A matchup of the two least-efficient offenses in the SEC turned into a Friday night slugfest, won by the visiting Volunteers on the literal strength of their sticks. Five of the 22 Tennessee base hits were knocked out of Dudy Noble Field, accounting for eleven of their RBI. And still it was barely enough to outlast a Mississippi State side that—almost—matched rally for rally over the course of the 4:08 marathon. Not until Matt Ramsey, the sixth Vol hurler to work, struck out pinch-hitter Ryan Duffy with a runner on base could the evening end.
“Most times when you score 13, you’re supposed to win,” mused MSU outfielder Luke Adkins. “I don’t know, we weren’t missing many barrels on the pitching side.” Not with five Bulldog pitchers getting repeatedly tagged for hits and runs alike. Naturally Tennessee pitching was not a whole lot better, which made the evening all the more ironic because these teams came in hitting .254 (State) and .252 (Tennessee) in SEC play.
Yet offense ruled the evening with a combined 37 hits, 14 of them for two or more bases. Further irony was that Tennessee came in with just 11 total home runs in 12 prior SEC games. But five different Vols left the yard…and every single shot proved necessary before the end.
“I was really proud of the way our kids competed defensively and offensively,” said Coach John Cohen, before adding unnecessarily “We didn’t pitch well tonight. We’ve got to pitch better in this ballpark to have a chance to win.” Cohen had to watch the last two-plus innings from his office after ejection objecting to a called strikeout in the bottom of the seventh.
Defeat meant none of the production was cause for much State celebrating, even for Adkins after he hit safely the first five at-bats. He scored four times in this career night and drove in one run. “I was seeing it pretty good. I made a couple of adjustments earlier in the week that kind of helped me out, I was being too aggressive last weekend against Arkansas. I kind of toned it down a little bit and started finding more barrel.”
1B Connor Powers and DH Russ Sneed each had three hits for State with three and four RBI respectively, while Powers scored four times also. Sneed doubled three times to tie a program record, while Powers' 48th career home run gives him fifth place on that Dog list. But no less than eight Vols had multiple-hit nights led by centerfield Josh Liles with four safeties and two runs. Third baseman Matt Duffy was the RBI-champ with five, three of them coming on his fifth-inning homer that proved the most crucial blow of the whole affair.
That blast came at the expense of, but was not officially charged to, Bulldog Tyler Whitney. He was the fifth and final State moundsman to work and after giving up the big blow did enough to settle things down over the remaining five-complete innings. He would be formally charged with two runs on six hits and account for five of the six Vols struck-out.
“Tyler did fine,” said Cohen. “That’s kind of what he’s done for us in his best outings where he comes in and just tries to settle some things down. He did a pretty good job tonight also.”
It was hard to recall that State did lead at one time, based on the only Bulldog homer of the night. Trailing 1-0 after a Cody Hawn drove in Khayann Norfork in the top of the first, Adkins knocked out his first single and came home as Powers lofted a shot beyond leftfield. State starter Caleb Reed couldn’t hold that small margin as P.J. Polk doubled to the wall and scored on a Cody Hawn single. State misplayed a bunt by Liles as 3B Nick Vickerson knocked the ball from Reed’s hand, and a walk loaded the bases for Duffy. He made it 4-2 with his single to left.
Chad Girodo replaced Reed only to serve up something Blake Forsythe could clear the yard left-of-center for a 6-2 lead as the Vols batted around. But the evening’s fun was barely begun.
Vol starter Bryan Morgado got into the third himself with a four-run margin and lost it all. With bases loaded Sneed lashed a liner landing just fair enough down the left-line for a double and two runs scored. Powers made third and was able to come home on a first-pitch fly ball from C Cody Freeman that also advanced Sneed to the third corner with one out. 2B Jet Butler made contact on 0-2 with a dribbler that was going to tie the game anyway, but shortstop Zach Osborne let under the glove for a scratch single and 6-6 scoreboard.
Walking RF Ryan Collins finished Morgado for righthander Steve Crnkovich to end this rally with a double-play. And Tennessee didn’t take long to regain the lead as well as chase Girodo. His one-out walk and base hit set the plate for Charley Thurber to line-drive his homer for the 9-6 score. Devin Jones was able to leave to unscored Vols thanks to Collins as he recovered from a slow read and successfully stabbed for the inning-ending catch.
Naturally the Bulldogs called Tennessee’s bid in the bottom of the frame. CF Jaron Shepherd reached as his nubber was errored by the first baseman, and even though Vickerson flied straight to center Shepherd was able to tag and advance ahead of the throw. Adkins dropped a single in front of the rightfielder so Shepherd could only make third. It wasn’t a problem.
Because Powers got under his swing too much to drive, but also too much for any distance. Charging centerfielder Liles couldn’t come up with a sliding catch behind second, making it a chink single and RBI. There was nothing cheap about Sneed’s following drive that one-hopped the fence for a ground-rule double scoring Adkins and letting Powers get a base nearer. That was close enough for Freeman to again even the count, with a fly to center. Butler made a bid for a lead only to have his fly die on the rightfield track.
And of course Tennessee came back with another go-ahead home run. Jones walked Norfork and grooved one where Polk could reach the same spot left-of-the-wall as his predecessors. Corey Collins was rushed in only to issue a walk—bringing that fan’s shout to keep the bullpen warm--and base hit, and be yanked on a 1-0 count to Thurber with Whitney taking over the no-out mess.
Whitney rolled a double-play ball back to himself, only to throw so badly State was fortunate to get the one out at second base. Which meant there were two teammates still on base for Duffy to drive in with his three-run shot over right-centerfield, making it a 14-9 game at just the half-way point.
State had a great chance to make up much ground in their sixth turn as a single, error, and walk loaded the bases with no outs. But the Bulldogs settled for a single score as Freeman fanned and Butler first-pitched a fly ball to left plating Adkins. Tennessee brought in lefty D.J. Leffler to ground-out Collins and hold a 14-10 margin…briefly. Because in the MSU seventh a one-out walk of Shepherd cracked the door, and consecutive singles from Vickerson and Adkins—his fifth safety--cut another run off the deficit.
It also meant another mound move with righty Nick Blount entering to face Powers. He looked at two very, very good pitches before walking to load everything up for Sneed. Though before the Dog DH could swing, a wild pitch brought Vickerson home. Sneed watched a low fastball on full count and was already well on his way to first before Steve Manders stood and pumped the fist. Cohen stopped sort of the grass, drawing a glare and warning from the umpire…who moments later tossed the still-protesting coach.
So Cohen didn’t see Freeman fly-out with his team still trailing 14-12. Or, the leadoff home run by Matt Ramsey to open the UT eighth with what proved a critical run after all. Will Locante pitched the MSU eighth leaving Ogden stranded, then Ramsey took the hill for the ninth. Two outs-in, including a soft pop to short that spoiled Adkins’ perfect night, Powers and Sneed both doubled to make the end more interesting. Lefthander Duffy watched two balls, got two strikes, and fanned to finish it.
Crnkovich (3-1) picked up the decision based on his 3.1 innings and despite four runs on as many hits with two walks. Ramsey got a second save on the season. Jones (2-2) took the loss with two runs and two hits.
Saturday’s game-two is an hour earlier than usual, starting at 1:00 with State sending righthanded freshman Chris Stratton (3-3, 3.43) to the hill. Tennessee will go with senior righty Stephen McCray (4-3, 1.99). Of course based on the first evening, those nice earned run rates might be in danger.
“Tomorrow is another day so we’ll come out and keep doing what we’re doing offensively,” Adkins said. “And try not to give up so many runs.”