By JOEL COLEMAN
The final exit on the road to Omaha will lead straight through Starkville.
With a 4-0 victory over Louisiana Tech on Sunday night, Mississippi State claimed victory in the Starkville Regional and has advanced to next weekend’s Super Regional where State will host either Louisiana-Lafayette or Arizona.
Louisiana-Lafayette will face Arizona on Monday in the Lafayette Regional for the right to join MSU in Starkville next weekend for the best-of-three series. The Ragin’ Cajuns need only one win to move on, while the Wildcats need a pair of victories.
No matter which squad advances, Mississippi State will be waiting.
MSU (44-16-1) earned that right after topping Louisiana Tech (42-20) behind a dominant start by Zac Houston.
The contest began two hours and 10 minutes later than scheduled due to rain, but Houston wasn’t fazed by the delay.
Houston, fresh off a splendid performance in his last start in the Southeastern Conference Tournament when he allowed just one run in 8 2/3 innings against Alabama, continued his late-season resurgence. The junior right-hander silenced the stiff challenge presented by the Louisiana Tech lineup. Louisiana Tech entered Sunday night’s game hitting .291 as a team, but struggled mightily against Houston.
Houston pitched shutout baseball into the seventh inning. In his six innings of work, he allowed just two hits and three walks. Houston tied a career high with 10 strikeouts.
Mississippi State’s offense gave Houston plenty of support. MSU took the lead in the bottom of the second thanks to a gaffe by Louisiana Tech.
With the bases loaded and one out, Ryan Gridley hit a ball sharply back to Louisiana Tech pitcher Braden Bristo. What looked to be a surefire double play though turned into State’s first run when Bristo threw home for the inning’s second out, but Louisiana Tech catcher Michael Deceglie’s throw to first hit Gridley and skipped into right field. That allowed Brent Rooker to sprint home for a 1-0 MSU advantage.
State added to its lead in the third inning. Jake Mangum led off the frame with a double to left-center, then moved to third on Jack Kruger’s sacrifice bunt. After Nathaniel Lowe grounded out, Mangum scored on an RBI single from Gavin Collins. Jacob Robson and Rooker then followed with singles of their own with Collins scoring on Rooker’s hit to make it 3-0.
Mississippi State stretched its advantage to 4-0 in the fifth on a Rooker sacrifice fly that plated Lowe.
Louisiana Tech had its best chance to get to Houston and spoil MSU’s night in the seventh inning. Louisiana Tech sandwiched a single between a pair of walks to load the bases with no one out against Houston. With the potential tying run coming to the plate, State turned things on the mound over to Ryan Rigby. The Kosciusko native and former East Mississippi Community College pitcher rewarded the faith placed in him by the MSU coaching staff as he recorded back-to-back strikeouts and induced a harmless fly out to center to escape the inning unscathed.
Rigby ultimately earned his first career save for MSU as he continued on and blanked Louisiana Tech in the eighth and ninth innings to wrap up the victory. He retired all nine batters he faced in the game.
The win secured Mississippi State’s sixth Super Regional appearance since the current format was adopted in 1999. This weekend will mark just the second Super Regional held in Starkville. The other came in 2007 when MSU swept Clemson at Dudy Noble Field.