By MATTHEW STEVENS
ATLANTA – Mississippi State is now one win away from winning an NCAA Regional.
The Bulldogs finally found some offensive firepower against a revolving door of Austin Peay hurlers in an 8-3 victory to put the Bulldogs in championship round today.
“We felt like we were going to have a different club,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said before they got to Atlanta. “This is an energized group that I felt could go out and do something in a Regional.”
Mississippi State’s offense exploded off three different Governors pitchers in the fourth inning highlighted by four two-out, run-scoring hits by four seniors in the bottom of the Bulldogs lineup.
The Bulldogs (36-23) got the first three runs off Austin Peay starting pitcher Jeremy Dobbs after the 2011 Ohio Valley Conference Pitcher of the Year had to leave the game early with a blister on his pitching hand. MSU tagged the junior southpaw ace with three earned runs off five hits in just 3 2/3 innings of work.
“It's hard to throw with your middle finger,” Dobbs said about the blister. “Nothing I could do about it. It’s the first time I had to deal with a blister.”
The performance of this MSU squad is starting to resemble its last NCAA trip in 2007 when they won three straight games at Florida State to begin its eighth run to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
“We’re certainly going to try to end (the Regional) with one more game,” senior shortstop Jonathan Ogden said. “This team has a lot of confidence right now that we can accomplish that.”
The offensive effort got jumpstarted by freshman centerfielder C.T. Bradford’s triple into the right field corner that scored Ryan Collins to give MSU an early 1-0 lead in the opening inning. Bradford, a 2011 SEC All-Freshman selection whose dad Mike played for MSU in a 1983 NCAA Regional, has had two hits in each of the first two games in Atlanta.
“That was a huge swing of the bat today that changed the nature of the game,” Cohen said.
Mississippi State freshman right-handed Evan Mitchell had the longest outing of his college career by posting eight innings of work as the Marietta, Ga., native allowed just three earned runs over five hits including eight strikeouts in 128 pitches.
“There’s no doubt Evan was locked in tonight," Cohen said.
The Bulldogs were one inning away from recording back-to-back shutouts in NCAA play. The last time MSU had multiple shutouts in postseason action was the 1989 South Regional at Dudy Noble Field.
“This is an energized group,” Cohen said. “We haven’t done anything yet but I just felt after we gave them two days off last week they came back with a spring in their step.”
Mississippi State got hits from Ogden, Jaron Shepherd, Ryan Collins and Wes Thigpen to open up an 8-0 lead on the team that upset host Georgia Tech in their own ballpark the previous evening.
Before that frame, Ogden had left the bases loaded on his first two at-bats but finally found a hole in the third plate appearance with three men on to get a RBI-single that represents his only hit of the Atlanta Regional.
“Every at-bat is a grind and it was hard to let my team down by leaving six guys on base,” Ogden said. “I was just trying to stay focused and I finally made some good contact on that swing.
In a strange play from beginning to end, Shepherd made it a 4-0 advantage after his infield single went off the leg of Austin Peay pitcher Mike Hebert and on the ricochet Austin Peay second baseman Blake Frazier tried to nab Bulldogs senior Jarrod Parks on his dash home. The MSU third baseman was safe after his headfirst slide knocked Matt Wollenzin in the chest and when Governors head coach Gary McClure went out to argue the call, the 24-year veteran was ejected for the first time in the 2011 season.
“It was a close play. I think he felt like he had the play pretty well blocked,” Austin Peay assistant coach Joel Mangrum said. “I felt like coach Mac was doing everything he could to go out there and defend his player.”
McClure was restricted from attending the post-game media conference due to the ejection.
The MSU offense had only eclipsed Saturday’s run total three times in the previous month and ran their record to 26-1 when they put six or more runs on the scoreboard this season.
“(MSU assistant coaches) Nick Mingione and Lane Burroughs mention that all the time and I’m one of those people that blows that off but that number has always been there,” Cohen said. “It’s something we talk about as a staff and it’s a big number when we score first as well.”
Nick Vickerson got his sixth extra-base hit in five games as the senior second baseman ended the contest 1-for-2 with a RBI and a run scored.
Austin Peay (34-23) will now have a rematch with Georgia Tech at 2 p.m. today to see who play the Bulldogs in the first of two possible Regional Championship games.
Mississippi State will play the winner of that contest at 6 p.m. and Cohen said he was unsure who his starting pitcher would be suggesting two juniors from opposite sides of the rubber as options in left-hander Nick Routt and right-hander Devin Jones.