PEARL – The difference between a ranked SEC squad and an unranked club isn't that much. But of such…
"Just a great team win, that's all you can say," said Bulldog pitcher Chris Stratton, as MSU improved to 22-16 and 6-10 SEC. The visiting Volunteers are 22-16 also and 7-9 in league play.
Extra inning SEC games have brought lots of Bulldog heartbreak this season with four losses, until a fifth chance against Vanderbilt two weeks ago snapped that string. Still the anxiety meter was pegging for the 3,725 home crowd as the Volunteers forced overtime. Then DH Trey Porter led off MSU's half of the 11th with a first-pitch double off the right-centerfield fence.
Pollorena, a lefthanded pitcher who threw 5.1 relief innings on Tuesday, put on a helmet to run from second base. The unusual substitution actually made MSU sense though. "I've been doing it all my life, during BP I still do it no matter what for a time like this," Pollorena said. He showed it by safely getting to third base under another throw as 1B Wes Rea dropped a bunt in front of the plate.
With no outs Tennessee put CF C.T. Bradford, defensive hero of the top half of the inning, on to set up a force everywhere. Slauter didn't give them the opportunity. "I was looking for a fastball, something I could get up in the air." A 1-0 fastball by Drew Steckenrider served that purpose.
Centerfielder Chris Fritts made the catch and a strong throw to boot but Pollorena had the green light. "I was trying to move my little legs, and it worked out."
A successful slide made a winner of Bulldog reliever Caleb Reed (1-5), who finally had things go right in an April series-opener. He also picked up his first relief victory since last June's NCAA Super Regional. The senior righthander did not enjoy an easy stint, with two hits and two walks in his 2.0 innings. But with bases loaded and one out in the top of the 11th he got the defensive help Steckenrider didn't. A fly ball to, ironically, centerfield was caught on the run by Bradford and skipped home well in time to keep it a 1-1 tie.
Reed also got a big assist from Slauter in the tenth after a leadoff walk. Bennett struck out after failing to execute a bunt and runner Zack Osborne was caught too far off first base by the Bulldog catcher.
The real, if unofficial, winner though was Stratton. The junior righthander was superb on the home field with a complete 9.0 innings of work, giving up one run on four hits with ten strikeouts. And, not a single walked Vol. For the Thursday ESPN telecast, Coach John Cohen had met broadcaster crew for the usual preproduction meeting.
"It felt like we talked about Chris Stratton for thirty minutes," the coach reported. "And boy, did he live up to it tonight."
So much so that Stratton was not satisfied with not finishing what he started. "I hate coming out of the game, I was like can I get one more? He said nah, your pitch count is way up. I said are you sure? I'd love to pitch until my arm fell off. Caleb came in and did his job. I'm happy for him, I'll take a no-decision as long as we win."
For a ND, Stratton was absolutely decisive. He retired the first eight Vols faced, and after plunking Osborne in the third stranded him. Tennessee did pose a threat in their fourth inning as Steckenrider, the DH, doubled with one out and got to third on a wild pitch. He tried coming home on a grounder but gimpy 3B Daryl Norris fielded and fired home first. Stratton then retired a dozen-straight more, with the closest call a drive by Bennett caught on the leftfield warning track.
"The slider was good again," Stratton said. "They didn't have many lefties so I didn't throw many changeups."
UT starter Zach Godley wasn't too shabby himself. He left a pair on in the first inning after Porter doubled and Rea walked—further irony—and sat eleven consecutive Bulldogs into the fifth. That's when Slauter led off with a single. He was forced on a double-play, but LF Tyler Fullerton dropped a double in left-centerfield.
2B Sam Frost got the RBI with his base hit to rightfield for a 1-0 lead that ought to have been enough. Stratton was two outs into the Volunteer eighth when he struck out Bennett, but his bouncer got away from Slauter so the batter could reach. Osborne followed with a single that really hurt because it gave the top of the order an opportunity.
Will Maddox delivered after fouling off four pitches with a single up the middle scoring Bennett. That was on Stratton's 99th pitch. He kept it 1-1 with a come-backer, and stranded a go-ahead Vol on second base in the ninth to complete his stint. After his unsuccessful begging in the dugout, of course. "Kendall (Graveman) was joking with me at 8-and-2/3's because that's what I did at LSU, I couldn't get one more out."
Reed needed help in the top of the 11th as a leadoff single by Maddox, bunt, intentional walk, and lovely bunt-single loaded all bases with one out. Fritts did his part with a lift that had Bradford running in but also to his left, throwing, side. Slauter was shaded just a bit towards third base, waiting.
"I knew he was going to put a good throw, a good long hop, and give us a chance to get the out," Slauter said. "It was as good as you can get." Not to mention a welcome change of pace for hard-luck closer Reed. "Caleb is a competitor," Slauter said. "That's what he does and what he does best."
Godley had a Bulldog on second in the eighth, and Steckenrider took over to strand him. Nobody reached in the ninth or tenth, before Porter got it going in the 11th and last inning. It was Slauter, though, taking the celebratory shaving cream in the face as he discussed the game-winning RBI.
Steckenrider went to 4-3 with the loss, with just the one run on as many hits. Order-topper Maddox had two of Tennessee's six base hits, while Porter had a pair for State. Bulldog bats mustered only five safeties all evening but walked six times and struck out just seven compared to a dozen fannings by Vols.
State not only played errorless defense beyond the painful wild pitch that ultimately meant extra innings. They made big plays such as those by Bradford and Norris. Or, as Cohen noted, when Frost had to take a hurting Norris' place on the hot corner, the middle-infielder made plays.
In the process the Bulldogs snapped a four-loss string and began the second half of SEC season the right way. It's huge," said Stratton. "Tennessee is a good team, Steckenrider is throwing gas. It's huge to get one. We need to get two more."
Friday's 6:30 game will match righthander Graveman (2-2, 3.25) against Tennessee righty Robbie Kidd (2-0, 3.19).