The Rebels (28-15, 10-10 SEC) squared the weekend series and regained a game's lead on Mississippi State (26-17, 9-11) in the daily-shuffling conference standings. And, set up a Sunday rubber game that looms all the larger for both teams. The #22-ranked Rebels remain in the hunt to perhaps host a NCAA regional, while the Bulldogs continue scrambling to improve their post-season possibilities.
"We're playing good ball," said starting pitcher Kendall Graveman. "We had a little bump in the road here but we've got a series to win tomorrow. It's a beatable team, we saw that today, and if we make routine plays and do what we have to do I think we'll be in good shape for tomorrow."
The home-team trouble was failing to make all those routine plays. Only half of Ole Miss' six runs were of the earned variety as a recently-sharp Bulldog defense committed three official errors and mishandled some other situations. Crucial ones too, contributing to the go-ahead two Rebel runs in the seventh inning and a pair of insurance scores in the ninth.
"There's about five plays we did not make," Coach John Cohen said. "And you're not going to win on any day in our league when you make the four or five blunders defensively we made."
Those blunders lent a helping hand to a pair of Ole Miss moundsmen that were already in superior position. Starter Mike Mayers put in a sound first 5.0 innings, and R.J. Hively took care of the rest of the day with one hit and no runs allowed. Hively (4-3) got the decision with a walk and two strikeouts.
Graveman (3-3) absorbed the loss on four runs off six hits, with a walk and four strikeouts. He did give up the three earned scores, two most definitely earned. Rebel first baseman matt snyder knocked his tenth home run of the season out for a fast 2-0 lead in the opening inning.
It was a most unexpected beginning for Graveman, not so much that Ole Miss could reach the fence but that the sophomore righthander gave them something to drive deep. A ground-ball kind of guy, Graveman wasn't himself in the first inning allowing three hits and two long fly-outs.
"I was maybe a little amped-up, I don't know," Graveman said. "But my stuff was a little flat and a little up in the first inning." A talk from catcher Slauter steadied the starter and Graveman would put in 6.1 innings. Cohen actually gave a positive review to the full stint, saying Graveman deserved better.
"He made the one poor pitch there on the ball that left the park, a changeup to Snyder. He didn't have as much power-sink as usual, a lot of fly ball outs is not who Kendall is. But he certainly pitched well enough to have a chance to win this ball game. But we just didn't defend as well as we should have behind him."
A fast two-run margin was all Mayers needed to work with, and equally seemed to throw Bulldog batters off their stride as well. A walk in the second inning, single by 2B Matthew Britton in the third, and one-out hit by DH Trey Porter in the fourth came to naught. The latter safety was the best chance to break through early as Porter's hit was errored in rightfield for an extra base. The runner was left unscored at third base.
Even a one-out single and balk of RF Brent Brownlee in the fifth did no good as despite getting ahead in counts consistently now State couldn't drive the fatter offerings. Not until the sixth did anything get strung together, as SS Adam Frazier became the first inning-opener to reach; on a walk. Mayers pitched Slauter initially as if bunting—he wasn't—then grooved one. Slauter bounced it off the padding in leftfield for a tying two-run homer, his third shot of the season.
Hively entered to go in-order the rest of that inning and retire six-of-seven while his offense cashed in on fatal Bulldog mistakes. Will Allen gapped the first pitch of the seventh for a double, and Ole Miss thought the go-ahead chance vital enough to give up the starting catcher and pinch-run Blake Newalu. It ought not have worked as Auston Bousfield grounded right to third base. 3B Daryl Norris checked the lead runner just fine but a hastened throw pulled 1B Wes Rea off the bag. Of such a minor miscue was a big inning made.
"He looked the runner back just as he should, but he doesn't get his feet moving towards first base and misses arm-side," Cohen said. "That gets them going because that's an out." Instead on 2-2 Austin Anderson punched a grounder to the right side that Rea, having to hold the bag, couldn't reach. Newalu scored unchallenged as the throw came back to the infield, only to miss every possible glove and allow Bousfield a free run and 4-2 lead. "Daryl went down to all-fours to block that ball and I still don't see how it got by him," Cohen said. "But it did." Norris, 0-for-3 at the plate, was replaced by Sam Frost.
Meanwhile Graveman was excused for Ross Mitchell. A two-out single by Tanner Mathis ended the inning as LF Hunter Renfroe gunned down Anderson at the plate. But the damage was done.
State had its chance to gain ground or catch up or maybe more by loading the bases in the eighth with two outs. Frazier reached on a grounder and after two outs Frost walked. He ran hard enough on a CF C.T. Bradford grounder to beat the ball to second base, too. Renfroe made good contact on 1-0 count, just not good enough as the leftfielder ran it down.
Even an opening out in the Ole Miss ninth came at a price as Bradford and Brownlee collided on a gap-fly (caught by Brownlee). Bradford jogged to the dugout guarding the same right shoulder injured March 7 that sidelined him for weeks. Maybe this rattled everyone as new reliever Nick Routt was hit for consecutive singles. With two outs nine-hole hitter Preston Overby grounded to Frost, who had the force at third but threw to first anyway and wide at that.
"He was probably thinking as deep as he was it was bang-bang," Cohen surmised. "And he's got all day to make that throw, it's just one of things we didn't execute." Bases loaded, Routt made it a three-run game by plunking Mathis on full count, then a dirtball provided the final margin.
"We gave them a lot of runs today," Cohen said. By the same token Ole Miss took ten base hits, two by Allen and both of those doublets. State had just five hits by five Dogs, something this '12 batting order has made a habit of. The difference now was only receiving three walks and one plunking, so State wasn't getting the sort of offensive breaks that have helped offset poor batting averages.
"They kind of stuck with the same (pitching) approach and we didn't execute the way we needed to," said Slauter. "And it showed."
State likely tipped its Sunday hand by throwing lefthander Routt 1.2 innings before Johnathan Holder ended it. The Bulldogs won with righthanded power pitching Friday, and ought to have come out better Saturday with the same. For game-three though Cohen is thinking the opposite side and looking at lefthander Luis Pollorena.
"With six lefthanders in their lineup it might make sense. And Pollo has been throwing well." Such as the five-plus innings the junior southpaw threw against Ole Miss in midweek relief a week ago at Pearl's Trustmark Park, with three hits and one run. The other choice is righthander Evan Mitchell who has gotten the last few Sunday starts.
Lefhander Jacob Lindgren is also rested, while on the right side Taylor Stark, Will Cox, perhaps Brandon Woodruff after his Tuesday stint, and closer Caleb Reed are all available. Cohen did say righthander Ben Bracewell remains wait-and-see.
What nobody needs await to see is how much importance Mississippi State, and for that matter Ole Miss, put on this rubber game. Momentum seems non-existent between the two these days, though it might be worth noting that the visiting team has won the last four series.
And of course there are the larger post-season stakes with the calendar about to turn May. "They say championships are won on Sundays," Slauter suggested. "We have to come out and play hard and get a series win tomorrow."