STARKVILLE — Following Mississippi State’s 11-4 loss to No. 1 LSU Friday night, Bulldogs’ coach John Cohen explained what he wanted to see from his players.
“We need players who impose their will on a game,” said Cohen. “We have shown flashes of being very good, but they’re just flashes. A good Southeastern Conference team has at least 15, 18 players who can make an imprint on a game. We have to find players that want to impose their will like that.”
One day later, Dakota Hudson and Seth Heck did just that.
Hudson, a sophomore righthanded pitcher, entered Saturday’s series finale with LSU in the top of the 12th inning, inheriting a dire situation. Runners were on second and third base with no outs, and LSU was threatening to re-take the lead in a 7-7 game. That’s when Hudson went to work, escaping trouble and giving the Bulldogs new life.
In the bottom of that inning, Heck ripped a fastball from LSU pitcher Parker Bugg up the middle, scoring MSU right fielder Jake Vickerson and giving MSU an 8-7 walkoff win in 12 innings.
“That’s exactly what it looks like,” said Cohen. “Dakota coming into the game right there and giving us what he gave us, that was huge. He gave our entire team a lift and our dugout really got going when he did that. Seth, it’s great to see him walk out there and get a big hit to go out with a bang in his last at-bat at Dudy Noble Field.”
Heck’s game-winning single was a story of redemption. Four innings early, MSU entered the top of the ninth nursing a 7-4 lead with senior lefthander Ross Mitchell poised to earn the win. But Mitchell allowed a hit and then a walk. With two outs, LSU’s Conner Hale ripped a two-hopper in Heck’s direction at third base. Heck mishandled the grounder, opening the door for LSU’s three-run inning that tied the game and sent it into extra innings. That came two days after LSU earned a 5-3 win over MSU in 14 innings.
“It’s been a tough month or so for me over at third base,” said Heck. “I’ve made some mistakes and missed some balls I should have had, including that one. So to be able to get a chance and come through, it felt great.”
That chance came in the bottom of the 12th. With one out, Vickerson ripped a double to right-center, his second of the game. That set the table for Heck, who swung at the first pitch from LSU’s Parker Bugg and lashed a grounder into center. Vickerson, running on contact, slid home just before the tag of catcher Michael Papierski to give MSU (24-24, 8-16) its first win of the series.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” said Heck of the game-winner. “I turned and tried to watch the play. I guess Vick beat the throw, then I saw all my teammates running at me. It’s a great way to go out.”
Heck’s single wasn’t the only bit of heroics from an MSU senior. Honoring eight such players on the weekend, MSU saw big contributions from Mitchell and first baseman Wes Rea.
Mitchell pitched 4-1/3 innings and came within an out of the victory, and Rea delivered a two-run single in the fourth inning to give MSU a brief lead. The senior surge came one night after Cohen said “I feel bad for our seniors with the way this season is ending. They have competed for national titles and they know what it takes, to watch it end like this is disappointing.”
But that was after a seven-run win for the Tigers, one that clinched MSU’s seventh series loss in eight SEC weekends.
By Saturday night, the mod in MSU’s dugout had change dramatically.
One of the reasons for that mood swing was Hudson.
“He throws that heavy fastball and that good slider,” said Cohen of Hudson. “I hope the biggest takeaway from this game is that Dakota puts this in the memory bank and remembers what he did against the No. 1 team in the nation. I hope he realizes that he can do this all the time.”
Hudson fanned one in his inning of work, giving MSU the chance to earn the win in the bottom of the 12th.
“I just tried to pound the zone,” said Hudson. “It was a good feeling to give us a chance to come back and win it.”
The win salvages one game in a series that the Bulldogs probably deserved more. MSU lost Thursday night after failing to score the winning run in the ninth when pinch-runner Matt Spruill fell down while sprinting in for the potential winning run. Two days later, Cohen was still troubled by the loss.
“I don’t think I will ever get past Thursday night,” said Cohen. “I can sit here and say how close we were to taking a series from the No. 1 team, but we should have actually done it. I don’t know how many years I have left on this planet, but I guarantee I will never get past that one. Credit to our kids for fighting and getting this one.”
In Saturday’s finale, Vickerson paced the MSU offense with three hits and he scored three of MSU’s eight runs. The first of those runs came in the first inning, when he and center fielder Jacob Robson scored on a two-run single by Reid Humphreys.
Humphreys finished the series with four hits and six of MSU’s 15 RBIs. Another bright spot for the weekend was Luke Reynolds, who now has hits in 12 of his last 19 at-bats. His latest hit came in the eighth inning, an RBI single that gave the Bulldogs a 6-4 lead.
Austin Sexton started the finale on the mound for MSU and gave up four runs in 4-1/3 innings.
By coming within 90 feet of winning the series and by salvaging the finale, MSU gave itself its first shot of momentum in weeks.
“It’s up to us to keep this going and get to Hoover,” said Heck of potentially qualifying for the SEC tournament. “That’s where we have to get to, and we know it.”
MSU will next play at arch-rival Ole Miss on Thursday night.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat