The numbers that mattered more to coach and club though were the regular-schedule records of 34-21 overall and 16-14 SEC. It was Mississippi State's first over-.500 conference finish since 2007, and puts the Diamond Dogs solidly in the NCAA Tournament picture at last. Seven-seed State also knows it will be playing the 1:30 scheduled game Tuesday on opening day of the SEC Tournament against sixth-seed Arkansas.
For Kentucky, it was a crushing conclusion to a season that seemed so close to magic. The Wildcats finished 41-15 and 18-12, losing the SEC Championship that was within reach with one more win. Instead they will be fourth seed in Hoover. And in complete coincidence, Kentucky's day went south at exactly the time they heard of LSU's win at South Carolina which cleared the Wildcat way to take the title.
Instead, Kentucky collapsed right then; allowing three runs in the fourth inning and five more in the fifth as a 2-0 lead vanished along with regular-season championship dreams.
State entered Saturday just looking to lock up post-season position, and achieved it. Coach John Cohen was talking about the game, but could equally have been commenting on the 2012 season as a whole with Saturday's summary. "Everybody did a really job grinding through. We made some mistakes but we kept battling. And we finally got some runs scored."
Two driven in by Slauter, on non-hits at that. In fact the 14 Bulldog base hits somewhat obscured how this game turned in the middle innings. It was small ball at its best as State used three squeeze bunts and another chinked single for five runs. They pushed one home in Saturday's 4-3 victory via bumping the ball, and made much more productive use of that play in the finale against unprepared Kentucky defenders.
"That's what a lot of us were brought here to do, play small ball and use our speed," said LF Demarcus Henderson. "So that's what we did today."
Henderson was exhibit-A, as he drove in the tying score with a bunted ball in the fourth; then chipped a single just beyond the infield for two more RBI in the fifth frame that effectively iced the outcome. Henderson was 2-of-3 for the three RBI, and did it all as a defensive replacement. He took over for starting LF Tyler Fullerton when the former was picked off first base in the second inning.
Having played limited substitute duty after breaking a finger in April, prime-time duty caught Henderson somewhat surprised in the second inning. "I was doing my chart as usual and he said get ready to go to second base. I said, who me? He said yeah, you!" Henderson actually ended up in leftfield, which was also a good non-move. It kept 2B Sam Frost in the game to hit safely a team-best three times, score once, and drive in a run with his own squeeze-single in the seventh inning.
"It's not so much what they can't do as what we can do," said Cohen of the short-game success. "In a yard like this you have to take advantage of everything."
Including a bullpen that has been a weekend trump card the last half of SEC season. When starter Evan Mitchell had some early struggles, State called Jacob Lindgren in to hold the line much as possible. The freshman lefthander did far better. Taking over with a 2-0 deficit he left a third Wildcat on base and retired 16 of the next 18 batters.
"I felt good out there," Lindgren said. "I was just trying to throw strikes and get ahead, get outs."
Lindgren (2-2) went 5.1 innings with a run on three hits, seven strikeouts, and not a single walk. "Jacob was fabulous today," Cohen said. "He allowed us to save some guys out of the pen to get us to Tuesday. Of course when he entered we needed help to win the game!" This was after Mitchell took three hits for two runs, neither earned, with two walks and four strikeouts. In fact he fanned the side in his first inning and looked sharp doing it.
Mitchell even left a pair on bases in the second. But Kentucky got a read on the righthander and scored twice in the third. A leadoff walk of Matt Reida meant 1B Wes Rea had to hold that runner, and Austin Cousino took advantage with a hard grounder off the lunging Bulldog's glove that was ruled a tough error. Mitchell wild-pitched in Reida for the icebreaker. A ball-four to Luke Maile was fumbled and Cousino tried to take third, with a verrrrry close out call on the bag.
But another dirtball had Maile in position to score on a Michael Williams single, which finished Mitchell. Enter Lindgren, with a different look and approach the Wildcats weren't ready for after a diet of Dog righthanders all weekend.
"The fastball and slider were both really working, my two-seam was working down to righthanded hitters and my four-seam was working in on them. I got them to chase." At one stretch Lindgren would retire twelve-straight aided by a double-play in the top of the seventh.
Kentucky's pitching approach all season has been ‘reversing' the rotation with their best arm in game-three. That was sophomore lefty Corey Littrell and for three innings he was in charge with two singles allowed and one, Fullerton's, self-erased. Littrell would regret the pickoff eventually though as it put Henderson in the game.
"He had a good power slider, he had the best stuff of anybody on their staff," said Slauter. "We made an adjustment after the first time through the order, we started hitting balls hard and laying off that slider. And things fell for us."
The UK starter started his own troubles in the fourth. RF Brent Brownlee wanted to bunt his way on, only he was nailed by the pitch first. CF Hunter Renfroe hit his way on which meant an obvious bunt situation for DH Trey Porter. But Littrell's up-offering caught the batter's hand on the bat and a free base was awarded to Kentucky disbelief.
With bases loaded Slauter grounded slowly enough to the right side that he was able to out-run a relay and prevent the double-play, while Brownlee scored the first home-team run. Henderson was given the RBI opportunity, converted in a way Kentucky did not expect, with a bunt dumped to the left side as Renfroe evened the scoreboard.
On 1-2 count 1B Wes Rea controlled his swing and let pure muscle pound a grounder past the third baseman for the go-ahead RBI. State ought to have been up by two runs going to the fifth as a wild pitch let Henderson come for home. Littrell covered the plate and, maybe, got a tag on the runner in time. Right or not, umpire A.J. Lostaglio's out call stood.
But the Bulldogs shook off the frustration and expanded in the fifth after one was out. SS Adam Frazier singled and Brownlee walked, then Renfroe cranked a grounder that ate up shortstop Reida scoring Frazier. Porter adjusted his stance in the box just before a 2-2 offering and blooped it just in front of the charging centerfielder for the 5-2 lead. And, the end of Littrell's day.
Righthander Walter Wijas was caught flat-footed when catcher Slauter dropped another squeeze bunt. "It's been a while since I did that, I couldn't tell you the last time!" Slauter said. Not only did Renfroe come across unchallenged but the throw for first went into rightfield. So two teammates were on bases with still one out for Henderson.
"Guys have been freezing me with curveballs or something inside, I said I wasn't going to get beat, I was going to put a ball in play." Henderson basically stuck bat on ball for a blooper that fell behind first base, with the fielder falling down himself. Two more Dogs came around for a 8-2 lead and another pitching change with righthander Chandler Shepherd ending the inning. He stranded one in the Bulldog sixth but got rocked in the seventh, beginning with a Porter single. Two fly-outs later Rea hit his way on and got an extra base as leftfielder Adams bobbled the ball.
Trevor Gott came in to face Frost, who had the squeeze opportunity this time with a base hit off his bunt scoring Porter. Kentucky, per baseball lore, correctly threw the next pitch behind the next batter's helmet for a warning to each dugout. Britton worked a walk anyway to load all bases, and Frazier took the first pitch the other way for a two-run single and 11-2 lead.
All the while Lindgren and defense were rolling through the Wildcat order. "As we got a lead we just went at guys and let them get themselves out," Slauter said. Kentucky didn't stop swinging though and singled in the top of the last inning. It allowed Cohen to give senior Caleb Reed his likely-final appearance at home in relief. Reed did get tagged for a couple of base hits to leftfield for one more UK run, though new LF Luis Pollorena turned a bobbled ball into an out as runner Zac Zellers tried for third and was thrown out. A strikeout and deep fly ball to the track—caught by senior Brownlee—ended the weekend, series, and regular season.
Littrell (8-1) had his perfect season finally spoiled, charged with seven runs on seven hits, a walk and six strikeouts. Kentucky defense had three errors and got shaky mid-game, which didn't lead directly to many runs but extended innings for more scoring chances. Williams had two of the eight Wildcat hits. Six Bulldogs had two or more hits led by Frost's three safeties.
It was a long ride home ahead of a Kentucky team that had strung together such as superb season right up to the ending. Cohen, who coached UK to their only SEC title ever did not want unfair opinions and supporter former aide Gary Henderson for league coach of the year. "He's done a masterful job, that club was counted out by a lot of people before the season and they turned in one of the great performances in my opinion."
With any sort of insurance success in Hoover the Wildcats ought to be hosting at least a first-round NCAA regional. Mississippi State's chances would likely hang on winning the league tournament or at least making the finals. Given how the second half of the SEC season went though, with a 5-10 team going on a 11-4 closing run, anything seems possible for a team that just swept their way into the post-season.
"I feel we can compete against anybody," Cohen said. "The whole key is to get on a roll in tournament play."
State has the Sunday off as a reward, then a Monday practice at home before heading to Hoover.