STARKVILLE — The experienced players on the Mississippi State University baseball team just have that confident look right now.
It’s the same look junior C.T. Bradford gave his head coach immediately before delivering the walk-off game-winning single in the 11th inning to hand MSU a 7-6 victory and a weekend sweep of the University of Alabama.
“I was on deck with him and was telling him we might get into a squeeze scenario here with a runner on third and less than two (outs),” MSU coach John Cohen said. “He looked at me and said ‘Coach I’m on this guy (and) I’m seeing this ball really well’ and you want your older kids to tell you that.”
It’s the same look sophomore closer Jonathan Holder gave MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson when the contest went into extra innings and he wanted to stay on the mound.
“I got out of the ninth inning and came into the dugout and said to the coaches ‘you know what, let me go please until somebody gets a big hit’,” Holder said. ”
It’s the same look Vanderbilt University had last week as MSU players walked off the field having been swept by the No. 2 Commodores in Nashville. It’s the same look MSU players had last year when they just kept winning on their way to a 2012 Southeastern Conference Tournament championship in Hoover, Ala. This ball club is full of players that are just familiar with the look and proved it with the first series sweep at home of Alabama in 20 years.
“These are the right kids and I’ve been saying it for a long time but I really believe they can get on a roll and do some things in the postseason but we’re not there yet and still have a lot things left going on in the regular season,” Cohen said.
With the second consecutive walk-off victory in as many days, No. 22 MSU (36-13, 13-11) clinched a berth into the 2013 Southeastern Conference tournament and currently stand fifth in the overall league standings.
“The thing is none of the physical matters if you don’t recruit the right type of kid with the right mental outlook and right kind of competitiveness,” Cohen said. “I think this kind of win goes more to the kids and their parents because in these types of games in our league it goes to character and competitiveness. This is what we expect from our kids.”
The sweep over the Tide sets up a fascinating three-game series for MSU against the in-state rival next weekend when they travel to the University of Mississippi. After the Rebels (33-16, 12-12) lost two of three at Auburn University, a logjam exists where the fourth and ninth teams in the SEC are only separated by only three games with six to play.
Bradford ended the 3 hour, 52-minute game with a single to right field off a slider from Alabama reliever Jon Keller (3-6) that scored Hunter Renfroe from second base to score the final four runs of the contest. Bradford finished Sunday’s game 4 for 6 with three RBIs in what was his second four-hit game of his college career. During the weekend Bradford hit .467 with three RBIs and three runs scored to up his season average to .296. The former Mr. Baseball selection in the state of Florida has seen his batting average rise 26 points in the last month since being dropped from the two spot to the sixth spot in the order.
“I feel like they kind of had to pitch to me today because we’re good all the way through the order so just capitalized on my opportunities,” Bradford said. “It’s kind of tough to put guys on base on purpose no matter how one guy is swinging it for us.”
It is the second time in as many games the Alabama (27-21, 11-12) bullpen has crumbled in the final innings thanks to key leadoff walks and critical two-out hitting by Bradford, Wes Rea and Jacob Robson. The trio combined for all four two-out hits Sunday that resulted in five of the seven MSU runs in front of an announced crowd of 6,272.
“There is a reason we’re 1-6 in extra innings games against ranked opponents,” Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said. “We have to do more things better. You cannot walk seven guys, hit three batters and give up extra bases against good teams, and that’s what we’re doing.”
In 19 extra innings this season, Alabama has scored just one run offense leading to their 6-7 record this season in one-run games. Coming into this weekend, Alabama was 24-0 when leading a game after six innings. The Tide leaves Starkville having lost two games with just nine outs left.
“There have been opportunities to go get those games and were not doing enough to go get them right now,” Gaspard said.
The victory was the 21st out of the bullpen for MSU as Holder (2-0) finished three innings of no-hit work that included six strikeouts all off a devastating curveball.
“Sometimes when my arm slows up a little bit when I’m a little bit tired I get a little more spin on the curveball and it really bites,’ Holder said. “I certainly had that bite on it today.”
Holder and senior left-hander Chad Girodo worked 5 2/3 innings of scoreless relief with only two Alabama runners reaching scoring position while the duo was in the game.
“There’s just no question that Chad came in and pitch well off his slider,” Cohen said. “Sometimes John Holder is like an artist out there. The club just has so much confidence even in a extra-inning game when Jonathan Holder is on that mound.”
After being swept against Vanderbilt the previous weekend, MSU stayed more than reasonable distance behind South Carolina for the fourth and final bye into the double elimination round of the league tournament in three weeks. With the rating percentage index numbers of MSU (10) and South Carolina (11) being just one apart, it sets up a critical regular series final series when the two teams meet at Dudy Noble Field.
“Small picture we need this sweep for our confidence because that Monday and Tuesday after Vanderbilt we acted like in practice like good things would happen,” Holder said.