Whitaker’s shot, off the first pitch in extra-innings, spotted Alabama (27-18, 9-10 SEC) to a good start in Saturday’s doubleheader. Mississippi State (24-17, 7-12 SEC) lost any chance at a much-needed league sweep, and went into the 5:45 game-two looking just to square a must-win series.
The loss not only spoiled State’s high hopes for the weekend; it negated a big day for Bulldog Jaron Shepherd. The senior outfielder, who’d hit one home run in his 83 previous college games, stunned everyone by slugging a pair of solo shots in one contest. His first homer of the season put MSU in front 1-0; his second, in the eighth, tied the game 4-4.
And, was the cue for Reed’s use after 3.0 excellent relief innings from Luis Pollorena. The lefthander was allowed to get the first out of the Alabama ninth, against a lefthander; then Reed was assigned a series of right-handers. The textbook move worked well enough that inning as Reed stranded two.
But Whitaker foiled it all by taking Reed over leftfield handing him the first decision all season. His stunning shot also made a winner of Alabama reliever Jonathan Smart (3-1) after throwing the last 2.1 turns. Smart had ended the Bulldog eighth with the go-ahead runner in scoring position, stranded another runner in the ninth, and retired the last three faced in extra frames with no walks or strikeouts.
Frustrating as the finish was, Mississippi State could look back to under-utilized chances earlier that would have given more control of the game than a 3-0 lead after two innings. The Bulldogs out-hit Alabama 15 to 12 and had more extra-base hits as well.
With just a little more support starter Chris Stratton might have made more than four-plus innings, too. As it was the sophomore righthander scuffled through his stint with three runs (two earned) on five hits, a pair of walks and two strikeouts. His earlier exit though meant using both Pollorena and Reed earlier and longer than Mississippi State had hoped in impacting game-two plans, much less Sunday’s contest.
Alabama starter Nathan Kilcrease lasted 5.0 full innings with three runs on eight hits, a walk and two strikeouts.
Stratton got the first hit out of the way immediately with a leadoff single from Taylor Dugas, and needed a sparkling diving stop and throw by 3B Jarrod Parks to strand two. His second inning went in-order, and upon return he had a three-run cushion to work with.
Shepherd got it going with State’s first hit, a four-base number at that as Shepherd not only cleared the fence, but did so to rightfield with no wind aid. That was just the start of things too. C Wes Thigpen blooped a fly ball that fell between three fielders for a double, and took third on a single by 2B Nick Vickerson.
A steal put the pair in positions to score on a good hit, and SS Jonathan Ogden delivered. He flailed at one outside offering, but got around on the next chance and bounced it over the third baseman for a double and 3-0 lead. Alabama could feel most fortunate to escape with just that deficit as a single and walk of the order’s top two loaded the bases and got the bullpen busy. Parks hit it well but on a sinking string to the second baseman, and LF Trey Johnson grounded out.
And the missed chance for a really big inning more than anything on the mound set the rest of the game’s tone. Because Alabama stemmed the momentum with a run in their third inning, as Dugas hit and took second on a wild Stratton pitch. Brock Bennett earned the RBI with a single to rightfield. Stratton left that runner at first base, and got through the fourth with a double-play. But the bottom two Tiders finished him as Miller slipped a grounder inside first base for a leadoff triple, and Sanders plated him with a single to rightfield. The ball was bobbled by Shepherd further to put the tying runner on second base with no outs.
And, a new Bulldog pitcher with Tim Statz entering to face the top of the Alabama order. He walked Dugas, so the Tide gave away an out with a bunt. A walk loaded the paths for Hendricks, who on 2-2 took one off the leg to push the tying run across. Statz got back into the dugout with a tied tally with a fly-ball to leftfield.
But an out into the sixth the last-pair hurt State again as Andrew Miller singled and Josh Sanders doubled. That brought Pollorena in ahead of the ideal schedule, and he should have been out of the inning unscathed as he first fielded a one-hopper with lead-runner Sanders run down. Pollorena followed with a pop-up at the plate from Bennett that Thigpen looked to have a bead on…then didn’t, as the breeze brought it back into fair ground. With the catcher back-tracking 1B Ryan Collins couldn’t come full-speed himself. The ball landed in front of both as Miller crossed for Alabama’s first lead.
It lasted two turns, too. Vickerson led off State’s sixth with a double and had third base stolen, only to over-slide for an easy tag. In the seventh Collins and Parks singled their way(s) on against Josh Rosecrans, only to have Johnson get rung-up on an inside strike. A double-play left all stranded.
But the reliever’s first offering of the eighth inning was to Shepherd, and this time he used the wind to leftfield. Vickerson singled with one out, and after Ogden struck out on a dirtball Alabama changed arms so Smart could pop Bradford out.
With the score evened Pollorena returned to out the top of the order, lefthander Dugas; then Reed was summoned to face some righties. Shepherd made a great running grab for the second out before Jared Reaves and Austen Smith singled for runners on corners. Reed gutted-up and fanned Hendricks to keep it tied.
At least until his first offering of the tenth. He was able to strand two more runners but enough damage had been done.
Miller was 3-of-5 for Alabama with one run, while Dugas, Bennett, and Sanders all hit safely twice. The top three in State’s order also had two hits each but none drove in a run or scored. Shepherd was 3-of-4 with the two self-RBI, and Vickerson 3-of-5. Parks extended his hitting streak to 14 games.
Lefthander Nick Routt was to start for State in game-two, with Alabama also going southpaw in starting Adam Morgan.