And why shouldn’t the formula that carried Mississippi State (36-21) through a successful second half of Southeastern Conference season not work just as well in the league tournament? It certainly sufficed to outlast the regular season champions Wednesday, and advances the Bulldogs to a winner’s bracket showdown tomorrow against Kentucky.
With confidence, too, according to Wednesday big-play maker LF Demarcus Henderson. The Bulldogs see no reason why they can’t keep rolling here in Hoover. “We’ve got good team chemistry, we’ve just got to keep it going and keep battling.”
Top-seeded LSU (42-15) has an elimination game 9:30 am Thursday against Ole Miss, prior to the Bulldog-Wildcat rematch of the season’s final regular series. State swept those three games in Starkville. Kentucky won’t mind not having to see Stratton again.
The Tigers did today. On opening evening of SEC season the Bulldog star starter owned LSU for 8.2 innings in Baton Rouge, leaving with a tied score and 17 strikeouts. He nor State got that win as relief work wasn’t effective. Given a second shot, albeit on a short rest, Stratton did what was needed to balance some accounts.
He worked 6.0 complete innings with five hits, two walks, and another eight strikeouts. If not for a single swing in the fifth inning, Stratton (11-1) might have kept going with a shutout too. Still allowing just two Tiger runs only meant a tied tally. His offensive teammates snapped that on the next chance, and relievers Caleb Reed and Jonathan Holder combined for a hitless, scoreless three concluding innings.
Stratton saw a different Tiger approach this second time around, as LSU recalled that previous exposure a bit too well. “Today they were going after me, that’s something everybody has been doing to get hits before I can get deep in the count and strike them out,” he said. “So they were going to be real aggressive early. I knew that so we pitched them out of the zone on purpose, and they chased. We just had a good plan for them.”
It’s one thing to plan, another to execute. In Stratton and backstop Mitch Slauter, State had the proper pair for this plan.
“Chris went out and did a phenomenal job, he set the tone,” Coach John Cohen said. “He punches out eight, and even the walks weren’t big misses and when you’re not missing big you’re getting the opportunity to get more strikes. This is the first time he pitched in the middle of day in a long time, and I thought he handled that very well.”
Reed rolled through the seventh and eighth innings with six fast outs, before handing the horsehide over to freshman Holder to earn his eighth save of the season and second in as many SEC Tourney turns.
LSU’s own pitching approach was also different than before. The Tigers made no pretense about saving their best arms for later on in this week or, if it pans out that way, for next week’s NCAA Regionals they will be hosting. Aaron Nola got the start and a pre-announced two innings, and good turns they were with no hits or walks and three strikeouts.
His successors didn’t succeed so well, at least not the two of six more who threw who allowed the three Bulldog runs. Joe Broussard (4-1) was on the hook for the loss with the sixth-inning run off Henderson’s bat that proved the game-winner. He was tagged for three hits in a single inning with three strikeouts as well.
The real offensive key for State was in the top of the third though with lefthander Brent Bonvillain getting his first—and only—inning. Not a full frame at that as the Bulldogs scratched out a pair of runs. 1B Wes Rea got it going with the first MSU hit of the afternoon. An out later 3B Daryl Norris singled his way on also, bringing up the top of the order.
Red-hot hitter SS Adam Frazier stayed that way with a soft liner that cleared his counterpart. Though the leftfielder wasn’t far away Rea, slowest of State’s runners, was waved on around for home. Fortunately for all, especially the catcher who would have had to get in the 290-pounder’s path, leftfielder Raph Rhymes bobbled the ball for an unchallenged run home.
Norris was stopped on second base, but got to score as well when RF Brent Brownlee bounced a base hit up the middle for the 2-0 margin. DH Trey Porter gave it a ride, run down in deep center for the second out, but LSU changed anyway with righthander Kevin Berry walking the bases full before stranding all on a strikeout.
Two runs was good enough for Stratton with the defensive help provided. With two outs and Jacoby Jones on first base after walking, Rhymes dropped a single in front of CF Hunter Renfroe. He got to show off the arm when Jones tried for third base and was tagged short. Stratton sat the side in his fourth, and was two outs into the fifth with Jones on again.
Austin Nola joined him via singling. Stratton came after Mason Katz to get ahead two strikes before a fine battle with full-count foul-offs. Katz lined a base hit through the left side for the two tying RBI, though he did help Stratton out on a failed steal attempt of second base to end the inning with a 2-2 deadlock.
The key was to answer with something and the Bulldogs did. They had wasted a Frazier double in the fifth inning. This time they turned a two-bagger into a lead as Henderson battled Broussard. The pitcher was winning 0-2 and was supposed to drop a breaking ball below the zone.
Instead…it hung. And Henderson swung. “I was surprised to see it was as much a hittable ball like that in the pitcher’s count,” Henderson said. “But I’ll take what they give me!” Henderson’s hit carried a bit right-of center meaning Jones had to come over to get the ball, giving Slauter plenty of time to make a 3-2 lead. Lefthander Nick Rumbelow finished that inning for LSU, with Chris Cotton and Joey Bourgeois running things out the last three full frames on a lone hit.
Far as the Bulldogs were concerned, enough had been done anyway. An errored grounder did have the leadoff Tiger at first in the bottom of the sixth, before Frazier sucked in the next grounder and rolled a nifty double-play. The twin-killing loomed ever so much larger as Grant Dozar smacked a fly-ball double which would have scored any runner. Stratton concluded his outing with a called strikeout of Arby Fanning.
LHP Luis Pollorena had been warming for a while but the ball went to senior righty Reed. “It really set up nicely for us because we had six righthanders in a row,” Cohen said. “And Caleb is just dominant against righthanders. Then Jonathan has done the same thing every time he’s gone out there, he’s been dominant shoving the ball in the strike zone with some aggression.”
It showed, though some defensive aggression helped. Two outs into the seventh, Jones lined a long drive that seemed good for at least two bases and even three. Or all four if it got past Henderson, who took a do-or-die angle. A dive and reach resulted in one baseball in the glove. “Who knows if it gets to the wall what can happen?” Henderson said. “But I had confidence in myself to make that catch.”
LSU had nothing left after that, as Reed rolled three-straight grounders to 2B Matthew Britton in the eight; then Holder bounced another that way to open the ninth before striking out Dozar and pinch-batter Ty Ross. In all 13 Tigers were fanned, compared to nine Bulldogs.
“The difference in the game today was the way we pitched,” said Cohen. “We got just enough hitting, made some really solid defensive plays.’ State out-hit the Tigers eight safeties to five, with two hits each for top two in the order Frazier and Brownlee. Rhymes, the SEC’s best batter and league player of the year, had two hits as well.
So the Bulldogs will stay on their same schedule a third day, playing a second game. Only if they win this one, it will earn a place among the four semifinalists when single-elimination play begins Saturday. Cohen expects to give junior righthander Kendall Graveman (4-3, 2.79) the start against Kentucky, though there are some concerns about potential soreness. Holder has now thrown 34 pitches in two days (nine Wednesday) so he will be protected as well.