By JOEL COLEMAN
His outing wasn’t without flaw, but Dakota Hudson took another step towards becoming the ace Mississippi State desires him to be on Friday night.
The junior right-hander earned his first career quality start, setting new career bests with six innings pitched and nine strikeouts as Mississippi State topped UMass Lowell 4-2 at Dudy Noble Field.
“I thought Dakota’s stuff was brilliant,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. “I thought he showed tremendous composure.”
Hudson did walk four batters and throw a wild pitch, but he rebounded to retire 11 of the last 12 batters that he faced including sitting down a string of eight batters in a row over the course of the third, fourth and fifth innings.
“We made an adjustment and saw the strike zone was a little low,” Hudson said. “I was able to adjust my view and vision on my pitches and just be up in the zone a little bit more and work off my sink. I was just able to make that adjustment and have a little bit smoother outing.”
Hudson’s adaptations actually began in the first inning. One pitch into the game after surrendering a leadoff single, Hudson’s battery mate, catcher Josh Lovelady, went down with an apparent knee injury. Hunter Stovall took over behind the plate for Mississippi State and caught the rest of the way.
“I thought (Stovall) was the player of the game,” MSU junior designated hitter Jack Kruger said. “That’s exactly what you want. He’s a gamer. I’ll suit up with him anytime and any of our guys will. Any position on the field, I think you could throw him out there. He’s just an absolute gamer.”
Kruger himself shined as well as he continued his torrid start to the season. Kruger was 3-for-3 with a home run and two RBIs to lead the Mississippi State offensive attack. Kruger is now batting at a .632 clip so far this year (12-for-19) and has reached base in nine straight plate appearances.
“You want to start out hot, but it obviously doesn’t end here,” Kruger said. “This is non-conference. This is where you get your confidence up. This is where you see pitches and make adjustments and get ready for SEC play so there’s a long way ahead.”
Kruger’s seventh-inning solo homer Friday served as perhaps the biggest blow he’s delivered yet. After Vance Tatum relieved Hudson in the top of the seventh and surrendered a two-run shot to UMass Lowell’s Steve Passatempo that cut MSU’s lead to 3-2, Kruger’s round-tripper in the bottom half reestablished MSU’s multiple-run cushion.
“That (home run) was huge,” Cohen said. “It put the lead back at two and changes how you handle guys on base and how you space guys defensively. That was a big swing by Jack.”
Kruger’s dinger helped preserve MSU’s lead it earned in the third inning. In a scoreless game, Cody Brown led off the frame with a double. Hunter Stovall reached on a fielder’s choice and advanced to second on a wild pitch to put a pair of Bulldogs in scoring position. Jacob Robson and Kruger followed with walks to push across MSU’s first run. Two batters later, Nathaniel Lowe grounded to first to start what looked to be an inning-ending double play, but the throw back to first got away allowing two more MSU runs to score for a 3-0 Bulldog lead.
“I knew we’d get some run support at some point,” Hudson said of MSU’s big third inning. “It took a little longer than we thought, but our hitters just kept constant pressure on them.”
Neither team mustered any runs in the middle innings before the dueling homers in the seventh that capped the scoring. Blake Smith entered the game for MSU with two outs in the eighth inning and struck out four straight batters to record the save and wrap up a Mississippi State win.
“(Smith) far and away has our best breaking ball,” Cohen said. “It’s not the hardest breaking ball, but he’s got the hardest spin on our club. It’s a (former MSU closer) Johnathan Holder-type breaking ball when you look at the sheer numbers of it.”
MSU will go for its third-straight victory Saturday at 11 a.m. against Nicholls State. Junior right-hander Austin Sexton will get the start for the Bulldogs. MSU will then have a rematch with UMass Lowell at 2:30 p.m. with junior lefty Daniel Brown beginning things on the mound.