By JOEL COLEMAN
HOOVER, Ala. – Dakota Hudson, Austin Sexton and the rest of Mississippi State’s starting pitching staff got great news on Wednesday night. The powerful right arm of Zac Houston is more than ready to help shoulder the load in the postseason.
Houston earned the win as he tossed a career-high 8 2/3 innings to push No. 4 MSU past Alabama 4-1 at the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Hoover, Alabama.
“Zac was just magnificent,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. “The ball just came out of his hand so good. His fastball was on both sides of the plate. You could just watch the reaction of the (Alabama) hitters. It seemed like he was just on point with three different pitches.”
Houston surrendered just four hits to the Crimson Tide over the course of his outing. He didn’t walk a batter and struck out five. Houston faced the minimum in six of his innings of work. At one point, Houston sat down a string of 13 straight Alabama batters.
“Probably around the fifth inning, I really felt like I was in command over all my pitches,” Houston said. “Earlier in the game, I was just trying to shove the fastball in there, but towards the middle of the game, I felt like I was pitching and not just throwing.”
The solid performance did more than just push the Bulldogs into an 8 p.m. winners’ bracket game Thursday against the winner of Wednesday’s late game between LSU and Florida. It also saved bullets for MSU’s relief corps as the tournament moves forward.
“It eases the pressure on our bullpen,” Cohen said. “We really didn’t want to have to throw Reid Humphreys. We really didn’t want to have to throw Daniel Brown. We really didn’t want to throw some of the other pieces out of our bullpen either.”
Prior to Wednesday, Houston had never gone longer than six innings in any of his previous 41 career outings. That didn’t slow down the junior hurler any on Wednesday however. Houston was still hitting the mid-90s on the stadium radar gun in the ninth inning before he was removed as Blake Smith entered to record the game’s final out and notch the save.
“I didn’t feel (tired),” Houston said. “I felt great, but of course having a big crowd really kept my adrenaline going.”
The Bulldogs (41-14-1) got their offense rolling in support of Houston in the bottom of the first. Jake Mangum, who would go on to record his 20th multi-hit game of the season, led off the frame with a single. After Mangum got to third with two outs, Gavin Collins drove him home with an RBI single. The hit extended Collins’ hitting streak to 18 games.
“I’ve just been simplifying things,” Collins said of his approach of late. “Earlier in the season, I had a leg kick and was trying to do too much. Then I got with a couple of coaches and we decided I just needed to tone it down a little bit and go back to a more simple approach and then go from there.”
MSU added insurance runs in the third, fourth and sixth innings.
In the third, John Holland singled, stole second and advanced to third on an interference call, then scored on a Mangum groundout. Collins led off the bottom of the fourth with a solo home run, his 10th blast of the year, that snuck just inside the left field foul pole.
“I didn’t even know if it was going to go out,” Collins said. “I thought it might hit the wall since we are in such a big ballpark. I think the wind helped it out.”
Brent Rooker plated MSU’s fourth and final run with his run-scoring single in the sixth.
Alabama (33-25) scored its lone run off Houston in the ninth. With two outs, Georgie Salem and Chandler Taylor roped back-to-back doubles to chase Houston before Smith slammed the door on the Tide with a three-pitch strikeout.
Not getting the complete game took very little of the luster off of Houston’s big night.
“Give Houston a lot of credit,” Alabama head coach Mitch Gaspard said. “He was really good. He really beat us up. We were catching up to balls in the back of the zone and he really got his secondary pitches going as well.
“He just overmatched us for the most part.”
Mississippi State will attempt to capitalize on the momentum Houston provided on Thursday. Hudson will be on the mound for the Bulldogs. A win in Thursday’s game would give MSU a bye into Saturday’s SEC Tournament semifinals.
Hudson has been pitching as well as anyone in the country of late. He’s fresh off two straight complete game shutouts and has pitched into the ninth inning in his last three starts. Cohen would like to see a similar showing Thursday.
“Hopefully Dakota goes out and gives us a good start and gets us deep into the ballgame,” Cohen said. “In his last three starts, he’s been brilliant.”