By MATTHEW STEVENS
OXFORD – Chris Stratton’s nightmare in Oxford lasted only about 25 minutes.
That’s all the time it took to not only have Mississippi State’s sophomore starting pitcher leave the game and end any hope the Bulldogs had of sweeping their in-state rival Saturday night.
Ole Miss sent 11 batters to the plate in the opening inning and scored the game’s first six runs off Stratton to cruise toward a 12-3 victory.
“He just wasn’t sharp today,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. “That’s not the Chris Stratton that pitched last week and got us off to a really tough start and in our league you can’t be down 6-0 in one inning and expect to win the ballgame.”
Stratton (5-6) allowed six runs, three of them being earned, off five hits along with two walks in 38 pitches.
Stratton’s only outs in the shortest outing of his 27-start career was strikeouts of Miles Hamblin and Preston Overbay but in between those punch outs the Rebels (28-23, 12-15 in Southeastern Conference) had five batters to reach base with every one of them eventually coming around to score.
“They hit some balls hard and even looking at the velocities – I didn’t think Chris had his best stuff,” Cohen said. “Obviously down the road we’re going to need a better version and I think we’ll get that tonight.”
It would mark the first time Stratton, a Tupelo native, left a game without managing to get through the opening frame. The right-hander saw his earned run average in league games soar to 7.36 in nine starts.
“Certainly he’s got room for improvement but he’s a talented young man and right it’s just not happening every time out,” Cohen said. “I think early in games is important for Chris because if he can right the ship, he usually can move forward.”
Mississippi State (32-19, 13-14) will likely finish the season series winning three of four contests against the in-state rival with none of those games being played at Dudy Noble Field.
“We were able to win eight in a row,” Cohen said. “I felt like this was the sloppiest game we’ve played in a while. Credit to Ole Miss – I think they came out and realized their whole season was on the line here.”
State didn’t get its first hit till the fourth inning and finally got on the scoreboard one inning later when senior shortstop Jonathan Ogden hammered a pitch over the left field wall for his team-leading eighth home run and 35 RBIs.
Ole Miss starting pitcher Austin Wright (5-4) had his most efficient start in a month by allowing just two runs off four hits and striking out a career-high 10 over 6 1/3 innings of work.
“Just a great performance from him,” Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco said “Certainly with all that was on the line, it was as close to a must win as you can get."
Wright, a junior from Schaumburg, Ill., used his dominating 95-mile-per-hour fastball to overpower a shell-shocked MSU lineup looking for back-to-back road SEC sweeps.
Saturday night marked the 11th time the Bulldogs have been held to two runs or less this season and only the fourth time they had allowed the opponent to put up a double-digit run effort. Mississippi State is 3-17 in games in which they’ve been out-hit this season.
Ole Miss junior designated hitter Matt Snyder continued its power stretch at the plate this weekend by hitting a deep home run over the right field bullpen to give the host Rebels a 10-1 advantage.
Snyder ended the weekend 5-for-8 against Bulldogs pitching with three RBIs and four runs scored. The middle 3-4-5 spots of the Ole Miss batting order (sophomore Alex Yarbrough, Snyder and senior Matt Tracy) combined for a 7-for-14 effort Saturday that included seven RBIs and seven runs scored.
For the first time in the month of May, MSU third baseman Jarrod Parks saw his batting average dip below the .400 mark. The senior, who still leads the SEC with a .396 clip, ended the weekend 1-for-11 and just one RBI.
The loss means Mississippi State is now a half game behind Auburn and Arkansas in the standings. The Bulldogs will be intently watching the league scores and they need both of those teams in front of them to lose today in order for a four-way tie to occur for the Western Division with one weekend left to play.
“When you lose a game (at the end of a series) like this, you have to kind of start looking at the scoreboard, which is something you don’t want to do,” Cohen said. “It looks like the entire West is looking over their shoulder.”
MSU will next see action Tuesday at Memphis with the contest being played at Auto Zone Park, the home of the St. Louis Cardinals Triple-A affiliate Memphis Redbirds, before ending the regular season with a home series against Louisiana State.