State shuts out Auburn
MSU pitchers Daryl Norris combined with Nick Routt for a shut out Auburn on Sunday. (Photo by Kim Murrell, SDN)
Mississippi State head coach John Cohen doesn't need a Weather Channel reporter to tell him a defensive game at Dudy Noble Field is likely.
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"Eight miles an hour in from the northeast means the ball isn't going to travel really well," Cohen said. "You got to hit ground balls, you got to move runners and put guys in motion. You got to do the bunting game and we work so hard in those things. It's a new era."
What that forecast could've never predicted was Mississippi State's first sweep in four years and first shutout in league play since 2008 in a 5-0 victory Sunday over No. 20 Auburn.Â
None of the 32-man Mississippi State roster were on the team when the Bulldogs completed a three-game sweep of Auburn in 2007. It was 88 league games in between the last shutout that occurred when Ricky Bowen held Ole Miss without a run in 2008.
"Nobody thought we'd win this year, picked us last â€“ that's fine," senior catcher Wes Thigpen said. "That's where we want to be, in that underdog role. They better look out because we got a good club."
The Bulldogs completed the weekend domination by having junior southpaw Nick Routt and freshman right-handed reliever Daryl Norris combined on a four-hit shutout where only four runners reached second base during the entire afternoon.
Norris, who was making only his fourth appearance of the 2011 season, allowed just two singles in 5 1/3 innings of work to earn his first ever collegiate victory in front of 2,056 at Polk-Dement Stadium.
"I had a lot of sink on my two-seam fastball and that really helped me get a lot of ground balls," Norris said.
With four more runs plated with two outs already on the scoreboard, 24 of MSU's 27 runs were scored throughout the three-game sweep in last-out situations. Overall Mississippi State batted .444 with two outs against Auburn pitching.
Routt, who was making his second start since having surgery to correct the ulnar nerve of his pitching arm, was taken out after 53 pitches, but the junior southpaw was still able to get through 3 2/3 innings of work that included three strikeouts. The former All-Southeastern Conference Freshman Team selection in 2009 was slated to go between 60-70 but MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson was careful with his starter facing a predominately left-handed dominated Auburn lineup.
The most impressive weekend may have come from the man catching Routt and Norris Sunday in Thigpen. The transfer from Meridian Community College came into the weekend with nine hits in 12 games. The 5-foot-11, 204-pounder totaled five hits in two games including a home run and raised his batting average 50 points.
"Everything is finally starting to click for me and I'm just seeing the ball better," Thigpen said. "People don't respect us like they should but we know we're a great club. We all have a chip on our shoulders."
After both teams combined for just five hits through four innings, the Bulldogs used two bunts by senior Jonathan Ogden and freshman second baseman Adam Frazier to set up RBI hits by Thigpen, senior third baseman Jarrod Parks and senior catcher Cody Freeman to break up the scoreless tie.
"(Jarrod) is just a really tough kid mentally and I think that's one of the strengths of our club this year," Cohen said. "I just thought he hung in there and got to the middle of the field with a ground ball or line drive."
State was able to tack on another run with a trick play on the bases where Jaron Shepherd was intentionally picked off first base with two outs because Frazier, a speedster from Bishop, Geo., was on third base waiting to dash toward home plate. However, the Tigers (14-10, 2-4) failed to not only notice Frazier on the third base line but failed to cover the relay back to first base leaving Shepherd alone to jog back safely.
"You're worried about a freshman because they've never been in that situation before but he and Shep executed that play to absolute perfection," Cohen said. "That's exactly what we wanted to do and it's easy to coach when you call a play and they flat out run it."
Despite the defensive mishap, Auburn's starting pitcher Derek Varnadore and his unusual delivery were dominating MSU hitters through three innings as the junior, who came into Dudy Noble Field near the top of the SEC in innings pitched and strikeouts, rang up seven Mississippi State batters before he gave up a single run.
"My goodness he can really pitch," Cohen said. "I'm standing on deck with our hitters (and) his fastball is so hard to see. There's not big-time velocity but there's so much deception in his delivery and there's so much movement."
Another senior that continued his hot weekend at the plate was Ogden and his 3-for-4 afternoon with the bat. Ogden, who has started every game at shortstop since his arrival on the Starkville campus last year from Blinn Community College in Texas, finished the three-game tilt with a .583 batting average and a team-high five RBIs in the sweep.
Throughout the weekend, State batted .429 with runners in scoring position and got the leadoff man on base in nine of the 25 innings played.
The victory puts Mississippi State (18-6, 4-2), a team that's finished last in the SEC Western Division each of the last three seasons, a game behind Alabama for the division lead two weeks into league play.
"We're not going to think about those things right now," Cohen said. "I think our kids will be excited about that but our coaches won't think one second about that."
Before traveling to face a Georgia squad, who took two games from No. 5 LSU this weekend, Mississippi State will host a mid-week contest against Alabama A&M (3-20) at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday where Cohen said the Bulldogs coaching staff was still debating between sophomore right-hander Kendall Graveman or junior college transfer Andrew Busby.