By MATTHEW STEVENS
Tennessee 4, Auburn 3 – final.
Once that score came across their mobile devices halfway through the final regular season game at Dudy Noble Field, a loud cheer broke out from the Mississippi State fans.
It wasn’t for the MSU grounds crew dragging the field but in fact that was the moment they realized the Bulldogs had qualified for the Southeastern Conference Tournament for the first time since 2007.
“That’s a scenario that I don’t think anybody was talking about (Friday) night,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. “I’m going to have to see that on a blackboard or something. Did anybody have that scenario?”
Turns out MSU needed the help.
Mississippi State dropped the regular season finale to LSU 6-3 leaving them unable to claim its first outright Western Division championship since 1984.
“We sure would’ve like to get that one but we’re happy to be going to Hoover and playing in the postseason,” senior second baseman Nick Vickerson said. “It’s going to be a new season starting right now.”
MSU earned the sixth seed in the SEC Tournament and will play sixth-ranked Florida in the second game of the first session at Regions Park in Hoover Wednesday afternoon. The last time the Bulldogs were sixth in the SEC, they went 2-2 in the conference tournament.
The Bulldogs, who were down 4-3 to LSU at the time, didn’t show up to Polk-Dement Stadium Saturday with a single player on the roster that had played a postseason game and were able to get the help they needed without having to win its first home series against the Tigers since 2003.
“That’s big for us – I’ve never been there,” junior pitcher Caleb Reed said. “Postseason is totally different and it doesn’t matter what seed you are.”
After the contest, Cohen still didn’t believe his team was in.
“I still don’t know that,” Cohen said. “I’m hearing that came from (the SEC office) and I don’t distrust (them) one bit but I’m going to have to see it for myself.”
The players claimed they weren’t informed and didn’t know their fate until after the game had concluded.
“We heard about (the tie-breakers) before the game and stuff but we tried to focus on the game and get ours,” Vickerson said.
Once Auburn was defeated by the Volunteers in the final game of Tennessee’s 2011 season, the only thing left for Mississippi State was to try and win its first SEC trophy since 1989 when Cohen was an outfielder playing for former head coach Ron Polk.
“I wanted our kids to go out and claim something by ourselves and not have to rely on other people,” Cohen said. “It was pretty easy – you win this game you’re SEC champions.”
The chances of that West title were looking better when Vickerson crush a pitch from Tigers starter Ryan Eades to cut the deficit to 4-3 in the fourth frame. It was the only hit of the contest for the former Florida State and Meridian Community College transfer.
For the sixth inning on, State (34-21, 14-16 in SEC play) managed just two hits and only one runner in scoring position.
“We just didn’t take quality swings,” Cohen said. “I think it was because our kids were really trying too hard.”
Eades (4-1) was the third consecutive true freshman to give LSU a quality start by going six innings and allowing just three runs on seven hits in 84 pitches.
“We were an error away from sweeping Mississippi State for the first time in 36 years in Starkville with three freshman starting pitchers so the future is bright for us,” LSU head coach Paul Mainieri said.
The Bulldogs went into a bit of desperation mode early in the game when they brought Reed into a contest earlier than they’ve made that move with the junior closer throughout the 2011 season.
The right-hander managed to finish the game in what his head coach would called a “heroic” effort trying to keep the Bulldogs in the contest.
“We’re thinking we got to get our best guy out there when the game matters the most,” Cohen said. “The game matters the most at different times.”
Reed went a season-long seven innings giving up three earned runs over nine hits with the crushing blow being a two-run home run into Left Field Lounge for the final run of the afternoon.
“I didn’t make too many bad pitches tonight but that was one I left across the plate,” Reed said.
Reed was forced to be stretched out so long due to the inability of starter Chris Stratton (5-7) to keep the ball down once again. When the sixth LSU batter reached base in the third inning and the Tigers had two on with no out in the frame, MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson quickly went out to remove the sophomore from Tupelo.
The Tigers (36-20, 13-17) were able to win its first road series of the 2011 series despite having no chance to make the SEC Tournament. It will be the second time since 1985 LSU will not be making an appearance in Hoover.
“It’s going to be a strange week there’s no doubt about that,” Mainieri said. “I don’t think I’ll know what to do with myself this week or with the team.”
Mainieri is hopeful that with his team’s Top 30 Ratings Percentage Index ranking and being one game out of SEC Tournament gives the NCAA committee something to ponder over the next week when they selected regional participants.
“We’re hoping we were playing for something because the league is so balanced and bunched up,” Mainieri said. “I hope the committee looks at that fact that we’re 9-3 in our last 12 SEC games.”
Cohen, while staring down at the box score of Saturday’s loss, agreed that the Tigers deserve to be in the NCAA field and the SEC should have at least nine teams in the bracket.
MSU third baseman Jarrod Parks, who came into the regular season finale leading the SEC batting title by two points, maintained his position with a 1-for-3 effort that included a sacrifice fly in the fifth inning. In the seventh inning, Parks was called out after a headfirst slide following a ball hit to the third baseman was bobbled and could’ve scored the tying run, the the senior threw down his helmet in frustration. Immediately after the action, first base umpire Tony Walsh ejected Parks from what will likely be his last game at Dudy Noble Field.
“I specifically asked the umpire if he said any obscenities but the fact that he slammed his helmet makes him ejectable,” Cohen said. “He didn’t say anything but Jarrod Parks is competing his tail off and you can’t blame him for a one-second eruption.”
Parks will be the Mississippi State representative Monday as one of the finalist for the Ferriss Trophy, given to the best college baseball player in the state, with an awards ceremony at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in Jackson.
The last time MSU made an appearance in Hoover was a 2007 trip where they went winless and Cohen has a career 1-4 record at Hoover in two trips as the head coach at Kentucky.