Graveman and Mississippi State certainly did that. After a couple of losses to LSU which could have left them gutted, the Diamond Dogs made a Sunday statement. Behind a strong start from Graveman, and plenty early offensive support, State took a 10-2 victory to salvage a series split. The Tigers left 18-2, 2-1 SEC after their opening league weekend, while the Bulldogs are 19-4, 1-2.
They are also standing a little taller after a definitive bounce-back sort of game. Given how well State batted the ball around, with a dozen hits, they might well have come out ahead anyway. But by the same token they’d either led or topped LSU in hitting the first two games and come up short. Thus, Graveman’s taking it on himself to not just pitch well but change some mindsets.
“Kendall is a very competitive young man,” Coach John Cohen said. “And I think he felt a little weight on our shoulders to get us going and that’s what he did. He just did a great job of challenging hitters and getting ground balls when he needed to.”
The box score bore that out; Graveman (2-1) worked 6.0-plus innings with one run on seven hits, three walks, and four strikeouts. Objectively this was not a surprise because last year in Baton Rouge, with the Bulldogs facing a sweep, Graveman rose to the Sunday occasion with a complete-game victory. “I don’t know what it is about LSU but he has pitched very, very well against that ball club,” Cohen said.
Yet it was a ball Graveman threw which loomed largest. Taking a 2-0 lead into the second he was greeted by Katz, the home-run hero of both Tiger wins and league-leader in longballs. Grandstand and press box ‘coaches’ were calling for a walk but apparently Graveman had another idea with the fastball well-above the righthanded hitter’s hat. Umpire Jay Asher issued the obligatory warning to pitcher and coach, though Katz seemed unruffled as he chatted with C Mitch Slauter during the downtime.
“He might not even have meant to do that!” 1B Wes Rea suggested. “But whatever, it set the tone, we’re not going to play scared.”
Graveman agreed, all but admitting intent. “I think it sets the tempo for the game. I didn’t hit the guy, it isn’t like I did anything out of the ordinary. It’s ball-one, so what, he’s ahead in the count?” In fact Graveman nearly paid for the bravado as Katz was full-count and looking for a walk. He got a fastball down and missed it.
“When we got 3-2 I really wanted to challenge him, make him hit a pitch,” said Graveman, a comment that would have had shell-shocked fans from Friday cringing. But, “Walking people is not going to get the job done.”
Graveman had walked the first batter faced actually, but worked around that. After retiring Katz, Tiger Christian Ibarra got their first base hit which was erased on the first of three Bulldog double-plays. Another runner was stranded in the third, then Graveman seemed to rush his rhythm in the fourth. With one on via walking, 2B Brett Pirtle had to make a tough get-and-toss for an out at first putting the runner in scoring position. An out later on full-count Graveman was called for a balk; he responded by rolling Ibarra to shortstop.
For that matter 12 of the first 18 Tigers faced put the ball on the ground, either four outs or hits. Graveman gave up just two fly-balls in his whole stint. “I was just staying in the bottom of the zone, I seemed to get a lot of ground balls with these guys for whatever reason it is. I had good movement today, the warm weather helped a little bit. Of course the double-plays helped again just like last year.”
Obviously staking out a fast lead was helpful as State jumped on Tiger starter Cody Glenn (3-1). That did surprise Cohen to some extent. “And his numbers coming in were really good, I mean best on their staff. His command wasn’t as good.”
Not as State scored twice in the first turn. SS Adam Frazier singled to shortstop and didn’t need any help taking second as the first pitch to CF C.T. Bradford was in the dirt. Bradford did bunt then, not a sacrifice as he tried to drag it for a single. He was out but Frazier was on third base needing almost any contact to score the first run.
RF Hunter Renfroe missed two off-speeds, but worked the count full before dropping a double in leftfield to plate Frazier. Renfroe took third base with two outs, unchallenged, as Glenn focused on finishing Rea after two quick strikes. But again the Bulldog batter watched three balls before swinging. Rea’s drive bounced centerfielder Andrew Stevenson off the wall for another run-scoring double.
“He’s a big changeup guy, we knew that coming in,” Rea said. “I think a couple of guys did a really good job sitting back on it, and he was missing with his fastball a lot. We just let it happen and got some big hits.”
Glenn made more trouble in the second as a leadoff walk and sacrifice bunt had 3B Daryl Norris on second base. He was joined on the paths as 2B Brett Pirtle barely out-slid a huge throw by shortstop Alex Bregman for two on. With two outs Bradford also walked giving Renfroe another RBI-opportunity. He got Norris across by watching a full-count ball for the 3-0 lead.
But a three-run lead Friday had not held up, so State got some priceless expansion with a three-run fourth. Glenn’s first pitch plunked LF Demarcus Henderson and he was moving as Pirtle reached for an out-half offering to protect. It worked better than hoped as the dribbler went through the hole left by the covering first baseman, for Dogs on corners. Frazier flew-out on the first pitch, too short to risk sending Henderson home. Bradford made it moot with a clean single to left for the RBI, and the pitching change with righthander Nate Fury.
His first offering bounced to advance both Dog runners, so Renfroe was intentionally put on first to load all bases. It almost worked with a strikeout of Slauter. But Rea didn’t wait to watch anything, he took Fury’s first fastball up the middle for two runs and the 6-0 margin.
Starting the fifth, Graveman shook himself up a bit chasing a blooper behind the hill. He recovered nicely by rolling a double-play and striking out Stevenson. The sixth turn was much more challenging against the top of LSU’s order. With a runner on first, Henderson made a marvelous running-rob of Bregman at the fence to save the double and run. It mattered all the more as Raph Rhymes singled on with two outs, bringing up Katz with runners on corners.
This time the slugger was all-but-intentionally walked to load bases matching Graveman and Ibarra again. They waged a war, going full-count and then three hard foul-aways…one nearly decapitating a MSU manager in the dugout. After calming a moment, Graveman came back with a slow hanger that broke away and left Ibarra frozen.
“The sixth inning took a little out of me, the long at-bat to end the inning. We ended up saving a breaking ball to get a punchout.” State’s batters made it sting more in the bottom of the inning with another run, after two outs. Renfroe was walked again and didn’t want to just stand around, so he stole second. Slauter cashed in with a single for the RBI.
The toll meant Graveman wasn’t going the distance this time as he was tagged for a single and ground-rule double in the seventh. With a lefthanded hitter due up LHP Chad Girodo got first call, though LSU countered with right-handed pincher Chris Chinea. Whom Girodo plunked on 1-1 to fill every base. RHP Ben Bracewell was hurried in to face the top of the order.
A fly ball to right did end the shutout as Chris Sciambra came across, before Bracewell re-loaded everything with a full-count walk. He wasn’t fazed, coaxing a come-backer to start the 1-6-3 double-play and keep it 7-1 at the stretch.
At least until the offense could pile on more margin with a three-run eighth inning. New 3B Sam Frost singled, stole second, then third as well with one out. Pirtle got his third safety of the day and first RBI with a bouncer through the right side. Frazier doubled for two in scoring positions, and Bradford stayed hot by scoring them on his single.
As RHP Jonathan Holder hadn’t thrown in a week he was sent out for the last two innings. The rust showed. LSU made the seemingly-strange choice of hitting for their two best batsmen, but Jared Foster made it look genius with a solo homer and Alex Edward singled. Holder settled down to throw three fly-outs, all hit well; then left a couple of un-scored Tigers after ninth inning singles.
Glenn took the loss with six runs on as many hits, three walks and no strikeouts; with a total of six Tigers tossing. Will Lamarche absorbed the last four runs on three hits. LSU did collect 11 base knocks, over half of them in the last three frames.
Seven Bulldogs had a hit and four batted safely at least twice with Bradford and Rea each driving in three runners. The top half of the order had seven of the safeties. But the real turnaround was at the other end; after two rough evening games the bottom-three used Sunday had four hits and scored five times. Pirtle accounted for three hits with a RBI and scored twice.
“Finally against a righthander I started seeing the ball better, I started barreling-up my balls and its stated working out.”
With a split salvaged, along with some pride, Mississippi State completes its long season-opening homestand Tuesday by hosting Alcorn State. RHP Brandon Woodruff (1-1, 3.38) gets the ball first against the SWAC visitor.