LAFAYETTE, La. — John Cohen wanted more.
Even though the Mississippi State baseball coach knew Jake Vickerson, Alex Detz, and Matthew Britton experienced frustrating regular seasons, Cohen believed in his players. As he wrote their names into the Bulldogs’ lineup for the team’s game against San Diego State in the first game of the NCAA tournament Lafayette regional, Cohen hoped his players could have maturity he struggled with as a player.
Cohen’s belief in Vickerson, Detz, and Britton paid off in a big way Friday afternoon.
Vickerson, Detz, and Britton each had run-scoring hits and combined for all of No. 17 and second-seeded MSU’s offense in a 5-2 victory at M.L. ‘Tigue’ Moore Field.
Vickerson, a junior left fielder, went 2-for-4 with three RBIs, while Detz, a senior designated hitter, also went 2-for-4 and had an RBI. Britton, a junior third baseman was 1-for-3 with an RBI to help MSU (38-22) advance to the winners’ bracket to face fourth-seeded Jackson State, which upset No. 1 and top-seeded Louisiana-Lafayette 1-0.
“It just takes incredible maturity to get beyond things, and I know as a player. I struggled with that,” Cohen said.
MSU scored all of its runs with two outs on a day Vickerson, Detz, and Britton entered the game hitting .255, .237 and .250, respectively, this season.
Vickerson, who watched his brother, Nick, transform a roller coaster season in 2011 at MSU into one with fulfilling memories with big hits in the postseason, created some magic hitting in the No. 2 spot in the order. In the past 10 games, has hit in the No. 2 spot in the lineup only once, and has spent most of the season hitting seventh or eighth. On Friday, Cohen said the Bulldogs opted to move the left-handed hitting Vickerson near the top of the order based on the scouting they did for they hadn’t seen play live this season.
“We noted (Vickerson) would be a great matchup for this club because he does a great job dealing with guys that have a lot of (inside) sink,” Cohen said. “That’s one of Jake’s strengths. We know against that type of pitcher he’s going to take good swings.”
The MSU coaches also saw Vickerson was consistently in the Palmeiro Center working through problems that saw him hit too many fly balls for easy outs. Vickerson was mired in a 3-for-22 slump before he went 3-for-5 against Alabama in the final regular-season series in his hometown.
“He is just working on his stroke all the time,” Cohen said. “He’s trying to take the ball out of the air and has done a great job of that of late. We played five or six outfielders pretty consistently, and all of those guys are pushing each other.”
Trailing 2-0 in the bottom of the second, MSU erupted for four runs thanks to three hits and a key error. The error came on a fielder’s choice by Wes Rea that allowed the inning to continue and set the stage for Britton, who drove in a run with a single to center field. After a walk to C.T. Bradford loaded the bases, Vickerson pounced on the next pitch from starting pitcher Mark Seyler (8-6) and sent it crashing off the right-field wall for a triple that gave MSU its first and final lead of the day.
“Coach Cohen pulled me aside and said be ready to attack this first pitch,” Vickerson said. “After throwing four straight balls, the guy is going to try and get it back in the zone, so I was setting up for a pitch up I can drive.”
The hit was the first triple of Vickerson’s MSU career, and only his sixth extra-base hit for the Bulldogs. He joked after the game that power isn’t his forte.
“I am never going to hit a home run,” Vickerson said. “I just wanted to put my head down and run. Their error was real big, and we talk about creating the big inning all the time. We were given some opportunities, and we did a great job of taking advantage of those.”
Detz, whose mother, Toni, was sitting in Section D after traveling from San Luis Obispo, California, had an RBI in the fifth. Detz, who entered the game leading the team with 39 RBIs, was a major on-base percentage catalyst last season in MSU’s run to the College World Series championship series. He hit .350 in the 2013 NCAA tournament, but he has struggled to find the same consistency this season. But Detz attacked reliever Marcus Reyes, who was brought in to create a left-on-left matchup, and singled to right field to add to the lead.
“Detzy’s shot into the four-hole was a big swing,” Cohen said. “The scouting report says (Reyes) is a breaking ball guy, and Alex does such a great job against left-handers that work that way. His statistics against lefties are really good, so you know he has a feel for that situation, and I just felt like he would put a good swing on the baseball.”
Britton has been noted more for his arm and his defense at third base than his ability at the plate. He started his season as the potential replacement for Adam Frazier at shortstop, but his arm strength allowed him to transition to third base to anchor what Cohen considers a key defensive position. Even though Britton has never finished a season hitting above .250, Cohen believes the junior from Cullman, Alabama, will mature into an offensive force. Britton proved Cohen’s confidence in him with a single to center field that opened the Bulldogs’ scoring.
Cohen and his coaches have been working with Britton on his mental approach at the plate because they feel he has been too selective and has allowed hittable pitches to pass by for strikes. As Britton has gotten deeper in counts, which MSU coaches want many of their players to accomplish, Britton hasn’t been able to capitalize. He entered Friday’s game with 60 strikeouts in 264 career at-bats.
“He needs to swing at everything until it’s a ball,” Cohen said. “When he’s got that mentality, he’s a really good hitter. He has been quick to the ball and swing early.”
With the win, MSU moved to 8-3 in NCAA Regional games under Cohen. The program has won three-straight regionals after winning the first game in that format. The Bulldogs won their first regional game in 2011 and 2013 to advance to the super regionals. In 2011, MSU saw the same script that played out at Georgia Tech, as the top-seeded Yellow Jackets lost, which opened up its chances to steal a regional championship. Hours after their victory, MSU received that same gift Friday when Jackson State, the lowest-ranked team in the field, according to the Ratings Percentage Index, upset the No. 6 overall seed in front of a crowd of 3,581.
MSU’s choice to start Trevor Fitts worked, as the junior right-hander survived a rocky second but had his second-longest outing in the month of May. Fitts (5-3) allowed three hits, two earned runs, and three walks in five innings. He struck out two. After averaging just 3 1/3 innings in his last three starts, Fitts utilized his breaking ball and changeup to get soft ground balls in the fourth and fifth. MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson then called on sophomore reliever Myles Gentry to shut down San Diego State’s right-handed heavy lineup. The Gulfport native pitched to contact perfectly and forced the Aztecs to swing early in counts. Gentry retired all 12 batters he faced (one strikeout) and earned his fourth save in a 34-pitch outing.
“The one thing we haven’t done in our last 12 games down the stretch is stayed in the zone with what we swing at,” SDSU acting coach Mark Martinez said. “I think we got a little hurried up in our at-bats and tried to make things happen instead of letting the game come to us.”
MSU showed how experience can showcase itself in the postseason by scoring all of its runs with two outs. The confidence Cohen showed in players who have contributed in that environment also came through and played a key role in helping the Bulldogs take the first step on the road back to Omaha, Nebraska, the site of the College World Series.
“Scoring five runs with two outs is huge,” Cohen said. “That is a sign of maturity. That is what happened last year. We scored a ton of two-out runs, especially in Omaha. I think that is just a sign of these guys having been there.”
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.