By JOEL COLEMAN
For seven and a half innings on Saturday night, it seemed Mississippi State was bound to play another day. Then, courtesy of late-inning disaster, MSU’s Omaha dreams fell completely apart.
Arizona, trailing by four runs entering the bottom of the eighth inning, came from behind to tie the game before ultimately defeating State 6-5 in 11 innings to win the Starkville Super Regional and put an end to the Bulldogs’ season.
Through everything, MSU starting pitcher Austin Sexton, who left the game in the sixth with a lead, was convinced the Bulldogs were going to win and push the best-of-three series to a deciding third game. In the end though, MSU was left watching Arizona celebrate a berth in the College World Series.
“At no point in the game did I think we were going to lose,” Sexton said. “That’s baseball and what happened, happened.”
Mississippi State (44-18-1) led the game 5-1 going to the bottom of the eighth inning. Facing Ryan Rigby, who relieved Sexton in the sixth, the Wildcats (44-21) started the frame with two straight singles.
Ryan Aguilar followed with a three-run homer that pulled Arizona to within one at 5-4. The Wildcats tied the game in the ninth on an RBI single from Alfonso Rivas. Arizona then locked up the program’s 17th College World Series appearance with a walk-off single from Cesar Salazar in the 11th.
“Our hats go off to Arizona,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. “They have a really good club and they’re well-coached. They came in here in a really difficult environment on the road and played really, really well.”
The loss came somewhat out of nowhere for MSU. Just one night after Arizona shut out State to take a 1-0 series lead, the Bulldogs were in control on Saturday almost from the outset against Wildcats ace hurler Nathan Bannister.
In the top of the second, MSU took an early 1-0 lead when Gavin Collins led off with a double, advanced to third on a groundout and scored on a run-scoring single from Brent Rooker.
Rooker’s bat ended up being a force for the Bulldogs all night. He ended the evening with three hits, two of which were homers, as he also produced three RBI and scored two runs.
Rooker’s bat propelled State to the 5-1 lead it carried into the bottom of the eighth before things started to get away. He wouldn’t get the chance to help MSU salvage the contest though as Cohen removed Rooker for defensive purposes in the bottom of the eighth, opting for the speedier Michael Smith.
“You’re thinking you just have to get six outs (to win) and for Brent to come up (to bat) again, the game has to go to extra innings for that to happen,” Cohen said of the decision. “Of course that’s exactly what happened. I’ll absolutely wear that. That’s why he didn’t get a final at-bat there.”
Cohen’s decision to remove Rooker might not would have mattered if MSU had cashed in further on a rally in the top of the seventh.
State led 3-1 when Jake Mangum came through with an RBI double to make it 4-1. The Bulldogs would go on to load the bases with only one out, but Gavin Collins laced a sharply hit ball to shortstop that was easily turned into an inning-ending double play.
“Collins probably hit the ball 110 miles per hour right to the shortstop,” Cohen said. “If he elevates that ball, it’s probably going to end up over at our track complex.”
Not long afterwards, Arizona had tied the game and sent it to extra innings before celebrating on the playing surface at Dudy Noble Field.
As a result, several strong performances from MSU players went to waste. Sexton allowed only one run and seven hits over his 5 1/3 innings. Reid Humphreys blew a save chance, but got MSU out of trouble in the eighth inning and sent the Bulldogs to the ninth with a lead.
Blake Smith took the loss, but had thrown 2 1/3 shutout innings of relief before surrendering the game’s decisive run.
“Blake was phenomenal,” Cohen said. “We had a lot of really good pitching sequences. Blake Smith came in and did a great job for us. I thought Reid did a great job for us.
“Blake did his job. It’s a shame that Blake is the one tagged with the loss. He pitched his heart out for us and did a great job.”
Even with the loss, Cohen said his club has plenty to be proud of. MSU’s eighth-year leader is disappointed his club won’t get to make the trek to Omaha, but says he and the team can relish the achievements that were accomplished.
“They are champions,” Cohen said. “They won the most difficult league, I think, in the nation. They won a regional.
“They can hold their heads up and know they were a great Mississippi State baseball team. Looking at the tradition of our program, that is saying a lot.”