STARKVILLE — In a season full of comeback wins, the Mississippi State softball team was on the doorstep again Wednesday night.
However, No. 22 South Alabama slammed the door shut to pull out a dramatic 3-2 win before a crowd of 862 and a national television audience at the MSU Softball Field.
“We were one hit away there at the end,” MSU coach Vann Stuedeman said. “We have been in this position so many times this year that you just expect us to come through. It was a hard-fought and entertaining game. If we play that game again, I feel really good about us delivering in that situation.”
MSU (31-13) dropped to 7-9 against ranked opponents. Entering the week with an Ratings Percentage Index of 23, a win against another nationally ranked opponent would have helped MSU’s resume for a possible chance to play host to an NCAA tournament regional. But MSU won’t have time to reflect on the loss with No. 12 Tennessee coming to town for Super Bulldog Weekend.
“The atmosphere was great,” MSU sophomore catcher Katie Anne Bailey said. “The fans always have our backs. I wished we had put on just a little bit better show for them. This weekend is going to be really fun. It’s all about the competition. We need to continue to be at our best.”
Last week, MSU kicked off an eight-game stretch that will help define the season. With the Bulldogs apparently locks for a fourth-straight regional berth and a third Southeastern Conference tournament berth in four seasons, their goal recently shifted to secure a top-16 finish in the RPI that would give them a chance to play host to a regional or to be a No. 1 seed at a near-by regional location.
MSU defeated then-No. 1 LSU last Wednesday at home before dropping two of three games to No. 20 Missouri in SEC play in Columbia, Missouri. After the South Alabama game, the eight-game stretch ends with a three-game Super Bulldog Weekend conference series at home with Tennessee.
All eight games were against opponents in the top 30 in RPI. South Alabama (32-7) trails No. 9 Louisiana-Lafayette by one-half game in the Sun Belt Conference standings. The Jaguars’ 11th-straight win will enhance their chances of earning an at-large bid to the tournament and landing an opportunity to play host to a regional.
“We are playing really good teams,” Bailey said. “Everything we have done this season has prepared us for a stretch of games like this. We are really ready for the weekend because we need to get back on track and put up some Ws.”
MSU ace Alexis Silkwood (22-10) drew her third-straight midweek start. Silkwood allowed four hits and three runs (all earned) in her 19th complete game. She walked three and struck out one.
The big blow happened in the fifth inning. With South Alabama leading 1-0, Chloe Rathburn appeared to swing at a 0-2 pitch, but the appeal to first base didn’t grant a strike. On the next pitch, Rathburn lined a two-run single off the outfield wall for a 3-0 lead.
“It is a matter of inches,” Stuedeman said. “If we get a ball to fall here or a ball to fall there, it’s a different game. We need to be a little tougher mentally. Down 3-0 though, we come back to 3-2. The tying run is at second and the winning run is at first. You have to really like the grit of this team.”
MSU scored in the fifth and sixth. Caroline Seitz had an RBI single in the fifth, while Kayla Winkfield had a sacrifice fly in the sixth. In the seventh, the Bulldogs stranded two runners as reliever Farish Beard got a groundout to end that threat.
Each team had four hits. Bailey had two of the Bulldogs’ four hits.
“Super Bulldog Weekend has always been good to us,” Stuedeman said. “It’s always senior weekend, so I think our seniors will really show out. Hopefully, they will keep their wits about them. The fans always come out in droves. This is going to be a great series. We are really looking forward to playing. We need to feel good again.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.