STARKVILLE — Let John Cohen’s public service announcement for why the Mississippi State University baseball should play host to a NCAA Regional begin.
The Bulldogs’ fifth-year coach didn’t waste any time following his team’s 7-2 victory against No. 14 University of South Carolina on Saturday to plead his case to the 10-member NCAA selection committee that his team should return to Dudy Noble Field in a little more than a week.
“I’m not on any committee, but I can tell you this … we played the most difficult schedule in the Southeastern Conference and went 16-14,” Cohen said. “You always want more, but I still think our kids did a great job, and we battled through a lot.”
The victory closed out MSU’s first series win against South Carolina since 2009. The Bulldogs (40-16, 16-14 Southeastern Conference) also achieved their first 40-win regular season since 1997. The last two MSU teams that reached that regular-season total (1990 and 1997) advanced to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
With the victory, No. 24 MSU clinched the No. 5 seed in the SEC tournament and will play the University of Missouri on Tuesday night in the last game of the day at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala. It will mark the second meeting between the schools. MSU won the first encounter 10-5 in the 2003 Starkville Regional. The winner of that game will advance to the double-elimination bracket and will face No. 4 seed South Carolina on Wednesday night.
Without looking at Missouri’s lineup or tendencies, Cohen suggested sophomore right-hander Trevor Fitts could get his second career start. The Pelham (Ala.) High School standout would be playing 25 minutes south off where he went to prep school.
No. 14 South Carolina (39-16, 17-12) tied its team high for errors in a conference game with three, as MSU forced the visitors into difficult quick catch-and-throw situations that led to a two-run sixth inning and a three-run eighth.
“We want to defender to think, ‘That guy can really run, so I’ve got to hurry this play’,” Cohen said. “It’s kind of like tennis and unforced errors, and in our sport, when that guy can really run some of those errors are forced.”
South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook, who said Thursday that MSU looked like a team headed to Omaha, left Starkville wondering if the two unearned runs against starting pitcher Jack Wynkoop were the difference in his team earning its fourth road series victory.
“I feel it would’ve been a much more competitive game if we could’ve fielded the baseball, but we didn’t,” Holbrook said. “Mississippi State is a really good team, and I have so much respect for how they go about playing winning baseball.”
LB Dantzler gave the Gamecocks an early lead with a home run. He hit a second solo home run in the eighth to take over second in the SEC in that category with 14. Those hits were South Carolina’s only extra-base hits of the afternoon. The Gamecocks had only one other runner reach second base.
Demarcus Henderson led MSU with three hits, two runs scored, and a pair of RBIs. The junior left fielder is 8-for-24 this month. He had two three-hit games against the Gamecocks. Last season, Henderson saw his playing time skyrocket in May, and he led the Bulldogs at the plate, on the bases, and with plays in the outfield.
“I don’t know what it is about me, but even through high school I start off kind of cold and then warm up my play when they weather warms up,” Henderson said. “It’s just all about making the tiny adjustments throughout the season I’m able to make.”
The No. 4-7 spots of the MSU lineup (Brett Pirtle, Wes Rea, C.T. Bradford, and Henderson) were 8-for-15 Saturday. They scored all seven runs of the team’s runs and struck out only three times. The bottom half of the lineup accounted for the recent funk that Hunter Renfroe, MSU’s Golden Spikes Award finalist, is in. The projected first-round pick in the upcoming Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft has one extra-base hit in the past month.
“When one of our teammates is down for a short while, all that means is it’s our job to pick him up at the plate,” Henderson said. “I’ll say this, Hunter is a beast, and eventually he’ll heat up again and get real dangerous for whoever challenges him before the season is over.”
Ross Mitchell (10-0), the SEC’s leader in ERA, pitched the final 4 2/3 innings to get the victory. The sophomore allowed two hits and one run in a 54-pitch outing. The left-hander relieved starting pitcher Jacob Lindgren, who tired in the fifth and gave the bullpen a rest for an upcoming postseason run.
“I’ve been struggling lately and felt off, but Thursday night I found my zone again and I’m thankful for that,” Mitchell said. “I can’t think of a better time to get myself right and when (the coaches) asked me if I could finish this game, I looked them straight in the eye and said, ‘Yes sir’.”
With only one guaranteed game left before the NCAA selection committee makes its decision on national seeds, the teams that will play host to regionals, and at-large bids, Cohen said MSU shouldn’t be done playing in Starkville. The NCAA bracket will be announced Monday, May 27. The national seeds and host sites will be announced Sunday, May 26.
“I can’t lie and tell you we’re not sitting in the clubhouse thinking about those things, but once we got between the lines, we have to go play,” Henderson said. “But it’s important to us to be able to host a regional at home.”
n On Friday, Grayson Greiner’s fourth home run of the year — a two-run shot to left-center field — helped South Carolina earn a 5-3 victory.
South Carolina tied the game thanks to a wild pitch by Jonathan Holder in the eighth.
“We defended it well and pitched it pretty well,” Cohen said.”We didn’t have as good a swing a couple of times as I would have liked. We have two evenly matched teams. Our kids kept battling and hung in there. Things did not go our way late in the game.”
South Carolina built a 2-0 lead with a pair of scores in the fifth. A wild pitch scored one run and a groundball out plated the other.
MSU scored a run on a dropped third strike in the home half of the sixth.
The Bulldogs scored twice in the seventh to take the lead. Derrick Armstrong started things with a one-out single. Adam Frazier and Alex Detz followed with hits to load the bases. After a groundout, Brett Pirtle ripped a two-run single to give MSU a 3-2 lead.
Tyler Webb set the side down in order in the bottom of the 10th for his 16th save.
MSU had 10 hits and played errorless ball, but it stranded 11 runners. It left the bases loaded in the sixth and ninth. Detz had his second four-hit game. Frazier and Pirtle each had multiple hits.
South Carolina had nine hits, including three by Greiner.
The Bulldogs used eight pitchers. Starter Kendall Graveman was lifted with one out in the seventh after allowing five hits and two runs (both earned). He struck out four and walked one. Daryl Norris allowed a home run, but C.T. Bradford (0-1) took the loss.
South Carolina starter Jordan Montgomery allowed nine hits and three runs (all earned) in seven innings..
With Friday night’s attendance of 6,932, the Bulldogs have drawn 233,039 fans to Dudy Noble Field, a new single-season attendance record at Dudy Noble Field. The previous high was 233,015 in 2003.
The final game of the series Saturday drew a crowd of 7,687.