Collins Clutch In Comeback Win

Derrick Armstrong lied. But, it was only half a fib in that promise made to Gavin Collins in the bottom of the 10th as both Bulldogs watched an Ole Miss reliever throw. "I told him when they made the pitching change you're going to get the hit and I'm going to tackle you."

Collins did his part to fulfill Armstrong's optimistic prophecy. On a 2-1 pitch and with pinch runner Matthew Britton on second base, the catcher punched a base hit through the right side of the Rebel defense. Britton came all the way home with a desperate throw from rightfield going wide. Britton's two-out score completed a last-chance comeback by Mississippi State for a 6-5 victory.

The Bulldogs (22-14, 7-7 SEC) evened both their league record and the weekend series at 1-1, while Ole Miss saw a three-run lead built in the top of the tenth vanish. The Rebels are 28-9, 8-6 going into Sunday's rubber game at Dudy Noble Field.

The Saturday contest wasn't merely another thrilling chapter in State-Ole Miss history. It made college baseball history. A crowd of 15,586 overflowed Polk-Dement Stadium, eclipsing the existing NCAA campus-game mark of 14,991…set in 1989 on this same field.

When the Rebels took a stunning 4-2 lead in the top of the tenth on a two-run homer by Sikes Orvis, then padded it with a sacrifice fly RBI from Preston Overby, it appeared most of the record crowd would leave frustrated. Many already had in fact, noted Coach John Cohen who himself played before that previous record crowd of '89.

"I read the attendance was 15,586. I think after the top of the tenth I want to say it got down to around seven grand," he quipped. More seriously, "And I do want to thank everybody for being here. It's important for our athletic department, our baseball program and our whole University."

Collins for his part didn't notice departures; the atmosphere was still plenty strong as he came to the right side of the batters box. "I just want to thank this crowd. 15,000 plus, that's awesome. Everyone being here gave us the extra boost to come back and get the win."

Down by three, and having stranded eight runners in scoring positions—five at third base—in regulation innings a comeback looked unlikely. After one out OF Cody Brown, pinch-batting, drove a double off the centerfield wall to get something started. A follow-up double by SS Seth Heck which fell just fair in left cut the deficit to 5-3 and suddenly had a tying run at the plate. And then on base as 3B Alex Detz got to first on an errored throw with Heck having to stop at third as the ball bounced off Detz and stayed too close to the bag.

Rebel righthander Josh Laxer, who had taken over in the eighth to stand a go-ahead Dog at third, wasn't bothered by a line-fly to centerfield off 2B Brett Pirtle's bat as it only scored Heck for a 5-4 margin and made a second out. So Laxer stayed in to face 1B Wes Rea, hitless in five chances with a sac-fly way back in the opening inning. And with Detz still on first base all Laxer needed was a routine contact.

Rea beat him though, coming after the first pitch and lifting it to right and somewhat down the line where a breeze kept it fair. But the Rebels had played the whole outfield deep specifically to avoid a double. Rightfielder Will Jamison compounded the strategic mistake with a tactical gaffe, diving for a hero catch rather than playing safe. He missed the ball, Detz came all the away around from first to tie it up, and Rea got to second unchallenged.

"That gave us our momentum right there," Collins said. "From that point on something good is going to happen, something is going to go our way, the baseball gods were with us."

Deities weren't swinging though, it was the freshman catcher from California. 2-for-2 with a RBI already, he had to wait while Preston Tarkington warmed…giving Armstrong a chance to pep-talk. Collins came up prepared for somebody he'd never seen in person. "I had a really good scouting report. He was going to throw a lot of cutters, very few sliders. So I was looking cutter, just trying to see a strike first and see what he was throwing."

Tarkington on 2-1 obliged with the cut fastball, on the lower-outer plate. "I just swung and it, it happened to go through a hole and we won the game."

Laxer (2-1) took the unlikely loss on 2.1 innings with the four runs on five hits, a walk and three strikeouts. Collins' clutch contact made an even more unexpected winner out of LHP Vance Tatum, who'd taken over from RHP Jonathan Holder to get the final out—a fielder's choice grounder--of the Rebel 10th. That Tatum will be recorded as winner before the largest campus crowd ever speaks much of how the game played out at its frantic end.

Both teams got good starting stints. Ole Miss lefty Christian Trent went 6.2 innings with lone runs in the first and third innings, off eight hits and two walks with three strikeouts. From there the Rebel bullpen patchworked their way through six scoreless innings, stranding so many Dogs on fly balls or just fouled pop-ups. State went with RHP Trevor Fitts to get through four scoreless innings before being charged with the first Rebel run of the fifth. Fitts had just four hits and no walks against a strikeout.

The Bulldogs came out aggressive for a change and got on the board first too, as Rea lifted a one-out fly ball to deep center scoring Detz from third base. Detz got a one-out single in the third, followed by a Pirtle blooper that fell safely in center. With two down Collins came up clutch for the first time, singling into, yes, rightfield for Detz to make it 2-0. Trent got away with another leadoff hit in the second, by LF Derrick Armstrong, and was an out into the third turn when Detz hit safely through the right side. Pirtle blooped a fly in front of the Rebel centerfielder for two on bases, and with two outs C Gavin Collins singled into rightfield. Detz ran hard and made home for the 2-0 lead. The Dogs did leave two un-scored that turn though which began a troublesome trend.

Ole Miss' Overby scratched out a single to open the top of the fifth, which immediately brought LHP Jacob Lindgren in relief for the nine-hole hitter. Lindgren struck that one out but the top two in the Rebel order also produced infield hits, the second a very close safe call at first base. It put Overby on third base to score as Lindgren's high fastball got off Collins' mitt; the catcher did get to the ball and flip to covering Lindgren who couldn't keep it in the mitt. A ground ball to the right side sufficed to score Braxton Lee from third too, and Lindgren needed a line-out to centerfield to keep it even at the half-way point.

State should have regained a lead in their seventh as with two on bases reliever Jeremy Massie walked the bases full and was yanked for Laxer to strike out both DH Reid Humphreys and Heck looking. The ninth was dramatic enough in its own right as both teams would load bases and score nothing. With Lee on second base and Holder now hurling, Anderson dropped a single in leftfield. Right in front of the charging Armstrong, who had been playing up already.

"I got the ball and kind of peeked and he was just touching third," said Armstrong. "So if I make a good throw he's probably going to be out." The throw was perfect; Collins' catch and tag even better. "Derrick attacked the heck out of that ball and threw a strike," said the catcher.

State could have ended it an inning earlier as Pirtle and Collins both singled their way on, and Armstrong was more-or-less walked intentionally. A pop-out beside first base sent the game to extra frames, where Holder gave up a leadoff single to Will Allen. Ole Miss put a pinch runner on first but he was able to trot home ahead of Orvis after a eighth home run of the season. Another base hit and consecutive steals had J.B. Woodman on third to make it 5-2 with the fly ball by Overby.

Fortunately Holder was taken off the hook by the home-team heroics. State even ended up out-hitting the hot Rebels 15 to 13, stranding 15 runners compared to 11. Alllen was 3-of-5 for Ole Miss with two-hit days for Lee and Anderson. Collins was 3-of-5 as well with the two RBI, while Pirtle went 3-of-4 and three more Dogs had a pair of safeties.

Winning in such a dramatic/traumatic way did ease a lot of Saturday frustrations. "Jonathan didn't have the day he wanted, Lindgren didn't have the day he wanted," Cohen said. "We didn't defend on the infield the way we wanted to. But the bottom line is we found a way to put ourselves in a chance to win a ball game, and that's what happened."

Because given one more chance, a rookie catcher who'd saved the game with his glove won it with his bad. "He did good," beamed Armstrong about his accurate forecast. But did Armstrong really tackle his teammate? "Nah, I just bear-hugged him."

Sunday's rubber game is expected to start righthanders on both sides. Ole Miss has announced Sam Smith (4-2, 2.22) while State will decide between Brandon Woodruff or Ben Bracewell, both of whom threw Tuesday in a ten-inning win over Southern Mississippi. The Bulldogs are still without starter RHP Preston Brown who will miss two series with a shoulder problem.

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