By JOEL COLEMAN
HOOVER, Ala. – On Sunday, Mississippi State is almost certainly going to be selected as a regional host for the upcoming NCAA Tournament where the Bulldogs will most likely compete as one of eight national seeds. As for Friday though, MSU didn’t look anything like one of the country’s elite teams.
Mississippi State was pounded 12-2 by Florida as the Bulldogs were eliminated from the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The contest ended after just seven innings courtesy of the 10-run mercy rule, marking State’s first run-rule loss in the SEC Tournament since falling 17-5 to LSU in 2003.
MSU third baseman Gavin Collins gave a concise description of the proceedings.
“It was embarrassing,” Collins said.
Little went right for State (41-16-1) in the contest. For the second-straight evening, the Bulldog defense committed three errors. MSU ended the tournament committing a total of eight errors over its three games.
“When we play our game, we’re not going to lose,” MSU first baseman Nathaniel Lowe said. “We got away from our identity and didn’t play our game and control the things that we can control and do the things that we need to do to win. That’s what happens when you play elite-level teams like LSU and Florida. They’ll take care of what they need to do and we just didn’t.”
Adding to MSU’s troubles, State starting pitcher Austin Sexton was touched up by the Gators. Sexton only lasted 4 1/3 innings in the ballgame. He gave up 11 hits, 7 total runs, walked one and struck out three. It’s the second-straight night one of MSU’s top two pitchers has struggled. Combined with ace Dakota Hudson’s performance on Thursday, Sexton and Hudson were tagged for 20 hits and 11 runs in 9 1/3 total innings in the SEC Tournament.
As for Sexton, MSU head coach John Cohen said his Friday starter just couldn’t catch a break.
“I felt like (Sexton) wasn’t as bad as the numbers indicated,” Cohen said. “Of the first 12 ground balls he gave up, eight of them were hits. I felt like if we’d have just been positioned well or if we’re just standing in the right spots, we’re going to get a ton of outs, but the ground balls fell. That’s how the game works sometimes and we’ve just got to do a better job of having guys in the right spots.”
Florida (46-12) received a complete-game effort from its starting pitcher Alex Faedo. The sophomore righty surrendered seven hits to the Bulldogs, but was at his best when State threatened. With runners in scoring position, MSU was just 1-for-8 against Faedo.
“He was really, really good, but I thought we had really good swings against him, especially in the first three or four innings,” Cohen said of Faedo. “We had good swings, we just didn’t have much to show for it.”
State’s only hit against Faedo with a runner in scoring position came in the first inning. After Florida had taken a 1-0 lead in the top half on a run-scoring double by J.J. Schwarz, the Bulldogs got back-to-back doubles from Lowe and Collins to even things up.
Things then quickly deteriorated for State. In the second inning, four straight Florida batters came to the plate and drove in a run. Nelson Maldonado and Buddy Reed had two straight RBI singles to put Florida up 3-1. After a Dalton Guthrie sacrifice fly, Schwarz made it 5-1 with another run-scoring hit.
Schwarz ended the game 4-for-5 with four RBI.
The Florida first baseman drove in his third run with a base hit in the fourth to make it 6-1. Danny Reyes made the score 7-1 with a base hit in the fifth.
The Bulldogs plated their final run in the home half of the fifth as a Lowe groundout scored Jake Mangum. From there though, the Gators put the game away.
In the sixth, Florida scored four more times. Schwarz had an RBI triple then scored later on a throwing error by Bulldog catcher Elih Marrero. Jonathan India made it 10-2 Florida when he scored on a wild pitch just ahead of a Reyes double that scored Deacon Liput to make it 11-2.
In the seventh, the Gators polished off the Bulldogs with an RBI double from Blake Reese.
When it was all said and done, Cohen emphasized the problem wasn’t a lack of effort from MSU. In fact, the Bulldog skipper said the root of State’s troubles was the exact opposite of that.
“I think our kids are trying to do too much,” Cohen said. “We’re trying to invent things instead of letting the game come to us. I think our kids are trying too hard. I think they knew we had a lot of fans come over to support us. I think they wanted to put on a great show for them and I think they’re embarrassed that they didn’t. I know I am.”
After a tough couple of days, State should get a boost come Sunday when the regional host sites are announced confirming the return of postseason baseball to Starkville. From there though, Collins says MSU is focused on making sure games like Friday’s don’t happen again.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do this week and we all know that,” Collins said.