A wild pitch which scored Britton in fact. With bases loaded, one out, and the freshman infielder standing on third, Tennessee ace reliever Nick Blount fired a 0-1 fastball that skipped past his catcher. “Right when I saw the ball went past, I knew we’d won,” said Britton. He scampered home to give the Bulldogs their first SEC sweep of the season.
“That’s the first sweep I’ve been a part of as a freshman,” said Britton, a bit bruised from the post-victory dogpiling. “It’s pretty exciting.” Certainly so for Mississippi State, now 24-16 overall and 8-10 SEC. The visiting Volunteers left 22-18, 7-11, and crushed by not just a sweeping but a second extra-innings loss of the series. Overtime contests had not been kind to State much of the season, but with two in one weekend and three-straight such success, the Dogs are getting comfortable in such settings.
“If it takes a while, it takes a while,” said SS Adam Frazier. “As long as we win!”
This one surely took a while, four hours and 13 minutes to be exact. Neither side scored after the Bulldogs put a pair on the board in the bottom of the sixth inning, off the bat of Britton at that as he stroked a two-RBI single for a tie that stood. And stood. And was still standing in the bottom of the 14th when Britton led off with his third single of the day.
Bunted over to second base, Britton was joined by an intentionally-walked Frazier. That’s when then lead runner noticed a dozen or so teammates wearing the special green caps made for March use around St. Patrick’s Day. The Bulldogs had never worn them in a real game.
Actually, reported pitcher Luis Pollorena, there were other ideas first. “We were thinking about changing jerseys, like the Mighty Ducks. But we asked and you can’t do that. So (Chris) Stratton came up with what about the green hats?”
Maybe that did change the luck. It certainly didn’t help Volunteer decision-making as C Mitch Slauter grounded to the left side and substitute shortstop Richard Carter opted for a throw to third base that was bobbled leaving Britton safe and bases loaded with only one out. All RF Brent Brownlee needed was a fly ball, much like what State did Thursday evening to score Pollorena with the winning run. Blount made it easier than that.
“I guess it’s finally we’re catching breaks instead of the other team catching breaks,” said Frazier.
The Bulldogs needed some sort of offensive break because they were not getting a lot done via swinging sticks. State mustered just eight hits, all of them singles, against three Vol pitchers. Only twice did they get a couple of safeties in the same inning. The Dogs did get five walks and three plunkings, meaning men were reaching. In all though 13 were left unscored.
“We’d get people on base and couldn’t get that clutch hit,” said Britton, who along with CF C.T. Bradford accounted for five of State’s hits and two of the runs scored.
Yet this was just enough because of the two State strong points of the game and season. “The pitchers really hung in there and did a nice job, we defended the field phenomenal,” Coach John Cohen said. State had one error, on a missed pickoff throw that did not impact anything. The Volunteers’ one error was the fatal fumble at third base in the last inning.
Britton’s run made a winner of Pollorena (2-0), the seventh State pitcher of the day. He worked 3.0 official frames after entering a batter into the 12th inning, and faced a minimum nine Vols with a hit in the 14th that came to nought. Blount (2-3) took the loss on his 4.0 innings work, with three hits and a walk and the one decisive run.
When the Bulldogs got through the first two wins using just three pitchers, Cohen expected a well-stocked bullpen to make the Saturday difference. It did. Pollorena was second lefthander used among the seven throwers, and two more were warmed with Nick Routt and Jacob Lindgren. “Poor Jacob, we got him up five times and he’s spent, we can’t use him!” Cohen said. “But that is what happens in 14-inning ball games.”
The game went 14 innings largely because a series of five relievers kept Tennessee stuck on two runs. Starter Evan Mitchell went the first 3.1 with a run on four hits, a walk and two strikeouts. Then it was Ross Mitchell taking the next 2.0 with the other score off two hits. From there, State’s bullpen was outstanding. In fact Caleb Reed, winner on Thursday throwing tenth and eleventh innings, ought to have scored another such decision as he threw 3.1 pressurized turns with two hits and a walk.
The problem, naturally, was not getting guys across the plate. UT starter Nick Williams had a five-inning shutout going, without any hits allowed the first three turns. He was able to strand a pair of Dogs in scoring positions in the fourth.
E.Mitchell could have matched that pace if not for a one-out walk of the number nine batter in Tennessee’s third. Zach Luther promptly stole second and made third on a grounder, which mattered because Chris Pierce’s two-out single to the left side would not have scored him from further away. A bigger inning did not develop as Pierce got back to the bag on a Mitchell pick but apparently thought the ball had been thrown away. Because he started for third and was easily run down.
Baserunning would be a Vol downfall in fact. After two singles to start their fifth, E.Mitchell fielded a bunt and forced the lead runner. R.Mitchell was brought in then to cover a chopper for an out at first base, then Ethan Bennett hit it on the nose and right to Frazier.
Tennessee made it a 2-0 margin in the sixth inning as Morgan reached on a deflected grounder. Pinch-hitter Jared Allen singled and with two outs Hunter Daniel singled off RHP Jonathan Holder for the RBI. But, Allen tried for home too and RF Hunter Renfroe’s strong throw nailed him.
It didn’t seem to matter as long as Williams was in control. Two outs into the bottom of the sixth he walked Bradford, and Renfroe followed with a base hit. 1B Wes Rea loaded the bags the tough way, taking a hard shot off his shoulder. Britton already had one base hit; his second was bigger with a grounder up the middle that snuck under the second baseman’s glove for the tying runs.
“Two strikes, he threw a slider down-and-in. And I got the barrel there.”
From there it was a match of which staff would crack first. RHP Taylor Stark gave leadoff walks in both the seventh and eighth. A do-or-die stab by Frost triggered a double-play on one, and Reed entered to strand the latter at third base with a grounder to shortstop.
The Bulldogs weren’t doing any better, though Britton walked and stole second two outs into the ninth against Blount. At the same time, “I guess we were kind of happy getting (Drew) Steckenrider out because we didn’t touch him all weekend,” said Frazier of the Vol’s first reliever.
Tennessee had a big chance in the eleventh with one-out hits by Allen and Chris Fritts off Reed. State rarely pulls the senior but this time Ben Bracewell got the call. Not having worked since April 1 to rest his still-tender elbow, the righthander was immediately tested with a squeeze bunt. Nick Powell dropped it nicely but Bracewell fielded and flipped for the out-tag. Pollorena erased a leadoff single in the 14th on another bunt play, putting him in line for a decision.
“Fastballs and sliders, trying to keep it low and let our defense work,” he said.
All of which kept the game going until Britton got his leadoff hit and eventually finished the long afternoon with his 3-of-5 batting, two RBI and game-winning run. “He’s been stroking the ball, hitting balls hard, he just couldn’t find a hole,” Frazier said. “But he found three today. It was big for him and big for our team.”
Tennessee out-hit the home team with 11 safeties, all singles as well. Morgan, Allen, and Wormsley had a pair of hits each.
“You’re excited to get the win, but you’re still disappointed because we’re not doing some things a lot better,” said Cohen, frustrated with offensive execution that could have made it a much smoother and faster day. “Too many flies.” But, in the end, some Dogs put enough balls on the ground to tilt the final their way.
And, to get that much-sought sweep. “It’s huge, especially coming off getting swept,” said Frazier. “We get a sweep this week and we’re back in it. We just have to keep it rolling and keep the energy.”
Oh, and speaking of keeping…about those green caps? “I guess we have to start taking those on the road, just in case.”
State is on the road Tuesday for a meeting with Southern Mississippi in Pearl’s Trustmark Park.