“Any way you can win, especially early in the year,” said Stratton. “I mean, I wish we’d score runs earlier. But as long as they’re doing that you can’t ask for much more.”
Not as long as Mississippi State (7-2) can get the sort of late-game heroics needed to rally from a 4-0 deficit to take their first game of the weekend round-robin at Dudy Noble Field. For eight frames the Huskies had control, and when C Mitch Slauter dribbled a one-out grounder towards shortstop with a pair of Dogs in scoring positions in the ninth it appeared Connecticut (3-5) had held on.
But Husky shortstop Tom Verdi’s rushed heave home got past catcher Joe Pavone as lead Dog runner 2B Matthew Britton dove home. He had to come back to slap the dish in the chaos, and before SS Adam Frazier followed him there for the winning score.
Though there was still an out to give, Coach John Cohen said his runners did exactly as prepared in such a situation. “You’ve got the infield in, and an in-between hop, a guy running,” Cohen said. “We’re going to send him there, we’re in a down-angle all the way.”
That was Britton’s case, but it was the following Frazier who had to make his own call when not entirely certain how far the ball was from anyone behind home. Then again, the sophomore second-sacker was key to the inning already having legged out a grounder so fast—Cohen reported a 4.17 clocking—that it forced UConn second baseman L.J. Mazzilli into another error for two Dogs on with one out.
Cohen wasn’t surprised seeing Frazier make the hard turn for home. “It’s a heads-up play because any ball in front of you it’s your decision. He really runs bases well and is such an instinctive player. He didn’t swing the bat well today but he just finds ways to help you win.”
And help Stratton win, after the junior righthander essentially gave a starter’s worth of work in a relief role. Stratton (3-0) entered in the fourth of a scoreless game, gave up all four Husky runs in his first two turns, and from there became, well, more like Chris Stratton. His official line was 6.0 innings with four runs on seven hits, two walks, and a team’s season high nine strikeouts.
“I’m just out there having fun, trying to give our team a chance to win a ball game,” Stratton said. Fun being an odd description of the intense afternoon, which began with a rain delay and continued under dark clouds with lightning on the north horizon and bad weather reports around the region. But after falling behind 4-0 Stratton did enjoy himself.
“I’m really proud of Chris,” Cohen said. “He threw the one bad pitch that left the yard (hence the backpack penalty). He goes six-plus innings and doesn’t have his best command but he just kept battling. He just kept battling his heart out.”
UConn reliever David Fischer (0-2) got the loss on 2.1 innings with four of State’s runs allowed on four hits, no walks and two strikeouts. It was a tough way for the righthander to lose it in the ninth on a pair of errors, and three unearned runs total. He had also served up the key pitch to the Bulldog comeback in the eighth inning after an error put Slauter on base, with DH Trey Porter sailing a one-out offering for a two-run homer and 4-3 scoreboard.
Lefthander Brian Ward deserved better for his 6.0-plus excellent starting innings. He did absorb a run with three hits, three walks, and four strikeouts, but by and large kept the Bulldogs baffled. And they still were afterwards.
“I don’t know what it was, he had something about him that we couldn’t get on him,” said Porter, 0-for-3 against Ward. “And he wasn’t a guy that threw it by everybody, but we just couldn’t catch up on him.”
Initially neither could Connecticut on State starter Ben Bracewell. He worked the first three innings with no scoring on a single hit, walk, and strikeout. Fans were likely surprised to see a change made in a 0-0 game for the UConn fourth frame, but pitching coach Butch Thompson knew this is still too soon to push Bracewell after elbow rehabilitation and a year’s layoff.
“He just had some soreness in his elbow,” Cohen said. “And when you have Chris waiting it’s not a tough decision.”
It didn’t seem a smart move at first though. Stratton’s first batter reached on a ground ball that Britton did run down but also threw wide of first and the covering pitcher. Billy Ferriter was joined on the paths by a walked Alex Debellis on a very close check-swing ball. After just missing a two-run double, Verdi did even better with a loft over leftfield for his second homer of the season and a 3-0 lead.
An inning later Mike Friel led off with a single and was bunted over to score on a two-out single by Ferriter. “I was just leaving the ball up and you can’t do that against a team that can swing it like they are,” Stratton said. “I wish I could take that one back. My team saved me, they just saved me.”
Not until the seventh though as Ward had stranded the four Dogs who’d reached to then. But when he walked CF C.T. Bradford on four pitches Connecticut called in righthander Fischer against the bottom of the MSU order. LF Hunter Renfroe greeted him with a single to rightfield, and a grounder to first base advanced both Dogs. RF Demarcus Henderson pushed Bradford across with a roller to shortstop to get State on the board at last, but Frazier’s grounder to the same side kept it at 4-1.
At least until the next inning. Slauter reached on a fielding error at shortstop, and with two outs and a 1-2 count DH Trey Porter finally got to swing against somebody else. He lifted a Fischer changeup that just cleared rightfield and rightfielder Ryan Moore’s glove for his third homer of the season. “I didn’t think it was out at first, I kind of caught it off the end. That guy had a lot of velo and I was looking fastball, he threw one in they called for a strike. So I kind of backed off.”
The home run was big in another way, Cohen noted. “Trey fouled a ball off his shin and it swelled up, our trainer said he didn’t know if he could get around the bases. And of course he pulls a Kirk Gibson there and could have crawled around the bases!”
State had the tying runner, Bradford on first base with two outs. Renfroe had two good hacks before Fischer froze him with off-speed on the inside corner. But his luck and defense ran out in the ninth with the leadoff hit, a successful Henderson bunt, and Frazier’s hard-charge to beat a tag. Slauter actually had a 3-0 count (another ball was waved-off by umpire Larry Short as the batter’s back-swing nicked the catcher’s mitt) before taking two called strike. Then he chopped it at the left side.
“It’s all about the little things,” Cohen said. Though getting this win was pretty big, the Bulldogs thought. Especially Stratton, whose middling moustache—something MSU pitchers have agreed to attempt after a midweek loss to Memphis—clashed with the cheerful child’s backpack. Being able to hang in and win late was a step forward, he said, showing that if the pitching and defense do their jobs eventually the offense can come around.
Though, “Hopefully we can start a little earlier,” he said.
By getting the game in the weekend stays on schedule. State plays Lipscomb at 11:00am with Kendall Graveman starting; then has a 2:30 rematch with UConn. Cohen said the piggy-back system of Nick Routt and Evan Mitchell is set for that contest.