Thanks largely to Stratton and classmate Kendall Graveman, the Mississippi State seniors got to end their careers with one last victory. A old-school-style one too, as the pair of rookie moundsmen shackled slugging Louisiana State to just five hits and a lone run in a 2-1 Bulldog win on the final day of the season. State ended the otherwise-frustrating year 23-33 and 6-24 SEC, avoiding a last-place league finish. LSU moves on to the SEC Tournament, taking a 38-26, 14-16 SEC record.
But the host Tigers didn’t depart Alex Box Stadium entirely pleased by winning the series. Not after a team that had put up 14 and 17 runs in the previous wins only scratched their scoreboard once, and that in the eighth inning after the Bulldogs had made it a two-run margin in the top of the frame. That would prove the game-winner, and came as pinch-runner Sam Frost crossed the plate on throwing error to first by Tiger shortstop Mikie Mahtook. State’s other score came in the first turn as junior 3B Nick Vickerson was driven in by senior LF Ryan Duffy.
Based on the two previous days—for that matter, the entire second half of Mississippi State’s SEC season—nobody would have imagined such a narrow margin could hold up. Yet for this one final day, Stratton and Graveman were able to win with just that modest amount of support. Because the freshmen moundsmen threw like veterans together and their defense played almost-errorless ball. The lone E didn’t even come back to haunt State this time, either, also a marked change of ’10 pace.
What made Coach John Cohen happiest though wasn’t so much salvaging something out of the last five SEC series. It was the manner MSU took into Saturday’s finale with, too all appearances, nothing to play for but the game itself. That actually proved enough.
“Our kids played just as hard today as they did on day-one,” Cohen said.
Good things were forecast back on day-one from Stratton, but few imagined he’d prove the core of State’s rotation so soon. And not many more would have thought the frosh would bounce back from last Saturday’s eight-plus inning, 143-pitch no-decision game against Vanderbilt. He’d been originally booked to throw the second game of the series but on Friday the MSU coaches changed plans.
“Since they gave me one more day of rest it really helped out,” he said. “If I’d had to throw yesterday it would have been a stretch.”
Though, he also spent game-two watching LSU crush State pitching in three huge innings with multiple home runs leaving the park. Saturday the breeze was still blowing out, too. Yet in the course of his full 7.0 stint (113 pitches this time) only a couple of those offerings got within steps of the warning track.
Stratton (5-3) threw seven shutout innings with three hits and seven strikeouts. He also walked six, which most of this year has been State’s downfall on the mound. Not today.
“I seemed to pitch better when runners were on, I don’t know why!” he said after stranding everyone who reached.
“His curveball was working, his changeup is really just starting to come, it’s more like a two-seamer you take something up,” said Cohen. “Whenever you see hitters of LSU’s caliber swinging at bad pitches you know there is deception and movement. He got a lot of chases on elevated fastball.”
It still took two good innings by Graveman to get his first save of the freshman season, and he did allow the lone LSU run on two hits and two walks. Graveman didn’t strike out anyone, but when it mattered most he coaxed Tiger contact to the right gloves at the right times.
“I was just trying to let my fastball work,” said Gravemen, and he’d follow that with something sinking that LSU couldn’t lift. Anywhere. “I didn’t want to give up a mistake fly. We went to the fastball and got it.”
LSU starter Chris Matulis (5-3) took the loss based on working just the first two innings, with the one run on two hits, three walks and no strikeouts. But the pitcher contributed to that losing decision as he walked Vickerson to open the afternoon, and with two down tried a pickoff throw that went into the seats for a free base. Vickerson stole third outright and scored easily when Duffy zinged a line-single past first base. The lead could have been larger had DH Russ Sneed’s strong bid not died in front of the rightfield fence.
State also made more bids against Matulis, loading the bases on two walks and a single by C Wes Thigpen. RF Luke Adkins pounded a hard grounder that shortstop Austin Nola had to stop diving the other way, then make a great throw to beat Adkins to first base and prevent a larger deficit. LSU righthander Ben Alsup stranded Dogs in the next two innings as well, before Adkins rocketed a liner off the pitcher’s wrist. Alsup somehow recovered the ball and bounced it, underhand, to first base in time but was done for the day after a team-long 2.2 innings and three hits.
Yet Stratton wasn’t worried about pitching with a one-run lead in a high-scoring park. If anything it kept the kid sharper before inevitably tiring.
“I just really trusted in my coach and my catcher. Thiggy has done a great job all year blocking up stuff and calling great pitches and me and Coach (Butch) Thompson have been on the same page a lot lately. It’s helped out in long ball games.”
A game that threatened to get long in the bottom of that fifth, when after a leadoff walk Tiger runner Alex Edwards legally rolled into 2B Jet Butler, producing a high throw of first and Tyler Hanover on second via error. A two out walk brought Cohen to the hill for a pep talk, followed by a fly-out to center.
Even as Graveman began warming, and the hot day was taking a toll on Stratton’s location, the rookie righty came through. He left another Tiger in scoring position in the seventh with a called strikeout of #3 batter Micah Gibbs. That ended his afternoon, too.
Fortunately Graveman was able to take the ball with a two-run lead. State had left the sacks loaded in their half of the seventh as LSU reliever Paul Bertuccini got Duffy swinging, hard, on three pitches. But after two called Ks in the top of the eighth Bertuccini walked Butler, and Frost took his place on first base. Thigpen singled to keep the inning going and SS Jonathan Ogden got a free pass to load the bases.
Vickerson chopped a slow roller to shortstop that Thigpen had to skip, perhaps distracting Nola just enough to produce a high throw that first baseman Blake Dean had to leave the bag to catch. Frost scored the run that loomed ever so much larger in the bottom of the inning as Dean singled and Nola doubled to open the turn. Mahtook joined them on a four-pitch walk.
But this last game wasn’t going to follow the script of so many before. Graveman challenged Matt Gaudet with a fastball that was bounced right to Ogden for a 6-4-3 double play State gladly took in exchange for a run. And it was Ogden fielding the routine grounder to end the inning also with the 2-1 lead that held up.
“Thiggy said just throw your fastball because I had good movement on it,” said Graveman.
Maybe the best throw of the ninth was by Ogden as he turned a Hanover bouncer into out-one to open the final frame. Order-topper Trey Watkins kept home hopes alive with a walk but was forced at second, then Gibbs ended the afternoon with his roller to second base.
“That last inning I walked a guy but after that we were just getting ground balls and it felt good out there,” said Graveman. “Chris has done an outstanding job all year, we wanted to get him a win.”
“They can hit, no doubt about it,” said Stratton. “I just mixed up pitches and tried to limit the damage when guys got on first. Thiggy did a great job coaching me and helping with my delivery. Kendall came in and did a great job, I’m glad he could pull it out for the team.”
Typically, Cohen looked back at a trio of great, or fluke, or both plays the Tigers made that kept State from giving his kid pitchers a little more margin to work with. Then again, after so many other larger Dog leads got away in preceding games, maybe a nailbiter was the right way to go. And throw. Plus, the coach said as his second year in charge ended, just the manner of the game hinted at how Mississippi State wanted to play the game this whole season before injuries and youth sidetracked things. And, how things should go in seasons to come.
“When you still have the resiliency to compete your tail off, that tells me how we’re going to compete and things to come in our program,” Cohen said. “We out-competed our opponents a lot, we just couldn’t get them out on the mound. As soon as we’re able to do that, this is going to be a team that is going to contend not only for a league championship but the opportunity to do a lot of damage in NCAA play.”
The first-year pitchers agree, though they do wish those long-suffering upperclassmen could be around to see the transition.
“They’ve done a great job of leading us and hopefully we can carry this over,” said Stratton.
“I know we’re going to miss the seniors, they brought a lot to the table this year,” Graveman said. “But it does look bright for the future I believe.”