A Shepherd bouncer with one out and loaded bases in the ninth inning ate up Tiger second baseman Jacoby Jones, and C.T. Bradford scampered across with the margin of 6-5 victory. The extended rally gave Mississippi State (34-20, 14-15 SEC) a split of the showdown series after two games, while LSU (35-20, 12-17) not only found themselves stunned by the loss but also eliminated from the SEC Tournament.
The Bulldogs are still not locked into the league tourney either, though several thought so including Shepherd. “It feels good to just know we made it to the SEC Tournament with this win. It’s a big confidence booster.” At least the senior outfielder is correct on the latter point, that grinding all the way back from a 5-0 hole did wonders for club confidence. As for postseason prospects, State can secure the SEC tourney berth by winning Saturday’s rubber game.
Or, they could still finish among the league’s top-eight by a combination of right results and tie-breaks among other remaining contenders. Many, many contenders, which means ears tuned to results tomorrow afternoon…especially the noon start of the Ole Miss at Arkansas series, delayed a day by rain and rescheduled as two seven-inning games.
Whatever happens then, the Bulldogs proved something to themselves Friday evening even after falling so far behind. “I felt something special was about to happen,” said Devin Jones.
In fact, Jones was just about the most special aspect of State’s comeback. Thrust into emergency duty with one out, a sixth Tiger score at third base, and a red-hot bunch of batters ahead, Jones responded with perhaps the finest performance of his college career. The one-time starter was superb in 5.1 scoreless innings, scattering five LSU hits and three walks while striking out five. He got within an out of completing the pitching, with rookie righty Taylor Stark called on to fly-out Austin Nola in the top of the eighth with two runners on.
“This feels a lot better than what it’s been the past couple of weeks,” said Jones, who has been raked over media and fan coals since mid-season. If it bothered the junior, he didn’t let it show. “I just didn’t want anyone to think I had quit on the team. I had a long talk with Coach (Butch) Thompson, he said we’re not going to quit, we’re going to keep pounding away at this. It feels great to respond the way I did.”
Jones had actually thrown to four Tigers in Thursday’s 17-1 loss, with just one out. In a way though that set the stage for his game-two heroics, Coach John Cohen figured.
“Butch and I felt he might be really effective today, because when he’s coming off an outing like yesterday he doesn’t feel so much adrenalin going through his veins. All he did was pitch.” Not just that, but Jones was going against a Tiger order made almost entirely of right-handers who spent most of the first game and 4.1 innings of this one matched with Bulldog lefthanders.
Changing sides of the mound may have changed everything. Especially against Dog-killer Mikie Mahtook, who had shredded State southpaws for four hits, five RBI and five runs. Jones stepped in and fanned the SEC’s best batter twice and only walked him intentionally in the ninth just in case. In this matchup, Jones had some inside info on how to out Mahtook.
“I played him this summer and he didn’t like the slider very much. Wasn’t any way I was going to throw him my second-best pitch.”
Even the best pitches still needed support and Jones, as well as relievers Chad Girodo and Taylor Stark got it. Most notably from Shepherd, who saved about as many runs as anyone could have scored with some special verging on spectacular gets on the run. His 105% throttle grab off Nola’s bat in the ninth kept it within one run, and set Stark (3-0) up to get the decision on just five pitches.
Besides that all Shepherd did was hit a home run in the third inning for State’s first tally, and of course drive in the game-winner on a mishandled grounder charitably but nicely ruled a base hit. “He did an unbelievable job offensively and defensively,” said Cohen.
LSU closer Manny Ott (1-3) took the loss on 1.1 innings, with the tying and winning run against him in the ninth on three hits, two walks (one on purpose) and a strikeout. Righthander Kurt McCune started and worked 5.0 innings, with three runs on six hits, two walks and seven strikeouts.
Just as in game-one, State wanted to match the right-leaning LSU order with lefty Nick Routt. His start was sharp enough, striking out the first-inning side. Then Mahtook greeted him with a second inning single and scored on a two-out double by Alex Edward. It would have been 2-0 had not Shepherd made his first big play, a run into the right-centerfield gap to rob Grant Dozar. By the same token McCune evaded a second-inning run as Mahtook made a fine charging catch of his own off Bradford’s sinking liner with two teammates on.
LSU’s big inning was the third, beginning with a leadoff walk of the nine-batter. The expected Trey Watkins’ bunt was fielded by Routt but he hit the runner with an errant throw. Shepherd made another sterling snare that let Jones advance to third base, and with two outs Mahtook was up again. Routt had his instructions but on 2-0 and C Cody Freeman set up outside he came over the plate.
Mahtook stung it for a RBI-single. Worse was to come, along with some ill-will as with Routt in motion batter Nola stepped out and was awarded time. Routt followed through with a high throw that earned an umpire warning and Cohen protest. Tempers had not cooled much when after fouling off some strike-threes Nola smacked a two-run double. Routt made it 5-0 by wild-pitching in Nola before Girodo rolled the inning-ending out.
The Dogs were down but not out, and Shepherd provided some spark with his drive over rightfield for the fourth homer of the season. “I knew it was going to be a fastball, he’d beat our first two batters with it and I knew he was going to try to challenge me.” Then it was infield defense fanning some home-field fires. Twice in the fourth LSU tried for home on good contact with runners in scoring position, after Jones had entered. 3B Jarrod Parks fielded one hot grounder and threw out the runner at home; then LF Brent Brownlee got to a Mason Katz double in time to fire for Parks, who relayed to Freeman for the in-time tag of Rhymes.
That let Jones settle into a groove. “The biggest thing was come on the mound with confidence. It wasn’t I want to throw strikes any more, it was I’m gonna throw strikes, put me in. Not any nerves in the bullpen or anything, I’m going to show everybody what I’m about.”
Still it took runs to rally and the offense responded with lone runs in three-straight frames. 1B Ryan Collins doubled in the fourth and eventually scored on a wild McCune pitch. In the fifth, after Jones had survived three baserunners thanks to a force at second and caght-stealing, Parks reached on a one-out error. He did steal successfully and when substitute 2B Adam Frazier dropped a hit in front of the LSU leftfielder it was 5-3.
Kevin Berry replaced McCune and stranded a runner in the MSU sixth. Bradford doubled to start the seventh, was moved over by Freeman, and made it 5-4 as Parks got his first base hit of the series. It meant Ott would inherit a minimal margin when he came to the mound for the eighth. He did it that long sitting the side. If not for Shepherd the lead would have been two going into the bottom of the ninth as Nola had it tailing to the rightfield line.
“As an outfielder I can tell you he makes those things look easy and it’s not,” said former Diamond Dog Cohen. “If he doesn’t get to that ball everything is different.”
Ott got one out and was facing nine-batter Ogden to open the last chance, and the shortstop dropped a drive in leftfield that good defensive placement held to a single base. Sam Frost was sent to pinch-run. Bradford battled for a walk putting the tying tally at second base, and Freeman delivered…the hard way. His up-the-box grounder somehow missed the gloves of both Ott and Jones and was mishandled by the centerfielder for good measure, meaning Ogden scored unchallenged.
Bradford was stopped at third, wisely with one out and the winning run a play away. Parks was passed to first so Ott could face Shepherd and try for a ground ball. The Bulldog naturally was looking to hit one of Ott’s sinker-balls far enough for a sacrifice but got behind 1-2. “I just wanted to put something in play,” he said. “That’s what happened, and it happened to work.”
Jones had a play as his momentum was moving towards home but the skip was to his right side and caromed off the glove. Not as impressive as a home run, but sufficient to State’s ninth-inning need against a first-class closer. Not that Shepherd was intimidated. “He’s just another guy. The ball has got to cross the plate.”
With so much on the line, such as potential elimination from the SEC and even NCAA tournaments, it was a clutch effort by a team so badly routed the previous evening. But, “They never gave in,” Cohen said. “When you’re down five, the players just keep it going. In fact I felt like our players were trying to get our crowd going and everything gong for us. And they did.”
Mahtook was 2-of-4 with two runs and a RBI as LSU garnered 11 hits. The Bulldogs mustered a dozen safeties with two each for Shepherd, Freeman, and Johnson. And if he didn’t get the official decision, the big winner was Jones after so much mid-season struggling. “You can’t say enough about what he did,” said Cohen. “You know it’s in him, that’s why you keep going to him. His stuff tonight was obviously big-league.”
“I’m going to build on this and hopefully do some pitching in the postseason,” said Jones.
Whether or not he gets that chance is still very much unresolved though. State’s surest route to the tournament(s) is to take this series, and it will be soph righthander Chris Stratton (5-6, 5.17 era) who had the game of his freshman year at Baton Rouge last May. LSU has booked rookie righty Ryan Eades (3-1, 4.86), and while the Tigers are unable to win their way to Hoover this year a NCAA bid remains realistic.