By MATTHEW STEVENS
HOOVER, Ala. -- Brian Johnson’s third career grand slam didn’t make Mississippi State head coach John Cohen mad.
He was already upset at what had already transpired.
The Bulldogs had a 5-2 lead late in the game when MSU's third-year head coach handed the contest over to his bullpen and they simply couldn’t find the strike zone.
A hit by pitch and a walk by freshman Taylor Stark in the seventh inning eventually led to the towering fly ball by Johnson two batters later to give Florida the lead in its 7-5 victory in the opening round of the 2011 Southeastern Conference Tournament Wednesday.
“We had a combination of eight walks or hit by pitches and the whole story was the two (free passes) in the seventh inning,” MSU head coach John Cohen said. “We just didn’t challenge the strike zone the way we should. The grand slam isn’t the issue – it’s how the guys got on second and third there.” State’s return to Regions Park for the first time since 2007 marked only the fourth time they dropped a contest after leading through six innings of play.
Stark, a right-hander from Flowood, came into this appearance with eight free passes (walks and hit by pitches) and allowed three against the Gators before giving way to Luis Pollorena with two on, nobody out and the SEC’s most valuable player in Mike Zunino coming to the plate.
Zunino got a single up the middle that loaded the bases for Johnson’s heroics.
“You just can’t hand a team like Florida those kind of opportunities and we certainly did,” Cohen said.
Zunino, who was named an All-SEC first-team selection this week, had two hits to take over the lead by a point over LSU’s Mikie Mahtook in the battle for the league’s hitting title with a .384 average. MSU senior third baseman Jarrod Parks, who finished 0-for-2 with a run scored, now sits third in the conference at .380.
Johnson, who was 0-for-3 before the home run, took an in-and-out swing on a fastball from Pollorena (6-5) that initially drew no reaction from the 8,392 fans in attendance due to the fly ball initially being foul and appearing to be too high to carry the necessary 340 feet to right field.
“When I first hit it, I thought it was way foul and I remembered the wind was blowing left,” Johnson said. “When I looked up, I saw it was dead straight down the (foul) line.”
Cohen justified bringing in Pollorena, who had been the Friday night starting pitcher in May and considered for the start against Florida, in that situation with just one word.
“Strikes, strikes is what we’re thinking,” Cohen said. “When you walk seven guys before he enters the game, you’re going to our best strike thrower in a big ballpark.”
Mississippi State has lost its last three games in the SEC Tournament and its last victory came in the championship game in 2005 when the Bulldogs defeated Ole Miss 4-1. Florida ended a four-game losing streak in the conference tournament with the come-from-behind win.
Florida (42-15) came into the tournament leading the league in home runs this season with 31 and has had a player circle the bases with one swing of the bat in nine of its last 10 games.
“We got some guys in the middle of the lineup that can hit the long ball but we don’t want to rely on it,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.
Mississippi State senior second baseman Nick Vickerson got back-to-back run-scoring hits to give the Bulldogs (34-22) a 3-2 advantage on a triple to centerfield and a long solo home run in the sixth inning.
Vickerson, who is hitting a .413 this month, deposited his seventh home run of the season off Gators reliever Greg Larson in a shot that nearly landed in the adjacent parking lot approximately 30 feet behind the left field wall.
“He had thrown me a lot of good pitches in that at-bat but just left one over the plate and I was able to do something with it,” Vickerson said.
MSU freshman right-handed starter Evan Mitchell gave his team a chance to win by lasting five innings and only allowing two earned runs in 108 pitches. Mitchell’s last start was over a month ago but was coming off an 11 strikeout night in long relief eight days ago at Memphis. Due to Wednesday being his fifth career start and only second in SEC play, O’Sullivan admitted to not having a scouting report on the Marietta, Geo., native when they arrived to the park.
“(Mitchell) is going to be a good one in this league,” O’Sullivan said. “He was 90-93 with his fastball and threw his breaking ball for strikes the second time through the order.”
Mississippi State must now defeat No. 20 Arkansas and their ace pitcher D.J. Baxendale in a 9:30 a.m. contest to stay alive in the tournament after the Razorbacks lost to Alabama 7-4 in the opening game of the event.
The Bulldogs will send junior left-hander Nick Routt (2-2, 3.83) to the mound this morning and will be looking to improve on a disappointing outing in Fayetteville when the southpaw gave up six earned runs off eight hits in just three innings during a 6-1 loss on April 15.