Vanderbilt broke open a 5-5 tie with five combined runs in the fifth and sixth innings to take charge of an eventual 13-8 victory at Dudy Noble Field. The Commodores successfully opened the weekend series and improved to 37-13, 13-10 SEC. Mississippi State’s second-half season skid continued with a tenth-straight league loss, dropping the Bulldogs to 21-29, 5-10.
Much like most of those previous setbacks State was able to put runners on the paths and runs on the scoreboard. Sadly another theme continued as Bulldog pitching was asked to do more than it is capable of achieving here in 2010. So despite scoring eight times on nine hits, the home team couldn’t begin to offset a 19-hit Commodore barrage including five doubles, a triple, and two home runs.
“I feel like we’re scoring against some of the best arms in the league,” Coach John Cohen said. “We’re giving ourselves a chance at least offensively and for the most part defensively. But when we’re giving up 19, 15, 20 hits we have no chance.”
Not even after rattling one of the SEC’s elite moundsmen for five runs in the opening two innings. Or for that matter literally knocking starter Sonny Gray out of the game, on a basepath collision with State’s CF Jaron Shepherd in the sixth inning. Because prior to his painful departure the sophomore righthander had righted himself after the early assault and retired 11-consecutive Bulldogs…during which time his own club built a 10-5 advantage.
“Sonny Gray remembered that he’s Sonny Gray, one of the best guys in America,” said Cohen. “He was a first- or second-rounder out of high school and he’s really good. If you’re going to have a chance to beat somebody like that it’s got to be a 6-5, 7-6 type of ball game.”
Gray (7-5) didn’t let it get that close after the second turn, working one batter into the sixth with five runs on seven hits, a walk and five strikeouts. Even putting him in the dugout with the training staff didn’t help State’s cause as lefthander Richie Goodenow was entirely up to the sudden opportunity. He went 3.0 full with no hits and runs, a walk and five more strikeouts. The remaining MSU scoring came off ninth-inning worker Drew Hayes.
State pitching had no such success. Starter Tyler Whitney was charged with the first five runs, on nine hits with three strikeouts, before leaving the affair in the hands of Kendall Graveman. He began well in his relief inning but by mid-game Commodore batters had a read on the rookie, tagging him for five more runs on five hits with three walks. Graveman (2-4) took the loss.
The contrast was too clear, as a prep draft-prospect like sophomore Gray went over twice as long as a fourth-year senior Whitney and soph Goodenow was more than a match for a Bulldog frosh forced into duty beyond his seasoning. “It’s hard to get upset with somebody like Tyler, he works his tail off and has been here a while. He’s trying his very best for Mississippi State,” Cohen said.
“Kendall is a freshman who just can’t throw enough strikes right now. Look at Goodenow, as a freshman he got to pitch 11 innings. Our freshman guys are having to throw 40 innings, 25, 50. We just can’t protect them, we just throw them to the wolves right now because we don’t have any choice.
Whitney did handle the first challenge like an old hand, allowing a couple of leadoff hits for Commodores on corners before sitting the heart of their order. And State scored first, in the opening inning, as with 3B Nick Vickerson and 1B Connor Powers on via singles DH Russ Sneed walked to load the bases. With two down CF Ryan Collins took his first pitch through the right side scoring the lead runner, though Powers was ruled out sliding across the dish.
MSU’s best chance to take some control came in the second as 2B Sam Frost singled, got to second on a passed ball and was bunted to third. SS Jonathan Ogden scored him with a single, Vickerson hit his way on also, and RF Luke Adkins drove both in with a double. “I just put a good swing on it,” he said. “You don’t have to do a whole lot when you have a guy with velocity like that.” Adkins himself got to third on a Powers grounder and scored on a wild pitch for the 5-1 lead.
But it was as if that dirtball used up all of Gray’s wildness. Because from there he was overpowering everyone, ending the second on a strikeout of Sneed and sitting the next eleven batters faced. “He looked like he was in trouble,” Adkins said. “He went down to the bullpen and threw, came back and he pitched well.”
Meanwhile Vanderbilt was answering State score-for-score. Nine-hole hitter tied it 1-1 with a RBI triple in the second inning. And the 5-1 margin didn’t last halfway into the third. After a leadoff Commodore hit second-sacker Frost couldn’t back-hand Jason Esposito’s grounder, so instead of a double-play runners were on corners with no outs and the cleanup Commy batting. Westlake made it 5-2 with a single past first base, and designated hitter Curt Casali evened the score with his three-run shot over leftfield. It was his seventh homer of the year.
The hits off Whitney kept coming with a double to put the go-ahead runner on, and one-out single that finished the starter. Graveman inherited ‘Dores on corners, then both were in scoring positions as Connor Harrell stole. A walk filled all posts for Brian Harris to start the order over a third time before; Graveman rolled him into a 6-4-3 double-play and got the fourth-inning side.
But his control didn’t return to the hill with him for the Vanderbilt fifth as a walk, single, and walk loaded the bases with no outs. Harrell got ahead 3-0, Graveman got a couple of strikes, and then the batter pulled a one-hopper over the third base bag to clear the bags. Harrell did overrun second base and was thrown-out but he’d put Vanderbilt in front 8-5.
They made it 10-5 in the sixth as Aaron Westlake golfed a two-run homer over dead-centerfield, his eighth shot of the season. That chased Graveman for senior Greg Houston who ended this inning on a double-play.
Gray’s game ended the hard way in the bottom of the sixth as Shepherd chopped a high hopper on the first base line, just foul, that the pitcher chased. The two collided and Gray got by far the worst of things, laying on the line for a few minutes before leaving the field. Goodenow finished Shepherd with a strikeout and fanned two more in the frame. A two-out error allowing Adkins to reach in the seventh did no damage, as did Collins reaching in the eighth.
The Commodores did a little late expanding. Not in the eighth, which featured a 19-minute stadium blackout and saw Houston leave the sacks stuffed. The ninth was another matter as consecutive doubles and a two-base single by the bottom-third of VU’s order added a pair of runs. Corey Collins entered with no outs and one on second, and with one down allowed a RBI-single to Anthony Gomez.
Those runs actually mattered because Vanderbilt’s decision to give Hayes the ninth produced just as many State scores. C Wes Thigpen soloed for his fourth homer this spring to lead off, and a two-out error of an Adkins grounder gave Powers one more chance to swing. He made it count with a two-run shot over left-centerfield for his 15th homer. That was the last gasp though.
Powers now has 53 longballs as a Bulldog, while Adkins got his 100th hit in two Mississippi State seasons. But for this night Vandy second baseman Gomez and centerfielder Harrell each has at many hits (four) as any two Dogs combined. Harrell drove in four runs and both Westlake and Casali three.
Which essentially told the evening’s story because most anything State did on offense the Commodores could double at the expense of overmatched Bulldog pitching. Just as has been the case during this four week SEC losing streak.
“That’s where we are,” said Cohen. “But we keep putting up numbers despite our pitching getting slapped around pretty hard, that’s a credit to our position players.”
State will send another freshman, righthander Chris Stratton (4-3, 5.97) out for game-two Saturday while junior righthander Taylor Hill will be on the mound for Vanderbilt.