By JOEL COLEMAN
With Mississippi State ace Dakota Hudson struggling and the Bulldogs trailing by three runs to Southeast Missouri, MSU needed a spark in Friday’s opening game of the Starkville Regional.
The seeds for it were planted in the on-deck circle in the third inning.
“I was talking to (Jacob Robson) on deck,” State designated hitter Brent Rooker said. “I went up there and we both kind of thought (SEMO starting pitcher Joey Lucchesi) was going to try to flip a breaking ball on me to get strike one on me.”
Rooker and Robson’s instincts were right. Lucchesi hung a pitch over the middle of the plate that Rooker drove just over the left-center field wall for a three-run homer. The blast served as arguably the defining moment of MSU’s come-from-behind, 9-5 win over SEMO at Dudy Noble Field.
“I think this was just a real testament to our guys,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. “We got down early and I just think the guys never felt like they were going to lose that baseball game.”
Rooker’s game-tying shot was his second homer of the day. The sophomore ended the game with four total RBI. His first homer, a solo job, came in the bottom of the second and cut what was then a 2-0 SEMO lead in half.
Then, an inning later, after the Redhawks got to Hudson for two more runs and a 4-1 lead, Rooker came through with his big fly to left-center that appeared to just miss the glove of SEMO centerfielder Dan Holst as it went over the wall.
“I guarantee Dan would say the same thing, that’s a play that he should have made,” Redhawks head coach Steve Bieser said. “I’m not speaking for him, but what I saw, he got a little lax and knew that he was there and just kind of reached up for the ball and what happened was the momentum of the ball carried his glove down to the top of the wall. The ball was in his glove and when it hit the top of the wall, the springboard there kicked it out of there. I think he could have played it slightly different and if he had that play to do over again, he’d definitely have played it much different than what he played it.”
Rooker was happy to see the ball rattling around beyond the wall.
“In Dudy Noble, it’s a big park and the ball doesn’t really fly that well,” Rooker said. “I think the wind helped me out a little bit. I actually thought (Holst) caught it when I rounded first base, then I was pretty excited when I saw it went over his head.”
After Rooker’s homer, the Mississippi State bullpen took control of the contest allowing the Bulldogs the opportunity to pull out the win. Hudson was removed after just 3 1/3 innings, which marked the junior right-hander’s shortest outing of the season. Hudson allowed four hits and four runs.
“I don’t think Dakota had his best stuff,” Cohen said. “That was pretty apparent.”
Ryan Rigby and Daniel Brown picked up the slack. Rigby worked 2 1/3 solid innings, but did allow a sixth-inning run that allowed SEMO to reclaim the lead at 5-4. Brown then entered the game to record the frame’s final out.
In the bottom of the sixth, MSU took the lead for the first time. Ryan Gridley had an RBI single, then Hunter Stovall drove in a run on a fielder’s choice and later scored on a wild pitch for a 7-5 Bulldog advantage.
Brown put forth one of his most dominant performances of the year to hold the lead. Brown worked the contest’s final 3 1/3 innings, not allowing a hit and striking out four to earn the win.
“(Kruger, MSU’s catcher) just told me to fill up the zone and trust the defense like we have done all year,” Brown said. “I really wanted to attack with my best stuff from top to bottom of their lineup because they have such a good lineup. (Kruger) was able to keep me in the zone and the defense made good plays for me.”
Kruger cemented State’s win. In the bottom of the eighth, he drove a pitch off the left-centerfield wall that bounced back towards the infield and allowed Kruger to come all the way around to score on a two-run, inside the park homer.
Brown then worked a perfect ninth to end things and send Mississippi State to a winner’s bracket matchup Saturday at 6:30 p.m. against the winner of Friday’s game between Cal State Fullerton and Louisiana Tech.
After bouncing back from their early deficit to claim the win on Friday, MSU knows they’re ready for whatever challenges Saturday’s opponent brings.
“That’s one of our strengths as a team,” Rooker said. “We have had some times this year where we have been down early. We never get uncomfortable. We never get sped up. We stay within our game plan. We know we are talented enough, our bullpen is good enough and our hitters are good enough that we’re going to battle back and compete until the last out.”