Three Diamond Dogs who have missed sizable segments of this early SEC season reunited Friday at Dudy Noble Field, providing four hits, two RBI, and two runs in a series-opening win. Norris, out since a March 7 kneecap injury, made a surprising return for this game and made it count with a 2-of-3 performance as designated hitter, scoring once and driving in one.
CF C.T. Bradford, who has been working back in the last two weekends since his shoulder injury that same night, was 1-of-4 with a run scored. And RF Brent Brownlee continued his recovery from early March kneecap surgery with a key pinch-hit appearance in the seventh inning to drive in Mississippi State’s last run.
“That’s huge for us,” said Brownlee. “We all want to be out there.”
The win itself was pretty significant as State (19-11) got the weekend started right and improved to 4-6 SEC. Vanderbilt dropped to 12-18, 3-7.
As encouraging as those contributions were from Dogs on comeback track, it was a good old regular setting the evening’s tune. Or tone. Chris Stratton delivered the sort of Friday outing that is expected of State’s righthanded ace. He put in 6.0 complete innings and up to that final frame was in charge. Even then Stratton (7-0) was able to survive a tough sixth inning, with three hits and as many runs, and hand a lead over to Caleb Reed to protect.
“Chris was excellent,” Coach John Cohen said. Stratton’s final line showed four runs on six hits with six strikeouts and just one walk, sufficient to score his third conference conquest.
“The hitters came out today, and Caleb came in and slammed the door as usual,” Stratton said. “It was a good game.” The Bulldog offense did indeed show up, scoring twice in the first inning and four more times in the third after Vanderbilt got on the board. Most of the damage was charged to Commodore starter Kevin Ziomek (2-5) with four runs on five hits, two walks and no strikeouts.
State got to lefthander Ziomek immediately as SS Adam Frazier punched a single through the right side and LF Tyler Fullerton worked a walk. C Mitch Slauter didn’t get the bunt down twice but a chopped ground ball did the trick just as well. With two outs 1B Wes Rea fell behind before roping a single into leftfield to score the pair in front of him.
Norris said Ziomek was feeding “a lot of fastballs” into the zone. “And we had a lot of good at-bats tonight. We saw the ball well, got on base a lot, a lot of walks and HBPs. That allowed us to do a lot of things offensively.”
Stratton could have kept a shutout through three if not for errors. A one-hop grounder ate up 3B Brayden Jones, with a passed ball advancing the runner. Andrew Harris tried to bunt but his short popup was snared on a diving grab by Stratton himself. In retrospect this was likely the defensive play of the entire game.
“That just shows you how athletic he is,” said Rea. “You see him light up the radar gun, you see him throw 89 sliders, but when he makes plays like that it’s just unbelievable.” It definitely prevented a much bigger inning because the top of Vanderbilt’s order knocked consecutive singles for a RBI. And when the second safety was bobbled by RF Hunter Renfroe, VU’s Tony Kemp tried coming on home after a stumble rounding third.
Renfroe recovered for a throw to 2B Sam Frost and relay home just in time for the tag. Stratton ended the third with a strikeout, and his offense got the one run back and much more in their half. Slauter took a pitch off the shoulder, and Bradford laid down the bunt to the left side. Ziomek covered and rifled the throw under his first baseman’s mitt. A single and error was the official ruling but all that mattered were Dogs in scoring positions and a pitching change. Righthander Drew VerHagen entered to face Rea in another RBI opportunity.
Rea came through, bouncing an opposite-field single past the first baseman. Only Slauter scored as the rightfielder quickly covered, but that just delayed Bradford making home. Norris plated him with his second single of the evening. Renfroe bunted both runners along, an odd call in some minds given his big-hit potential. Yet State played it right.
Frost had led off the MSU second with a double, and nothing came of it. This time another two-bagger drove in a pair as he deposited a drive in left-centerfield for the 6-1 lead. The extra margin would be most helpful later.
VerHagen plunked a pair in the fourth, stranding both, then yielded to lefthander Jared Miller for the scoreless fifth. That’s when Vanderbilt made its best bid against Stratton. Anthony Gomez singled and Conrad Gregor earned a one-out walk. Spencer Navin got around on one and bounced it off the third base bag for a RBI-double. With two outs Riley Reynolds fell behind 1-2 before lining a single that scored both runners. On his 102nd pitch Stratton got a grounder to the mound to get back in the dugout with his lead slashed to 6-4.
“It was going pretty much how I wanted to,” up to that point Stratton said. “I probably should have thrown some different pitches, they hadn’t seen my slider and I didn’t throw it. Just wrong pitches at the wrong time.”
Easy-throwing VU righthander Brian Miller was able to out Norris for the first time and strand a pair who had reached without hits. A one-out walk of Frost in the seventh didn’t seem like trouble, until a two-out Frazier grounder was mishandled.
With a runner in scoring position Brownlee got the pinch-hit call. “You just have to be in a zone and mentally prepared,” the senior said. The move worked; Brownlee lined the second pitch just over shortstop, scoring Frost. Though B.Miller was able to leave bases stuffed on a fly ball that seventh run was priceless for Bulldog relief pitching.
Because with the margin down to two, and the ninth-batter up for the Commodore seventh, Reed got the early call. He stranded one runner on a comebacker, then overcame a leadoff double in the eighth with a strikeout, fly ball, and strikeout. With two down and nobody on in the last Vanderbilt inning, order-topper Kemp smacked a hot hopper to the right side.
Rea dove, made the stop, and Reed got to the base ahead of Kemp for one more remarkable defensive effort. “He’s beating one of the best runners in the SEC to first base, on a dive-play by a 6-6, 290-pound first baseman!” Cohen said. “Those are the kind of things you have to have to win on Friday nights.” Reed picked up his seventh save and tied Pete Young with 19 on the career.
Rea was 2-of-3 with three RBI and a run scored, while Frost and Frazier also had two each of State’s ten base hits. Kemp and Gomez batted safely twice as well with eight Vanderbilt hits.
Saturday, righthander Kendall Graveman (2-0, 2.45) will start for State, and Vanderbilt will also go with a righty in freshman Tyler Beede (1-3, 5.46). No Bulldog is misled by those numbers though, as rookie Beede was a first-round draft pick last June and has the stuff to prove scouts were correct.
Nor should fans assume Norris, Brownlee, et.al., will be in the game-two lineup either. Both still show day-after swelling in their knees and Cohen said he won’t fill in the card until a check of the training room Saturday morning. But even if Norris needs to sit a spell, it allows lefthanded Trey Porter to take the DH job.
“We’ll see who is available to face this guy,” Cohen said. “Because older guys can hurt younger guys. But we’re going to have our hands full. We need to win a series and tomorrow is huge.”
Of course, so is just having all those gimpy players back on the stage as soon as possible. Slowly but surely the Bulldog band is getting back together, Norris said. “And hopefully it continues to get better.”