In the mind of Mississippi State head coach John Cohen, the strategy couldn’t possibly fail a third-straight time this weekend.
That would just be cruel to a team that out-hit and out-pitched an Alabama team in a three-game Southeastern Conference series.
With two more outs to salvage what would eventually become an 8-5 victory, the Sunday crowd of 1,437 at Dudy Noble Field held their breath when they saw junior closer Caleb Reed trot out from the bullpen.
After pitching and giving up the leads in each of the 5-4 defeats during Saturday’s doubleheader against Alabama (28-19, 10-11 in SEC play), Reed began the day holding a clipboard charting pitches and finished it recording the final two outs with what he called 75 percent of his best stuff.
“That’s what I told the coaches last night and this morning when I got here,” Reed said. “When (MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson) called down to the pen and asked what I had out of 10, I said ‘7.5’ and he said I’ll take that on a third game in a row.”
Mississippi State (25-18, 8-13 in SEC play) got its second victory of the 2011 season when behind after seven innings after Cody Freeman took a first pitch he saw from Alabama reliever Josh Rosecrans deep over the left centerfield wall to give State its first lead of the day at 7-5.
“I thought we hit it really well this weekend and just hit balls right at people,” Freeman said. “Today was big for sure. We would’ve liked to have had one of those (Saturday).”
Mississippi State is now 28-1 when they score more than five runs.
“That seems to be the barrier,” Cohen said. “It just seems like so many times we’re scoring four or less and it’s just short.”
There was debate early as to whether the game-winner should’ve eventually been Freeman’s second home run of the game when it appeared questionable that his first inning double in nearly the exact same spot of the outfield went over the fence and came back in the field of play.
“Our camera guy was right here and (he) said it hit the top of the wall so it’s hard to argue a call when you, yourself are standing more than 400 feet away from what happened,” Cohen said.
It was immediately after he saw Freeman rounding the bases that Reed dropped his clipboard and ran down to the MSU bullpen to begin warming up for the third time this weekend.
When State freshman reliever Daryl Norris got into trouble in the ninth inning, Reed was called upon and got a fly out to right and a strikeout looking to end the game and record his eighth save of the season.
“That’s why Caleb Reed gets the last two outs for us,” Cohen said. “Caleb is standing right next to us keeping a chart and saying ‘hey, let me pitch – I will throw it in the strike zone.’”
The save for the junior right-hander moves him into a tie for sixth all-time in school history for single-season saves with the 1988 and 1989 seasons of Pete Young and 1992 season of Jon Harden.
State finally capitalized with four hits with runners in scoring position Sunday after Cohen expressed his frustration over the streak of hard hit balls directly at fielders over the last few weeks.
“It’s not 24 hours later and I still don’t know what to say so somebody is going to have to ask me a question,” Cohen said.
Alabama got on the board quickly when its first three batters reached base culminating with a three-run moon shot into Left Field Lounge by Jared Reaves to give the Tide an early 3-0 lead before State fans had settled into their seats.
Three of Reaves four RBIs for the weekend came from that one swing of the bat and an already depleted MSU bullpen was about to be taxed again as MSU sophomore starting pitcher Kendall Graveman didn't make it out of the fifth inning.
Enter Evan Mitchell and as Thompson handed the freshman from Marietta, Geo, the baseball, he knew the right-hander was the final long relief option to keep State from avoiding getting swept in Starkville.
“My curveball felt real good today and it was nice to have that second option to turn to,” Mitchell said. “Any time you can get outs with whatever you’re throwing, it’s fine with me.”
Mitchell struggled early on without quality location on his fastball but went to his breaking pitch that strangely enough he believes is a curveball but his senior catcher (Freeman) stated was a slider but whatever you name it was effective. Mitchell (4-1) danced around base runners in every frame he worked to allow just one unearned run through 3 2/3 innings of work to earn his first victory since a March 6 start against Georgia State.
“Evan is one of those kids who is a great worker and a great arm but it’s hard to read his body language,” Cohen said. “When he starts throwing more strikes, he’ll be really good.”
Alabama’s bullpen implosion that included three unearned runs ruined a 110-effort from Crimson Tide sophomore Taylor Wolfe. The southpaw left a 5-2 lead after striking out five MSU hitters and slowly watched what he’d built dissolve thanks to untimely fielding errors in the seventh inning.
With the bases loaded in the seventh, Jonathan Ogden’s sacrifice fly was dropped by right fielder Brandt Hendricks followed by an RBI-ground out by Collins cut the Tide’s lead to 5-4.
Ogden, who suffered a slight fracture of his nose in the second game of the doubleheader, was cleared to play shortly after warmups after receiving four stitches to the area in the training room.
“He came up to me and said ‘I really want to play – let me run around and see how I feel,” Cohen said. “It’s broken. It’s not bad broken though…he’ll never have to have surgery.”
Jarrod Parks, the SEC’s leader in hitting with a .406 average, extended his 16-game hitting streak with a double to right center in the eighth inning where he eventually scored the final run of the game on a wild pitch that rolled into State’s dugout. The senior’s streak is the longest in MSU history since an 18-game stretch was achieved in 2007 by Brandon Turner.
After the comeback victory, combined with the fact that Ole Miss and Auburn both got swept this weekend, State is still just one game out of the final qualifying spot for the 2011 SEC Tournament and two games out of a two-way tie of Alabama and Arkansas for the Western Division lead at 10-11 in league play.
Mississippi State will next be in action away from Starkville as they travel to Mobile, Ala., to play the University of South Alabama (21-20) for a mid-week contest before traveling for a weekend three-game road series at Tennessee.