielder for a double. 3B Jarrod Parks singled too, for runners on corners, and while 1B Ryan Collins’ grounder was turned for two it was still able to score Bradford for a 2-2 tie.
Scribner kept it even the next two turns with a couple of strikeouts. He had to face Parks again in the fourth though and the third baseman spanked a two-base bouncer down the left line. An out later C Cody Freeman joined him by taking a plunking. Both runners advanced into scoring positions on a fly ball to center.
Scribner got ahead of SS Johnathan Ogden and was a strike from ending this inning. But Ogden took two balls, then Scribner’s 2-2 offering was not only off the dish also but too far outside for his catcher. Parks came home on the wild pitch and Freeman advanced a corner closer, where he could score on Ogden’s single under the second baseman’s glove.
No sooner had State taken a lead than they lost it in the top of the fifth. A couple of walks brought the top of the order back up with one down, and Tedesco loaded the bases with his single. Stratton walked J.J. Edwards on four pitches for one run, before Murphy grounded to the right side. It would have tied the score anyway as Collins got a force at second base, but Ogden’s hasty relay try for an unlikely double-play sailed for a run-scoring error and 5-4 Pioneer lead.
The Bulldogs did get one back to even it again. Vickerson led off with a single and Scribner’s pick move was a balk. Vickerson took quick advantage by stealing third, with no throw; and Bradford delivered the fly ball RBI for a 5-5 deadlock after five full.
Both sides left runner in scoring spots before the stretch. In State’s sixth a two-out double by Ogden led to nought; Stratton had a more serious test in his seventh as with one out nine-hole Pioneer hitter Schiafano got a drive just over Bradford’s glove in rightfield for a triple. Stratton rolled an out that held the runner, then fanned Edwards.
Schiafano took over two outs into the seventh after Bradford walked, stranding that runner. He wasn’t so fortunate in the eighth though as DH Daryl Norris fought off a 1-2 offering for a single, with Frazier immediately subbed-in for speed. He was able to jog to second as CF Brent Brownlee walked on four balls so nine-batter LF Jaron Shepherd would have the clutch-pressure…except he also drew a four-ball walk, definitely unintended.
Nor was the wild pitch caroming off to the right. Stark hesitated before heading home and made it closer than necessary at the plate with a short slide, but was safe with what became the game-winner. Because Stark had taken care of the top of the turn in fine style. “They just said keep it on the outside part of the plate because these guys are fastball-happy, they want to swing at everything in or over the middle.”
Then it was old hand Reed and Bradford sealing success. Much like Friday’s 5-0 win, though much closer of course, the Bulldogs didn’t dominate at the plate. They had nine hits and three doubles but couldn’t put together really big innings. “We had to battle,” said Bradford after going 1-of-2 officially with two RBI and a run. “We know we played great but we know we can come out and swing better. That’s going to happen. We grinded all nine innings.”
Vickerson had two hits and scored twice, and both Norris and Ogden had a pair of safeties. Steve Tedesco was 2-of-4 with two runs for the Pioneers, while Murphy drove in three runs including his team’s first homer of the season. “You’re feeling things aren’t going your way when a ball hits the top of the fence and just rolls over,” Cohen said. “But our kids battled.”
Now the Bulldogs will battle for a weekend sweep in Sunday’s 1:30 finale. Righthander Evan Mitchell (3-0, 2.45), another freshman, will start for State. Sacred Heart had booked Schiafano to start Sunday but might have to re-think after his late Saturday appearance.