Frazier’s prophetic feeling, based on all the practice ground balls he’s seen Jonathan Holder bounce, came true indeed. With Alabama runners on third and first bases and one out, the righthanded reliever coaxed a true hopper off James Tullidges turned into a twin-killing to end Mississippi State’s 3-1 victory. The visiting Bulldogs improved to 28-17 with the series-opening win, and evened their SEC record for the first time all season at 11-11.
Alabama is 17-29, 6-16. But the host Crimson Tide didn’t go down easily at the end. A pair of singles from the lower portion of their batting order, pinch-hitters included, had the tying tallys on bases and just one down. The hits were off prior bullpen Bulldogs Caleb Reed and Jacob Lindgren, as State would let the home team send a pinch-swinger up before putting the same arm-side on the mound.
Holder, used in right-side relief just twice in the last ten games, was the fifth MSU moundsman summoned. Not just to relieve this time, but to close a SEC game. “It’s the first time I’ve ever gotten to do something that big!” the true freshman said. Yet, “I was hoping I would get in. I was hoping Lindgren could finish it too, so it was mixed.”
His stuff wasn’t as all Holder heaved at number-nine batter Tullidge was fastballs, in and out and finally one that was bounced left of the mound. “As soon I saw it down I got excited, then they flipped it and I went nuts,” Holder grinned. Rightfully as he’d just earned his second save of the year.
“That was fun! That was good!”
Winning was both. Holder made a winner out of State starter Chris Stratton, too, the ninth victory of the junior season against no losses. Stratton not only got a decision but crossed a threshold, ending the game with 101 strikeouts on the season. He is the 12th Bulldog pitcher to notch triple-digit strikeouts and the 17th time it has been done at MSU.
After full nine-inning outings the last two starts, including a complete game against Ole Miss last week, this time Stratton wasn’t going the distance. And knew it. “I really don’t feel I had my best stuff tonight, I had a couple of jam-shots and they got hits. But for the most part we competed and got through the game.” Stratton scattered seven of Alabama’s 11 base hits without a run allowed, walked none, and fanned seven.
Coach John Cohen thought his starter was outstanding, given how Tide batters tried to handle his stuff. “The secret is out on Friday night in the SEC. They’re just not going to get to two strikes on Chris. So they’re going to take weaker swings and put balls in play.” And, as Stratton noted, call cues to the batters. “Their dugout was calling out where they were setting up, but we made adjustments to it late and it really helped us cruise.”
Alabama starter Spencer Turnbull (2-4) didn’t cruise quite as long. The Madison, Miss., native wasn’t exactly knocked around either. He also allowed seven hits with only one walk, and if Turnbull struck out just two he was usually able to get his own routine grounders. Or not so routine shots, often to a busy third baseman.
“That kid has a great arm, he is going to be able to spin it and locate his fastball,” Cohen said. “I think this was his third SEC start and he’s been very good.” One of those starts was a seven-inning no-hitting of South Carolina a week ago that only a lightning delay could interrupt and foil.
“He was just coming with fastballs,” Frazier said. Which was enough to hang three fast zeroes on the top scoreboard line. Only Frazier had an early clue as he singled in the first inning and walked in the third with nothing to show for it.
Turnbull’s trouble was mostly self-made in the fourth Bulldog inning. On a 3-0 pitch DH Trey Porter was nicked on the hand to reach the harder way. Turnbull then advanced the runner twice more, with a wild pitch and a balk. Porter had no problems scoring as 3B Daryl Norris grounded to the right side.
Alabama left CF Hunter Renfroe on second base after his double that inning, but the bottom of MSU’s order put together the key offensive frame in the fifth. LF Tyler Fullerton doubled to right-centerfield, and 2B Sam Frost snuck a single past his counterpart. Fullerton held up at third, wisely, though the throw in was wild. It didn’t matter because Frazier’s second single of the night was for a RBI.
He pounded a high-hopper that got over the charging third baseman, and the supporting shortstop had no chance of an out anywhere as Fullerton came home. Frost got over to third base as well, key because while Tide leftfielder made a highlight over-shoulder catch of C Mitch Slauter’s deep drive it was good for a 3-0 lead. That was all State scoring, as Chazz Otwell worked a hitless 3.1 relief innings with a walk and four strikeouts.
Meanwhile Slauter was taking care of his own business, stranding lone runners in the first three frames. Slauter lent a fourth-inning hand with a two-out gunning of stealing Austin Smith. This was right after Stratton got strikeout #99. The 100th came with one down in the sixth as Jared Reaves watched strike-three down the chute.
Alabama batters helped a bit by often swinging on 3-1 offerings, as Stratton did not get ahead as often as usual. “I struggled with that tonight an that’s why I didn’t go more than seven innings. I still felt good but you can’t go past that.” Especially not with the top of Alabama’s order up for a fourth time against the starter.
“He got to 104 in the seventh and Butch (Thompson) and I thought let’s give this to our bullpen, they’re fresh, and I thought they did a great job,” Cohen said. Well, not without some drama. Consecutive lefthanders were due up and lefty Ross Mitchell got first chance. Taylor Dugas reached on an infield single, and with two outs was on second base when Ben Moore ended the shutout on a single up the middle.
With Moore on second base righthander and usual closer Caleb Reed took over. He flew-out Smith to maintain the 3-1 margin, but a leadoff single and passed ball in the ninth resulted in some pinch-matches by the home team. “I know Caleb wanted to finish but he’s struggled a little against some lefthanders recently,” Cohen said of the unexpected change.
Lefty Lindgren did throw a good out pitch, too, except Cameron Carlisle fought it through the left side for two on and one out. “And we go immediately to Holder,” Cohen said. Much as the rookie righty wanted this chance, he also wanted to not have the order roll over a fifth time.
“I was trying to stay out of that. We were trying to get a double-play there, so I was trying to get a ground ball, keep everything down. I didn’t want to let the tying runner advance.” Right on cue, State produced a league-leading 53rd double-play of the season.
“It was interesting!” Stratton said. “But I’m glad we could put it out, that was a huge win.”
Frazier and Fullerton each had two of State’s seven base hits. Dugas, Moore, and Josh Rosecrans all had a pair of safeties. “If we could have gotten a couple of extra runs it would have been easier, I guess!” Frazier said.
Bulldog batters will certainly try to top seven hits, and three runs, in Saturday’s game-two. Not that righthander Kendall Graveman (3-3, 3.04) needs tons of support, but after weeks and weeks of nailbiters a little room for late-inning breathing would be welcome. Alabama plans to put lefthander Jon Keller (1-4, 4.37) on the home hill.
Neither club has named a Sunday starter. Frazier doesn’t care anyway. “All that matters is tomorrow, take it one game at a time.”