The freshman righthander went the Saturday distance to give Mississippi State a split of the series so far. Pitching Coach Thompson admitted afterwards he was very close to taking Stratton out as the pitch count reached 140, high for a veteran and unheard-of for a Bulldog rookie. But even after the visiting Volunteers cut a run off their ninth-inning deficit and put another man on base…Thompson couldn’t bring himself to pull that trigger.
“I thought Chris deserved to have that crowd cheering for him right there,” the coach said. A big crowd, too, the 14th-largest in program history as 11,089 got to see Stratton strike out P.J. Polk on a check swing. “Coach told me I deserved to have it,” said Stratton (4-3). “I’m real excited about finally finishing one.” The stint exceeded his previous long outing of 7.1 back on March 6 against Southeastern Missouri, and was the first complete game of State’s 2010 season.
The Bulldogs improved to 18-17, 4-10 SEC while Tennessee is 18-18, 4-10 going into Sunday’s rubber game.
While there were plenty of offensive performances for the home crowd to cheer, such as a two-homer, four-RBI day by RF Ryan Duffy, or another three-hit outing for 1B Connor Powers, the day belonged to Stratton. He wasn’t overpowering, a good thing as pacing his pitches enabled him to go back out inning by inning by inning. Stratton was just effective.
And, resilient, showing beyond-his-freshman-year poise in shaking off a four-run Vol outburst in the fifth inning and 5-2 deficit. Stratton shook it off and stayed on script. “Thiggy (C Wes Thigpen) did a great job calling the game, we were out there having fun just me and him,” Stratton said. “I’d have to say my curveball was working. And just locating, trying to get outs real quick. If you can’t strike everybody out you have to get those one-pitch outs.”
His final line showed seven runs, six earned, on eight hits with four walks and seven strikeouts. “I’m so proud of that kid,” said Duffy. “He ain’t a freshman, he’s a junior, he’s a warrior.”
Duffy showed he could battle-back himself, as it was his consecutive fielding gaffes that largely opened the gate for Tennessee’s fifth-inning burst. “I played like absolute garbage in the outfield today. Thankfully I made up for it a little bit at the plate and was able to help Stratton out a little. He threw eleven innings instead of nine because of me!” After sailing a solo homer in the bottom of that fifth, and crushing a three-run shot in the seventh to really blow it open, all fielding follies were more than forgiven.
Tennessee’s Stephen McCray didn’t throw all that badly himself, working six full innings with the first five Dog runs charged to him on eight hits. He struck out five and walked two, and left the game with a 5-5 tie. He wasn’t overwhelming batters often, either, but used a different approach than Stratton.
“I guess you could say he was effectively wild around the zone,” said Duffy. “Like he’d miss big, he’d miss small, and he’d be in there. It forced a lot of guys to chase pitches. He’s a sneaky pitcher, he’s good.” The wild part was no joke either as Bount hit no less than five Dogs and came very close to ejection in the process.
McCray’s first replacement, Nick Blount (1-2) took the loss on just a third of an inning as he allowed three runs on one hit with two walks and no strikeouts.
Stratton got off to a strong start with three scoreless innings, aided by a double-play to end the second. And he was pitching with a lead after the first turn when with Connors and Duffy in two-out scoring positions DH Russ Sneed got a seeing-eye single that the UT shortstop literally waved at. McCray had to strand a pair in both the second and third innings to stay close.
Stratton could have kept the shutout going through four had not Josh Liles outrun a double-play. Charley Thurber was able to swing with two outs and while 3B Nick Vickerson got to a grounder on the line he forced a tough throw that Powers couldn’t field. Liles was able to come all the way around for the first Volunteer score. And in the fifth Blake Forsythe tied things up with a first-pitch home run.
Tennessee didn’t stop there either but un-tied things as Cody Stubbs walked and Stacy Osborne lofted a fly ball that Duffy just miss-read into a three-base hit and RBI. Order-topper Khyann Norfork liked that so much he did the same with Duffy unable to get the right angle on a wind-fading fly to the track. It was also a triple, a RBI, and Norfork in position to score on a fly ball (caught by Duffy) that made it 5-2 at the halfway-point.
In the dugout, “Coach just told me to settle down, keep making pitches and you’re going to go this whole game,” Stratton said. “He had all the confidence in the world with me and I appreciate that.”
He certainly appreciated Duffy leading off the bottom of the frame and, naturally, lining a no-doubt drive over rightfield. Though, he didn’t deny or agree that he was swinging for the fence. “Ahhh…let’s let you call that one!” Duffy said. Sneed singled and made second on a passed ball, and with one out McCray drilled C Wes Thigpen in the helmet. Ump Mark Chapman, who’d himself taken a foul-tip off the mask, warned both benches what the next hit batsman would mean for hurler and head coach. SS Jonathan Ogden wasn’t bunting but his nubbler worked just as well to advance both runners…and bring up nine-batter CF Jaron Shepherd.
He looked at a fat first strike and was swinging on anything the next time; fortunately for good contact and a single up the middle to even the tally 5-5.
“What helped the cause there was scoring three runs to make it a tie game again,” Thompson said. “That allowed Chris to go right back out with a 0-0 game.” And Stratton sat the side in his sixth, while McCray had to leave Powers (walk) and Duffy (single) on sacks. Sneed was nicked on the upper arm which would have been a plunking and ejection, but he’d also swung just enough for the first base ump to rule strikeout and avoid further controversy.
Tennessee made their first change during the stretch with Blount entering against the bottom third of MSU’s order. Except he walked Ogden and Shepherd, putting two fast Dogs on the paths…and then advancing them with a dirtball.
Speed proved unnecessary though. Because Vickerson got every bit of Blount’s fat offering and hammered it over leftfield for a 8-5 Bulldog lead. “I was struggling at the plate all day so I just focused on getting a good pitch to hit. I just wanted to get one in the outfield really since we had runners at second and third, he fired it in the first pitch and I was dead-fastball.” It was Vickerson’s fifth homer of the season.
D.J. Leffler entered to throw a single pitch, with Adkins hitting into leftfield. Allen Walden took over, and was greeted by Powers with a single that sent Adkins to third. Duffy twice had to dodge Walden bullets and gave the moundsman a hard look after evading a low-and-inside. Then, he crushed the full-count drive over rightfield for three more RBI and a 11-5 lead.
This allowed Stratton to come back out for the eighth and two quick outs before Thurber yanked a solo homer inside the rightfield pole. Stratton kept it at the one run, then returned for the ninth. With two on and two out Norfork skipped a grounder that Ogden tried to do-or-die and missed for the run. Thompson came out to talk.
“I probably walked out there with the intention of taking him out, looking at his pitch count. We don’t do that very often. But I saw the conviction.” Stratton rewarded the faith by fanning Polk. “He filled it up for us,” said third-sacker Vickerson who’d had a good view all afternoon. “And he did it all game. I’m glad we were able to get a win for him.” Not to mention for absent head coach John Cohen, serving a one-game penalty after Friday night ejection. “We know he was probably watching somewhere,” said Vickerson.
Actually Cohen was recruiting, at an event in Sumrall, Miss., and keeping track of his current team by texts. So he didn’t get to see Stratton take a face-full of shaving cream from celebrating teammates while occupied by reporters. The interview had to pause at times as Stratton tried to wipe stinging mentholated soap from his burning eyes, but… “It’s definitely worth the pain!”
Meanwhile Thompson and Cohen were communicating plans for Sunday’s rubber game, most notably about pitching. Thompson had nothing to report at the immediate moment. “We’re still TBA, casting around tonight to make a better decision. But he said good job, I appreciate it, I told him we missed him.”
Tennessee had not named a Sunday starter at filing time either.