By JOEL COLEMAN
Two times on Saturday night, Mississippi State third baseman Gavin Collins wasn’t able to make plays he thought he should’ve. It wasn’t going to happen a third.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, with MSU clinging to a one-run lead over Cal State Fullerton, the Titans had the tying run at third with only one out. Fullerton’s Chris Hudgins then hit a ball down the line that Collins backhanded while crossing into foul territory. Collins used his powerful arm to fire home and cut down the Titan baserunner at the plate.
Suddenly, Collins had redeemed himself for his previous miscues and Mississippi State had secured all the momentum it needed to go on and defeat Fullerton 4-1 in the Starkville Regional at Dudy Noble Field.
“As proud as I am of all these kids and what they did, what Collins did was really symbolic of the kind of year he’s had and the kind of year we’ve had so far,” MSU head coach John Cohen said. “He made two defensive mistakes early in the ballgame and he still wanted the baseball and made about four big-league plays in a row. Most kids shy away from the game when it’s not going their way defensively.
“The play that took him into foul territory when he had to throw it to home plate and get the out there was a big-time play.”
Collins’ clutch defensive play served as the fuel needed to power the MSU offense. Already up 1-0 courtesy of an RBI groundout from Nathaniel Lowe in the top of the third, the Bulldogs came to the dugout in the seventh inning following Collins’ play and immediately put up two more runs.
After Brent Rooker led off the frame with a double and advanced to third on Reid Humphreys’ sacrifice bunt, Ryan Gridley gave MSU a 2-0 lead with an RBI single. Gridley later advanced to second on a wild pitch and scored on Jake Mangum’s run-scoring single to make it 3-0.
Mangum didn’t believe the rally came as a coincidence.
“Whenever Gavin makes that play, the whole entire field, the whole stadium got excited,” Mangum said. “It really switched the momentum back to us.
“(MSU starting pitcher Austin Sexton) got the ground ball to third and Gavin made an outstanding play. It changed all the momentum of the game and got us rolling.”
While the Bulldogs waited for their offense to come around prior to the spark Collins provided in the field, Sexton gave the State bats plenty of time to wake up. The junior right-hander shut out the Titans over the first 6 1/3 innings of the game.
Fullerton finally got to Sexton after MSU built its 3-0 lead when Josh Vargas hit a solo homer to right.
That ended Sexton’s night as he left after surrendering just the one run on five hits and a walk. Sexton struck out four.
“I had some good sink and was able to get a lot of ground balls,” Sexton said.
It didn’t take long for the Bulldogs to get back the run the Titans scored on the Vargas homer. In the top of the eighth, Jacob Robson capped the scoring when he doubled in Lowe, who had reached earlier on an error.
Blake Smith, who relieved Sexton in the seventh, closed things out for MSU and earned the save.
Oddly enough, it’s a victory State might not have earned if not for Collins’ redeeming himself in the field.
“When you make an error in the field, most defenders want another one to make up for it,” Collins said. “I was really glad I got another ball and had another chance to make up for (the errors).”
Mississippi State now has a chance to win the Starkville Regional if it can claim victory in Sunday’s 6:30 p.m. game against the winner of the earlier contest between Cal State Fullerton and Louisiana Tech.
State will get two chances to win the regional. Should the Bulldogs lose Sunday, they’d get another shot on Monday night.
With a trip to a super regional on the line, Cohen says his team won’t succumb to the pressure.
“We might have some shortcomings and we might have some issues every once in awhile with the way we play, but it’s never because we’re tight,” Cohen said.
Collins said the Bulldogs plan to treat Sunday’s game like it’s the last one MSU will play.
“I think we’re going to come out ready to dominate and tear someone’s head off,” Collins said.