Grundy tossed six full innings of four-hit baseball against Mississippi State, reliever Alex Phillips took care of the rest to keep Kentucky (43-15) in the winner’s bracket. And that is quite a bonus because as a #4 seed the Wildcats now are in the expanded tournament’s semifinal round after just two games. They will await the survivor of Friday’s 3:00 rematch between the Bulldogs and LSU.
Should Mississippi State (36-22) stay alive, they won’t have to fret crossing paths with Grundy again. Two looks at the lefthander were enough for a season. During the regular series meeting last Friday the Bulldogs took a 4-3 victory which swung, so to speak, on a three-run homer by Daryl Norris. Other than that Grundy was in control.
Fast-forward to a neutral Regions Park and it was more of the same. Much more, and this time without any big Bulldog breaks or at-bats. After Mississippi State scratched out a score in the bottom of their first inning, it was lights-out on all offense. Grundy (5-3) earned his win on four hits, the one run, two walks and nine strikeouts.
Phillips picked up his seventh save this season with three hitless, scoreless turns, a walk and two strikeouts.
“Kentucky really pitched well,” Coach John Cohen said. “They did a nice job executing their gameplan.” Certainly better than the Wildcats had in being swept at Dudy Noble Field a weekend ago. Not surprisingly the Bulldog coach, and former UK skipper as well, saw plenty of motivation in the other dugout today.
“I think they were on a little bit of a mission today, obviously. We had some pretty hotly-contested games last weekend and they wanted desperately to win this game. They did a nice job in their execution, and we didn’t.”
The lack of offensive execution, he meant, with no disrespect at all to how Grundy and Phillips went about business. The starter kept Bulldog batters baffled from the second-inning on with a slick combination of moving stuff that found location…or at least looked to be. Those offerings in particular frustrated State swingers as their hacks too often were an inch or more above ball.
“I thought he did a good job of that,” said SS Adam Frazier. “The first time through the order we kind of got to him with a couple of hits. After that he started mixing in that cutter, slider, whatever it was, a lot, and I guess we didn’t make an adjustment to it. He was locating it in and out of the zone.”
If Frazier, the best Bulldog batter going and one of the three that got a hit this day, did not recognize the pitch, there wasn’t much hope for the rest of the order. Particularly the bottom-three slots where starters and pinch-men combined to go 0-of-9 with only a plunking of nine-hole hitter Norris, coincidentally, marring the worksheet.
At the same time Cohen was also frustrated, if not as much, with his own pitching. Though he and Coach Butch Thompson acknowledged taking a chance in starting righthander Kendall Graveman this day. Not only was he one MSU moundsman who struggled with Kentucky a week ago at home, Graveman was also hampered by a sore groin muscle left over from that game.
The junior was game but only good for 2.1 innings. In fact Graveman (4-4) did well to last into the third as it required stranding four Wildcats the first two turns. The third turn resulted in two runs and the decision as Graveman gave up six hits with a strikeout.
“He just couldn’t get down on the mound,” said Cohen. “I thought he created some movement early, but recreating the same type of movement eventually it’s going to wear out. So we tried it. Our goal was to try to get him ready to pitch in the NCAA tournament and get him healthy whatever that takes.”
Bulldog relief work was a mixed result as well. Instead of swinging early and missing often as a week ago, Kentucky did not give State strikeouts. “They did a better job, especially with runners on, of putting balls in play and giving themselves a chance to be successful.”
After Graveman stranded two in scoring positions the first time up, State also got on the scoreboard first. Frazier opened with a single and an out later CF Hunter Renfroe pounded a grounder that the third baseman could field but not throw over in time. With two down DH Trey Porter lined the RBI single past second base for the 1-0 lead.
But once Grundy rolled an inning-ending grounder it was game-over, even if none knew it at the time. His last real challenge was in the third inning with a one-out walk of RF Brent Brownlee and single by CF Hunter Renfroe. A strikeout and pop-out left them unscored, and Grundy went on a tear of nine-straight outs. In fact he wasn’t touched for another base hit.
Kentucky took the lead with a pair in the third after consecutive singles and a throw towards third had both runners in scoring spots. An out later UK’s Michael Williams went the other way with a base hit to rightfield. With a 1-1 tie, runners on corners, and two lefthanders due, Luis Pollorena got the call. His first pitch was sac-flied far enough to rightfield for Luke Maile to give his team the lead.
A 2-1 lead wasn’t too threating even State’s anemic offense. But a two-run cushion meant big trouble and Kentucky got it in their fifth. Thomas McCarthy slapped a leadoff double and came the rest of the way on consecutive long fly balls.
Ross Mitchell worked 1.2 scoreless relief innings before handing the ball to Ben Bracewell with a 1-2 count on McCarthy in the seventh. It worked for a strikeout and Bracewell fanned two more. He stranded a runner at third base in the eighth as well. But he couldn’t score runs, nor could Bulldog batters. C Mitch Slauter was on second base in the sixth and LF Demarcus Henderson fouled off two tough breaking balls before Grundy caught him on a BP-speed fastball at the letters.
The closest State came to scoring again was with Norris on base and Frazier lining a drive that seemed sure to roll to the wall. Leftfielder Zac Zellars made a spending diving rob-job instead.
Phillips faced just one over the minimum (Norris on the two-out plunking) as he rolled a double-play to end the afternoon. Kentucky had padded the margin in the top of the ninth with a RBI-double by McCarthy and sacrifice fly. Those came off Taylor Stark and Nick Routt in relief turns. Kentucky had a dozen total hits with four, including three doubles, by two-hole man McCarthy to match MSU’s total. Renfroe had half his team’s base hits with two singles.
Even allowing for Graveman’s struggles and knocks on the relievers, mound-work wasn’t the post-game focus for State. “The bottom line is our pitching is going to come through,” Renfroe said. But our end has to come around. We’ve got to hit some balls hard, hits some balls in gaps, and we’ve got to move runners. That’s the bottom line.”
The other Bulldog bottom line is tomorrow’s do-or-go game with the Tigers. The pressure is probably not as intense in some ways now; State is justifiably confident of an at-large NCAA bid, but also likely saw faint hopes of hosting a first-round regional ended. Unless, of course, they can knock off Tigers and Wildcats once more each, scoring more RPI points, and then take the finals as well.
LSU will come with a rotation regular in righthander Ryan Eades (5-2, 3.62) while State has some choices to make. Righthander Evan Mitchell (2-1, 3.52) would appear the easiest call but Cohen and Thompson wanted to think it over a little longer.
“I think our bullpen is still in pretty good shape, we didn’t have to use (Jonathan) Holder and Caleb (Reed) today so there is some back-end stuff we have available to us. We didn’t have to use Jacob Lindgren today. He pitched awfully well against Kentucky, that’s one of the things we were hoping would happen today; if we can play close enough.”