They won’t be bringing back another SEC Tournament trophy, though. Vanderbilt jumped on Bulldog pitching for seven runs in their second inning, and matched scores the rest of the way for a 16-8 semifinal victory. Defending tourney champs Mississippi State left Hoover 43-17 and 3-1 for this year’s event.
And, winless in four frustrating meetings with the top-ranked Commodores this season. “They just have our number,” Coach John Cohen said. “But they’ve got a lot of peoples’ number.”
Vanderbilt (51-8) assuredly had the number of Bulldog pitching, rattling them for 19 hits and scoring seemingly at-will at times. Seven Mississippi State moundsmen took turns and the first six all were charged with runs. So consistent was the scoring that an otherwise productive afternoon from the offense was wasted.
“It’s tough playing from behind,” said SS Adam Frazier. “But as long as we keep putting up runs we feel we had a shot.” And in fact when State scrambled within 8-4 there was theoretically the long shot of a comeback. Then the Commodore clubbers went back to work and answered everything the Dogs could do, emphatically.
The batting barrage obscured a reasonably effective outing, at least when it counted, by righthander T.J. Pecoraro. The VU starter put up a pair of scoreless innings while his offense set the tone, then just scuffled through the rest of his 6.0 complete innings. Pecoraro (4-1) ended up with seven runs on 10 hits and a walk, and oddly did not strike out anyone. He didn’t really need to of course. Given so much support Pecoraro could and at times did seem to stick something in the zone and dare Dogs to do anything with it.
Jared Miller worked the last three turns with one run allowed on four hits, two walks and three strikeouts. Though he never had less than an eight-run cushion he still was awarded his first save of the season.
State starter LHP Jacob Lindgren (4-3) wasn’t as effective. Though he threw up a scoreless first inning, and was only tagged for two base hits in the second, the sophomore absorbed six runs to take the loss.
“I feel it just wasn’t a great, great start by Jacob,” said Cohen in the sure understatement of the tournament. “That happens sometimes. And Vanderbilt was on a little bit of a roll offensively.”
Ironically Lindgren rolled through the opening inning, which in the season’s second half has been his downfall. He got a pair of strikeouts and ground ball in fact, and ought to have been an out into the second turn with a bouncer to shortstop. Frazier would have had to hustle his throw from the hole, only he bobbled it in the glove and was charged with an error. Then Lindgren came in too close on Conrad Gregor to hit him.
Instead of bunting, designated hitter Zander Wiel swung away and singled to right. RF Demarcus Henderson chose to throw home in a vain attempt at the scoring lead runner, which allowed Gregor to take third with still no outs. Vince Conde followed with a double to right-centerfield for a 2-0 lead, and Lindgren loaded the bases on four balls before drilling Spencer Navin for a free RBI. Having gone through the order Lindgren was excused, leaving LHP Chad Girodo loaded bases, no outs, and a 3-0 deficit.
Another lefthander did produce consecutive outs, on fly balls that scored runners though. Then the Commodores knocked out three more singles in order for a 7-0 margin and another pitching change. RHP Will Cox took over to mercifully end the assault with a swinging strikeout of Wiel.
“I felt that 7 run inning was kind of the whole story of the ball game,” Cohen said. “All the elements of a big inning were right there. When those things happen you’re going to give up a bunch of runs.”
Cox wasn’t long for the game either with a leadoff single and errant pickoff throw putting John Norwood on third base. Tony Kemp plated him with a base hit for the eighth Commodore run.
Which put Pecoraro on cruise, after he’d used just six pitches for three airballs in the first inning and negated a second-inning walk. State did get to him finally in their half of the third, though not until two were down via double-play. Frazier snapped the no-hitter with a single, DH Alex Detz followed suit, and RF Hunter Renfroe delivered the RBI-hit with a single to center. 2B Brett Pirtle reached next on a shortstop fielding error, and for an instant 1B Wes Rea made it interesting with a first-pitch drive to left. It died fast though, just reaching the track for the out.
Still something had started and the Dogs drew closer in their fourth. With one out 3B Sam Frost singled, and was running as C Nick Ammirati punched his own hit through the opened right side. With teammates on corners LF Jacob Robson got a post-season RBI on his single. That sent some Commodore relievers to warm up, itself a success of sorts.
Then Frazier notched his second single, this one for a RBI as Ammirati raced around for an 8-3 scoreboard. Detz and Pecoraro waged a fine fight that after two long foul-offs went full-count, before the Bulldog lifted one far enough to center that Robson could come across. A strikeout of Renfroe left it a four-run difference through four innings.
Any idea of a complete rally was squelched as Vanderbilt answered with a vengeance. Norwood singled in leadoff, and Navin’s grounder skipped under Frost’s glove to be re-ruled a hit. With the order starting over a fourth time LHP Ross Mitchell entered and…wasn’t anything like his usual reliable relief self.
Kemp sac-bunted in one run, then Mitchell was tagged for three more hits around a plunking that produced five Commodore runs. Mitchell literally lost his glove on a comebacker, though he did recover and with both hands bare flipped to out Conde at first. By then it was 13-4.
The fifth inning, Cohen agreed, was the real deflation. “Because we didn’t get to the bottom part of the strike zone and give our defense a chance to make plays.”
State did chip a couple off that deficit in their turn, beginning with a plunking of Pirtle. Rea got around on a breaking ball and just looped it behind third base, fair, for a double. Henderson’s grounder scored one runner, and Frost’s fly to leftfield the other. In the sixth it was consecutive one-out doubles by Detz and Renfroe, the latter netting his second RBI, for a 13-7 difference.
It was 15-7 in the bottom of the seventh when Vanderbilt changed arms, with lefthander Miller against the second half of the order. He got two quick strikeouts before sub-swinger 3B Kyle Hann singled. The freshman’s fast feet came into play as the next substitute, C Mitch Slauter, dropped a fly ball in leftfield for a double and final RBI. Which Vanderbilt matched in the eighth, as if needed, for the final margin.
Their last three runs were off RHP Daryl Norris, charged with six hits against six strikeouts in his first extended stint since 2011. Even long-exiled RHP Evan Mitchell was given a chance to chunk at Hoover. He looked shaky as ever with two walks, then let the fastball work and struck out three-straight batters.
That was one tiny silver sliver for State. So was a 3-of-5 day and two RBI for Renfroe, and two hits each for Frazier and Detz. The pair of safeties gave junior Frazier 23 hits in 48 at-bats for his three trips to Hoover, where he was the 2012 SEC Tournament MVP. But all paled against a Vanderbilt order where six had multiple hits; with three each from Turner, Harrell, Gregor, and Wiel. The ‘Dores also stole four bases, some long after the lead was out of hand and maybe sight. Cohen took no umbrage at running in such a setting though.
The Bulldog offense did reach double-digit hits for the tenth-straight game and 13th out of the last 14 contests. Individually, Pirtle extended his streak of games-reached to 32. “I thought we took really good wings and kept putting together innings,” Cohen said. “But we didn’t put 16, or 17, on the board today.”
Much as the outcome stings State fans, it did produce the championship-round showdown SEC observers wanted. Regular season champs Vanderbilt will meet Louisiana State after the Tigers’ 3-1 win over Arkansas. The league’s top two teams did not meet in the regular season; now they will and on a neutral field. The only unhappy folk besides Bulldogs are SEC and stadium officials as that gate won’t come close to matching what a State-LSU rematch would have drawn on championship Sunday.
Now the Bulldogs will await Sunday’s evening announcement from the NCAA what the 16 Regional sites will be. All signs are encouraging that Dudy Noble Field will be hosting first-round NCAA play for the first time since 2003. Still there’s enough uncertainty to keep everyone on edge tomorrow.
“Would we love to play at home, absolutely,” Cohen said. “That’s out of our hands, but I do feel good about our resume.”
Seedings and the full 64-team field’s assignments will be announced before noon Monday.