By JOEL COLEMAN
The Southeastern Conference championship will come down to the season’s final day. Austin Sexton made sure of that on Friday night with Mississippi State’s second dominating pitching performance in as many nights.
After Dakota Hudson blanked Arkansas in a complete game effort on Thursday, Sexton followed with a strong seven-inning outing on Friday as the No. 4 Bulldogs topped the Razorbacks 5-1 at Dudy Noble Field.
With LSU defeating Florida 5-4 on Friday, all MSU needs to do to claim its first SEC title since 1989 is defeat Arkansas again on Saturday. That would clinch at least a tie with Texas A&M. State could claim an outright championship if it wins and Ole Miss defeats A&M Saturday.
All this comes just one season after MSU finished last in the league.
“It’s incredible,” MSU infielder Ryan Gridley said. “I remember last year at this time, we were sitting in a hotel and a senior sent us a text that said he knew we were out of it, so we should just try and have fun. That was just a killer.
“Now, we have a chance to do something really awesome here that hasn’t happened in a long time.”
MSU’s Friday win already wrapped up several accomplishments. With their 20th SEC victory, the Bulldogs tied a school single-season record. MSU set a new school high by capturing its ninth SEC series of the year.
The Bulldogs got to this point behind Sexton’s seventh quality start of the season. He’s now lasted at least six innings in nine of his 14 starts this year. Against Arkansas, Sexton surrendered just four hits and two walks while striking out seven batters.
“I had my changeup going,” Sexton said. “A couple of times this year, it has been a little iffy, but (Friday) it was back to the old way.
“It was there and it was moving a lot.”
The lone run the Razorbacks (26-28, 7-22) could muster off of Sexton and the Bulldogs (39-14-1, 20-9) came in the top of the second when Arkansas put runners at second and third with no one out thanks in large part to a Sexton error, but only pushed one runner across on an RBI groundout by Rick Nomura. The Razorbacks threatened for a second run in the frame when a Sexton pitch got away from catcher Elih Marrero, but Marrero quickly got to the ball and flipped it to the plate where Sexton was covering and quickly applied the tag to end the inning.
Arkansas wouldn’t get to Sexton again.
“Austin was just magnificent,” MSU head coach John Cohen said. “If he made that one play (on the error), he would have had a shutout.”
Reid Humphreys relieved Sexton in the eighth and pitched the final two innings for his seventh save.
Gridley paced MSU’s offensive attack. The shortstop went 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles and an RBI.
“I had a bad night on (Thursday),” Gridley said. “(On Friday), I made a quick adjustment and I felt like I saw the ball a lot better.”
MSU totaled just eight hits for the night. The Bulldogs’ biggest offensive inning came in the bottom of the third when they scored three runs on just one hit. MSU sandwiched a Jake Mangum single between a pair of free passes as John Holland was hit by a pitch and Jack Kruger walked.
With the bases full, Nathaniel Lowe followed with a sacrifice fly that tied the game at 1-1. Two batters later, Jacob Robson chopped a ball to the right side that was thrown away allowing two more runs to score.
The Bulldogs added a pair of insurance runs in the eighth. With the bases loaded and two outs, Gridley notched his RBI on an infield single. A throw also got away on the play allowing an unearned run to score.
From there, MSU cruised to the victory. Humphreys allowed a one-out single in the ninth, but closed out the win by inducing a fielder’s choice and recording a strikeout.
With that, the Bulldogs come to the park Saturday with a chance to make history in their 5 p.m. series finale against the Razorbacks. Konnor Pilkington will take the mound for MSU as State looks to set off a championship celebration.
“There’s a lot at stake,” Sexton said. “The boys are focused. Worst to first baby.”