A pair of runs scored without any bat involved gave Tennessee the margin of 4-2 victory in Friday's series-opening game at Dudy Noble Field. The Volunteers, already leading 2-0 in their fourth inning after a two-RBI single, had the lead padded for them by wild-pitched-in runs from different Bulldog pitchers.
A 4-0 lead held up the rest of the evening despite Bulldogs scores in the sixth and seventh innings. Because despite loading all bases in both the eighth with no outs, and ninth with one down, Mississippi State plated none of them. When just a couple of routine fly balls would have sent the game into overtime, instead six stranded runners left the home team frustrated.
And, a game farther behind in both the Western Division and overall SEC standings. Now 31-19, 14-11 the Bulldogs are tied with South Carolina for fourth overall and two games back of loop leader Ole Miss. The Volunteers, who snapped an eight-game losing streak to MSU dating back to 2010, are 29-18, 11-14 and edging closer to a SEC Tournament berth.
The Dogs could have locked up a spot in Hoover tonight on their own. Instead, "I think we're going to look in the rear-view mirror and realize we let this one slip away from us," Coach John Cohen said.
The big slip was in that fatal fourth frame, with a combination of two Volunteer hits, their aggressive work on the paths, and just basic breakdowns by the Bulldog battery. "Walks, balls in the dirt, wild pitches," Cohen recited, not mentioning a catchers interference that really put Tennessee in position to start something. Mississippi State did the rest for them with un-caught or –blocked pitches.
"We just gave them an inning there," Cohen said. "They really should have scored two, max."
Home-team charity more than offset a ten to seven edge in base hits, as did wasted late-game opportunities to at least catch up on nothing more than a couple of routine fly balls with runners on third base. For that matter State ran itself out of a bigger inning in the sixth trying to get a man on third with one out. Based on how things played out at the plate afterwards it might not have mattered.
"You saw what I saw," CF C.T. Bradford said. ".But that's baseball, it's not going to stop us from coming back tomorrow morning and hitting early and getting ready to go."
Both ball clubs looked ready for the series with three scoreless innings. In fact it was the Bulldogs who came out swinging better, putting a pair on in the first inning with one out on a 1B Alex Detz single and plunking of 2B Brett Pirtle. It certainly looked shaky for Tennessee starter Hunter Martin who was shelled a week ago by Kentucky, albeit only one of the seven scores against him was earned.
This time he got himself out with a different sort of double-play. SS Seth Heck grounded for a force at second and while the relay to first was late Detz had turned for home. The tag was in time. Martin settled into a groove for eight-straight outs before stranding a walked Heck in the fourth.
That was after State disaster. RHP Trevor Fitts had worked around three Vols reaching in his second thanks first to C Gavin Collins throwing out a stealing Nick Senzel. A grounder stranded two others. But in the fourth a leadoff double by Christin Stewart was followed by the interference as Collins' mask collided with Senzel's bat for a free base. Both were bunted over into scoring positions.
Fitts loaded the bases with a walk to face .226 batter Nathaniel Maggio, trying to coax a double-play. Maggio foiled it by bouncing to and then through the right side, as first baseman Detz was playing closer to the bag than a bases-loaded setting seemed to dictate. Two runs scored and Fitts was lifted for LHP Jacob Lindgren to inherit runners on corners. The pitching change also meant switching catchers with Zack Randolph replacing Collins, which had worked out at Auburn well.
Not this time. Lindgren's first pitch, a bouncer, got through for Taylor Smart to come across. With two on State didn't come after batter with strikes, but stubbornly kept throwing hard breakers into the plastic turf. They kept getting by the mitt to advance and then score Maggio for the 4-0 margin.
Martin used the cushion in his fourth and fifth to strand lone Dogs. Only in the sixth did Mississippi State get something going after a leadoff Bradford single. With one out Pirtle handled the run-and-hit perfectly for men on corners, and Heck's low liner cleared shortstop for the RBI. A bigger inning didn't develop because with Pirtle running from second Randolph missed a low-and-out pitch and the throw to third was well in time. Randolph struck out on the next pitch.
When Brown opened the Bulldog seventh with a hit and Martin walked LF Derrick Armstrong with one out, Tennessee went to lefthander Andy Cox. The booked Sunday starter got an out at the bottom of the order, only to give up a run-scoring single to Bradford for the 4-2 difference. And in the eighth Cox threw eight-straight balls to Pirtle and Heck, bringing in Andrew Lee. The righthander expected bunt from third catcher Cody Walker and saw it. He also saw his third baseman slip down fielding the roller, the from-seat throw pulling the first baseman off for an official hit and loaded bases.
It was the opportunity State wanted, and went wasted as none of the ensuing three batters as much as put a ball into play. Brown, OF Jake Vickerson, and Armstrong all struck out swinging. And Lee had almost as much pressure again in the ninth. With one out, Bradford and Detz singled and Pirtle worked a sacks-stuffing walk.
This time balls were put into play, a pop-out by Heck and fly-out by Walker. Of the dozen Dogs stranded, half had been in the last two frames after reaching with one or no outs.
"We got just tons of opportunities with runners in scoring position," Cohen said. "We just were not mature in the way we handled that." If possible this was even more infuriating because at the very worst those failures to deliver should have meant extra innings. The difference again were those two giveaway runs on bounced pitches to some shaky young backstops.
Martin (4-3) got the win on 6.1 innings with two runs on six hits, two walks and five strikeouts. Lee earned a third save of the season despite three hits and a walk, striking out four. Fitts (4-3) took the loss with four runs on as many hits, one walk and one strikeout. Lindgren was quickly replaced, saved for further use this series, so RHP Ben Bracewell could take care of the last 5.0 scoreless innings. He allowed three hits with two walks and struck out five in what would have been a good start.
"I felt good tonight. Any time you get called on no matter the situation you want to do the same thing and put zeroes on the board and give your team the best chance to win."
The chances came and State didn't take advantage. Now they have an uphill fight just to take the last home series and, with each loss, increasingly the last activity of 2014 on the home field. Saturday priorities shrink to squaring things up for this weekend and trying to stay in contention for a first-day bye at Hoover. Auburn's loss to Kentucky did lock up a SEC Tourney slot for State at least.
Basically, "We just have to flush it and bounce back tomorrow and win a series," Bracewell said. Which is something senior Bradford expects.
"That's the best thing about this club. And what you look forward to when something happens like this. We'll be back tomorrow, I promise you that."