Freeman's clinching hit came with one out and bases loaded, and Mississippi State
trying to recover from a four-run assault by LSU
in the top of the last inning that had evened up the score. And, with two strikes against him, delivered by the same Tiger reliever who had fanned Freeman the previous game. Fortunately for him and the home team, this was a very different day as Freeman got around on LSU closer Matty Ott and dropped it fair inside the leftfield line. SS Frank Radow jogged home from third base to end the evening.
"Fastball, inside," said Freeman. "He beat me with it last night and I knew I was going to get it again. I turned it around."
In the process State might have turned the SEC championship chase around, too. With their win the Bulldogs evened the weekend series with the Tigers and improved to 25-28 overall, 9-19 SEC. LSU's case matters more in the big picture though because at 19-10 they are now tied with Ole Miss for first in both the Western Division and overall league standings, going into Saturday's game-threes at Starkville and Fayetteville respectively. LSU took the in-season series from the Rebels and has the tiebreak in conference tournament seedings.
None of that mattered to Mississippi State of course, not even after the Bulldog bullpen gave away a four-run lead in the last inning. The Dogs were in danger of wasting a remarkable effort from starter Nick Routt, who had worked into the ninth before tiredness and back tightness ended his stint at 8.0 official with Tigers two on bases. Reliever Jared Wesson was tagged for two hits, including a two-run shot pulled inside the right foul-pole by their own designated hitter Blake Dean that evened up the score. Greg Houston had to ground out pinch-hitter Buzzy Haydel with the go-ahead runner on the paths to give State the chance to win without overtime.
They had to do so against Ott, who had successfully closed LSU's 5-4 Thursday win for his 12th save of the season. The righthander wasn't as effective Friday night. "It's hard to be that sharp two days in a row," Cohen said. Radow proved that with a leadoff single through shortstop on the first pitch, and CF Grant Hogue bunted him up into scoring position. LSU intentionally walked LF Ryan Collins and it would have worked had third baseman Tyler Hanover cleanly handled a grounder from C Scott DeLoach.
He didn't, stacking the sacks for Freeman who had subbed-in to ground-out in the eighth. And he had taken the place of starting DH Ryan Duffy, one of State's top hitters on the night with a RBI-grounder in the first inning, a solo homer in the fourth, and a run-scoring double in the sixth against LSU ace Louis Coleman.
Yet Cohen had a late-game notion when LSU went to their bullpen. "The thing is both are such good hitters, it's not that you're taking Duffy out; you're giving Freeman an opportunity. It's hard not to give Freeman that opportunity even though Duffy hits a home run and double and is swinging it well. But I just felt the matchup was better for Freeman."
Besides, Freeman had faced Ott once already and even if the first experience didn't pay off this second shot did. "He started me a little different, but I knew he was going to finish me the same way," Freeman said. And this time Freeman did the finishing with a laced-liner too tall for the third baseman. "I was watching it down the line, not running hard because I knew if it hit fair we were going to win."
And, Cohen noted, "Duffy is such a team guy he's the guy high-fiving Freeman on the way to the plate." Joining the gang in celebration was Routt. "In the ninth I was doing re-hab and heard Cody got a hit, I came running out."
With a bit better bullpen work Routt would have been the game story lead-line. Matched up with arguably the best starter in the league, State's lefthanded freshman more than held his own even if he couldn't record a fifth complete-game for the season. In the eight-plus he allowed six runs on six hits with five walks and five strikeouts. "I pitched well, coming off a little back injury I had to fight through tonight," Routt said. "But I pitched well, the defense played well." Routt used the usual fastball and changeup and was able to mix both and move them around against a LSU lineup heavy to the left side. "That's a little advantage I guess, and they struggled a little against Tyler (Whitney, also a southpaw) last night."
Considering his team's situation Coleman was not characteristically sharp, allowing seven hits and as many runs. He did strike out six Dogs and walked just one, but the MSU order made good contact all of his six innings. Especially 1B Connor Powers with a pair of two-run homers, in the first and sixth innings. "He threw some really good pitches to me," Powers said. "He just missed twice. The first one was a slider and the second was a fastball. I don't know where it went." In fact it went not just over the centerfield wall but cleared the speakers as well.
Powers' first homer off Coleman staked State to a 3-0 lead in the opening inning, following up on Duffy's run-scoring grounder. Though, had LSU's infield been a bit quicker turning a ground ball the MSU slugger wouldn't have come up in that inning. Coleman was able to respond like a league-leader though and mow Dogs down for the next two turns, until the fourth when Duffy lifted his drive that took a long time to come down behind centerfield. It was his 10th homer of the season.
And a good cushion for Routt to work with as he managed to strand five Tigers in the first five innings, aided by some good infield defense. LSU broke the offensive ice when shortstop Austin Nola went long to lead off the fifth. Then in their half of the sixth, with two in scoring positions and two outs, catcher Micah Gibbs hit what should have been a routine fly-ball. Except LF Luke Adkins mis-read it and came diving in too late, allowing both runners to score.
But Duffy sparked a State response—"The DH slot was pretty good," Cohen said—with a double to score DeLoach, and Powers came through with the second shot of the night and his 19th of the season. Routt kept it at 7-3 into the ninth by sitting six-straight, while LSU let relievers Paul Bertuccini and Chris Matulis take care of the State seventh and eighth, stranding four Dogs in the doing. Those left-on-basers nearly came back to bite badly, until Houston managed to get his squad back in the dugout with a deadlock.
Yet for a team that was 3-10 this year in one-run decisions, State showed some unexpected late-game confidence. "I knew we were going to win just by the way we were playing," Powers said. "Especially as it was tied, I had a lot of faith in our lineup to get it done. You can't worry about what happened, you have to worry about what you're going to do next."
"The thing about these kids is they won't give up," Cohen said. "Our seniors want to win so badly. And that's most pleasing to me is to see them come out and compete like this all the time. It would be really easy with the kind of year that we've had for our kids to hang their head; a two-run jack ties it up, we've seen it all before. But they didn't do it, and the only thing I'm hearing out of our dugout is hey we're still going to win this game. Which is saying a lot."
Houston (2-2) got the win while Ott (3-2) was the loser. State collected 13 hits off four Tiger hurlers, with the three homers and pair of doubles. Powers and Duffy were both 2-of-3 officially with four and three RBI respectively. With his longballs Powers moved into 9th place on the MSU career list with 38. LSU got two hits from second baseman DJ LeMahieu, Hanover, and Nola, and nine total safeties.
Now the teams square off in Saturday's rubber-game, moved up from 2:00 to a noon first pitch. Cohen expects to start freshman righthander Devin Jones (0-3, 7.59era) while LSU will come back with their third right-side starter of the series Austin Ross (5-6, 5.09). Maybe the Tigers are playing for a title, while the Bulldogs are just playing for pride in the season-finale.
Maybe that's enough, too. "This last part of the season feels awesome," Freeman said. "We've worked so hard through the year, I don't think anybody in the country has worked as hard as we have. And finally starting to win feels good."
Nobody would have questioned the coach for leaving the order alone. In fact there were surely some questions in the bottom of the ninth why John Cohen had changed designated hitters an inning earlier. But Cody Freeman affirmed the substitution decision by singling in the game-winning runner in Mississippi State's 8-7 victory over visiting LSU.