"It wasn't very pretty," said pitcher Chris Stratton. "But we'll take it as a team."
To Coach John Cohen the victory looked much prettier given the context. Two fluke injuries in a Wednesday win had centerfielder C.T. Bradford and third baseman Daryl Norris sidelined for anywhere from two to six weeks respectively. And outfielder Brent Brownlee's nagging kneecap situation finally came to the surgery point this week as well, leaving Mississippi State down three starters on defense and in the batting order.
All that, and a dangerous guest coming to Dudy Noble Field. "We spent 24 hours trying to convince our kids how good a club this is," Cohen said. "You don't come in here 11-3 by accident. When your team is hitting .353, you can hit."
The Bears did hit, safely seven times including the game's only home run. Longballs in fact are a Mercer specialty, whether at home or away. So Bulldog moundsmen were being extra careful even within the spacious home field confines. "That's a very dangerous offense," Stratton said. "They've got a lot of pop in the bats and you have to keep the ball down or you'll pay for sure."
Stratton was the best Dog to ask. Entering for the third inning, probably a little earlier than even planned for the scripted ‘piggyback' plan, the junior righthander worked five-plus frames and ran his record to 4-0 in the process. Stratton did give up a couple of runs on four hits and walked five, but fanned seven before turning the ball over to closer Caleb Reed for his fourth save of the young season.
"I hate that I made Caleb come in at the end of the game, our goal every Friday is for him not to pitch. And he's pitched three times the last four days, you can't say enough about him. But I have to do a better job."
Ross Mitchell opened with a run on two hits in his 2.0 innings, one strikeout and one walk. Mercer starter Brandon Love (2-1) went 4.2 innings with four runs on seven hits, two walks and four strikeouts.
The Bulldogs pinned one on Love immediately as SS Adam Frazier reached on an infield single and stole second base, where he could score on a one-out single by 1B Wes Rea. Mercer evened it up in their second with bases loaded and Stratton already warming. A ground ball off the bat of Nate Moorhouse tied the score on a force at third base. Mitchell got a come-backer from the #9 batter to keep a 1-1 scoreboard and finish his short starting stint.
In State's second CF Hunter Renfroe dropped a drive into leftfield and legged it into a double. Love bounced a pitch off the plate to advance the runner, and LF Taylor Stark scored him with a single.
Stratton entered for the top of Mercer's order, and quickly had two on with an out for cleanup batter Nick Blacklund. After fouling off three full-count strikes, the Bears sent both runners so Blacklund had to swing, and miss, a high fastball. And C Mitch Slauter threw out the lead runner for a twin-killing to end the threat and inning.
The fourth wasn't as fortunate as Travis Benn went opposite-field and cleared the fence in right for a leadoff homer. A plunking and single had go-ahead runners on corners, too. The latter erased himself by getting caught stealing and a strikeout stranded the other. But in the fifth Stratton loaded the bases himself with a couple of walks and hit batsman.
On 2-2 count Benn watched strike three, and a grounder to first base got Stratton off his own hook once again. He settled down for six outs of the next seven faced while his offense got a lead.
"He didn't command it the way he normally does," Cohen said. "He walked five but he punched out seven, and he threw great pitches when he needed to."
In the bottom of the fifth Henderson singled and was bunted over. He had to stay on the middle-bag while 3B Brayden Jones reached on an infield hit; then a single over second loaded the bases. Slauter watched four balls to force in Henderson, and Rea's grounder to third base brought Jones home for the 4-2 lead. A two-out walk of DH Trey Porter finished Love with sidearmer David Teasley inheriting loaded bases. His off-speed stuff struck out Renfroe.
Mercer used a pair of relievers for a scoreless seventh, as Stratton ran down in the top of the eighth with consecutive walks bringing in Reed for the bottom three in that order. A bunt moved the tying runners into scoring positions, and State gave up one score to get an out on a roller to first base. Another dribbler ended the inning with a 4-3 lead.
But the Bulldogs had the matching score for some last inning margin. Porter worked a walk and pinch-runner Sam Frost stole into scoring position. New reliever Brandon Barker got a pop-out bunt from Renfroe, but Frost stole third. A walk of Stark set up the double play and Henderson obliged with a grounder up the middle. "Coach told me put it on the ground and use my speed to make them make an error. So that's what I was trying to do."
Mercer second baseman D.J. Johnson lost the handle on. Nobody was outed as Frost scored. Reed did get tagged for an opening double in the ninth by order-topper Derrick Workman, with no harm done as he fanned the next three.
Frazier and Henderson had two-hit nights for the home team. "My first at-bat I missed a hit-and-run," admitted Henderson. "But other than that I tried to stay focused and not let one at-bat stop me. To me it's the last at-bat that counts and you have to come through." Which he did by forcing a Bear error and the insurance score.
"They had the one mistake defensively that really cost them, but they pitched good and they can hit," Cohen said of Mercer. "Our kids understand fully how good a club they are." At the same time State's revamped lineup had just one error, a first-inning fumble by Rea that did no harm when Mitchell rolled a double-play.
The best Dog defender was the backstop as pitchers worked away from Bear bats. Often way, way away. "I think Slauter played the defensive game of his life because he played goalie back there, we kept dropping breaking balls on the plate and all over the box and he kept blocking them."
Saturday's game-two is at 2:30, with lefthander Nick Routt (1-0, 2.92) starting for State and righthander Evan Mitchell warming early in piggy-back relief.