"The team chemistry is great and we're having a lot of fun," said freshman pitcher Daryl Norris.
Sunday afternoon was for fun at Dudy Noble Field as State (18-6, 4-2 SEC) recorded their first SEC series sweep since the 2007; ironically also at the expense of Auburn. This one pushed the Bulldogs up into sole-second place in an admittedly fluid Western Division, behind only 5-1 Alabama. The Tigers fell to 14-10, 2-4 SEC and are tied for fourth with Arkansas.
The Bulldogs naturally came into game-three thinking sweep, encouraged even more by a change in weekend weather that turned the wind inwards which would presumably hamper a big-swinging Tiger team. Certainly both MSU moundsmen took advantage of conditions. Yet Nick Routt and Norris also did their fair share of the work limiting Auburn to just four hits, all one-baggers.
Starter Routt didn't get the decision but his 3.2 opening innings were a personal victory all the same. Having not thrown a SEC pitch in 53 weekends with 2010 elbow issues, the lefthander made his second start of this junior year worth waiting for. Routt allowed two hits and two walks, struck out three, and set a steady early tone for his defense that Norris continued.
"I thought Nick was very good," Coach John Cohen said. "We just weren't going to send him out there for a long time. His command was off at times but I thought he spun the fastball well at times." A total 60 pitches proved enough work for Routt; though none knew rookie righty Norris was going to run out the string with the next 5.2 innings of also-shutout pitching.
"I wasn't sure if I was going to pitch that far or not. But Coach (Butch) Thompson had faith in me and I just wanted to keep going." Norris (1-0) not only kept things going but earned his first college decision with two hits, two strikeouts.
The Bulldog having the most weekend fun though had to be Thigpen. After a rough month at the plate, the senior backstop was State's hitting hero in a Friday 7-6 win with a two-run homer and the ninth inning single to put the winning runner on base. After his usual day-off catching, Thigpen came back Sunday to bat 2-of-3, drive in the first and what proved winning RBI, and score once himself.
There's no secret to his resurgence. "I've been putting in a lot of hard work, and everything is starting to click," Thigpen said. SS Jonathan Ogden was 3-of-4 and scored once, in fact on Thigpen's fifth-inning safety. State tallied ten total singles on the afternoon.
But initially Auburn starter Derek Varandore appeared entirely able to shut the Dogs down. The righthander had batters frozen with an odd motion and struck out five in just the first two frames. "He can really pitch, his fastball is so hard to see," Cohen said. "There's so much deception in his delivery and movement in his fastball we had to really hang in there and put our face over the plate and punch some balls in the middle of the field. We finally did that."
Varnadore (3-1) took his first loss on four runs, eight hits, a lone walk, and eight total strikeouts.
Routt's return to SEC starting began well as he retired six-of-seven around a single in the second inning. Then he walked Creede Simpson to open the third, and while Routt did field Zach Alvord's sacrifice bunt he slipped down and made a wild flip towards first putting Tigers on corners with no outs. And, the top of their order up. Justin Fradejas went 2-2 before striking out to cover the steal by Alvord.
In the process he ‘covered' too well, obstructing Thigpen's throw to second, for a unique double-play. A called strikeout ended this threat.
Routt was an out and a walk into the fourth when LF Jaron Shepherd gambled on lunging at a sinking drive and snared it for the second out. At 60 pitches and no runs State figured Routt had done his day's deeds and made the mound-move for Norris. Auburn's runner guessed right on his steal try and made it, but Norris rolled the inning-ending grounder anyway.
That was the first of eight-straight outs for the freshman, as Norris had the Tigers swatting without results. "Mainly my two-seam. They brought a lot of lefties up hoping to get that matchup, but I had a lot of sink on my two-seam and that helped me get a lot of ground balls." Besides, with that in-wind at his back, Norris had a little more margin to attack those southpaws. "Yeah, it was a lot better than what the other guys were facing!"
Still he was holding a scoreless tie at half-way point with Varnadore looking strong. "The first time through the lineup everybody had seen him once," Thigpen said. "We knew he had some good sink, a very good slider, so we got a different approach."
Such as Ogden catching the Tigers playing back with a slick bunt up the first base side for a leadoff hit. Freshman 2B Adam Frazier's bunt was more routine but successful in advancing the runner into scoring position. Thigpen didn't waste time watching pitches, he swung at the first offering and lined a single into center. Ogden was being waved around anyway but Simpson made it easier by bobbling the ball just a bit so there was no throw.
Any lead was welcome, but State was soon in position to expand as Shepherd's single to right was misplayed so Thigpen could take third base. A two-out walk of 1B Ryan Collins loaded the bases for 3B Jarrod Parks, a sharp-eyed batter who had twice taken called third strikes to his obvious surprise. This time the third baseman wasn't going down without a hack. After watching a 1-2 offering go wide of the plate, he punched the ball through the proverbial box. Thigpen and Shepherd scored.
"He is just a really tough kid mentally, he hung in there and did what he does best," Cohen said. "He got a ground ball middle of the field and boy, that was a huge swing right there." DH Cody Freeman kept it going with a ground ball through shortstop, and while not all that strong a safety Collins was waved home anyway. Leftfielder Brooks Beisner's throw was well off the plate for a 4-0 Bulldog lead.
Ethan Wallen took over Tiger pitching for the bottom of the sixth and could have escaped it unscathed despite multiple runners reaching. Ogden reached on a single to shortstop, and Frazier's grounder to the same side was short-hopped to first for two on. But hot-hitter Parks was outed on a check-swing, to the obvious annoyance of catcher and coach alike. Shepherd one-hopped right to the first baseman for an easy tag of Ogden at home, leaving Dogs on corners.
And, in a situation Cohen opted for some gimmickry by signaling Shepherd for a delay-false steal. Wallen threw over as expected, and first baseman Kevin Patterson went chasing as hoped. When almost half-way to second he made the throw, Frazier took off for home and crossed unchallenged. Meanwhile as Wallen had forgotten to come cover first Shepherd practically jogged back safely.
"You don't put those kinds of plays on often," Cohen said. "Jaron and Shep just executed that play to absolute perfection. With a five-run lead it's going to take more than one swing."
Not that Auburn had many chances at any sort of big swing the rest of the way. Norris kept the shutout into the stretch despite having runners on corners with two outs. He jumped and stabbed a high hopper by pinch-hitter Bobby Andrews to end that inning, then rolled through the last six-faced without anyone reaching. The final five outs were all on air-balls, in fact.
"They got under a lot of balls but we were ready for that, and the wind was good for us today," Norris said.
Four of State's five runs were scored with two outs, continuing a weekend trend of clutch hitting…though the overall average was a solid .387. That was somewhat inflated by Saturday's 15-8 romp with 13 runs scored in just the first two innings. Still Dogs reached bases at a .424 clip, and while they were officially just 1-of-5 on steal tries—the make was Frazier coming home—there was enough taking of extra bases and wave-arounds to keep the aggressive basepath approach. Thigpen and Ogden, two struggling swingers of late, were a combined 12-of-18 at the plate.
And the pitching rose to the SEC occasion as well, with a 4.00 even ERA and .225 average-against, as well as 20 strikeouts to 11 walks. No wonder Thigpen could claim "Everything is starting to come together for us."
Cohen is more cautious since, after all, this is just two league weekends. Still having his club over .500 SEC for the first time since the first weekend of his first season back at State is encouragement. There is even talk of the Dog breaking into a poll or two this week.
Just don't tell the coach that.
"Yeah we're not even going to think about those things. We're going to think about Tuesday and Alabama A&M and get some guys ready to play in that game. Because as we've seen in the SEC in the midweek teams come in to your place really excited to play and you need to match their enthusiasm or you can get in a really tough situation. Then we'll do a good job getting ready for Georgia."
Cohen said Sunday either sophomore righthander Kendall Graveman (2-0) or junior righty Andrew Busby (1-0) will get the midweek start at 6:30.