STARKVILLE — An inning like this one has been a long time coming for the Mississippi State baseball team.
For weeks on end, MSU would produce early in innings, getting runners on base just to leave them there at a high clip — to the tune of a .157 batting average with runners on base over the previous four weekends.
Saturday’s third inning gave no indication of those struggles, as MSU hung eight runs on No. 3 Ole Miss (27-5, 7-4 Southeastern Conference) in the first game of a doubleheader on the way to a 13-3 win. MSU (16-16, 3-8 SEC) lost the second half of the doubleheader to force 1 p.m.’s Sunday rubber match.
“That first inning, they came out with the two-run homer and kind of hit us in the face, but guess what? We got up and hit them right back and kept pouring it on,” freshman first baseman Tanner Allen said. “Everybody got in on the action and had a good team win.
“If you watch us, you know we’ve been struggling hitting with runners in scoring position the last few games. In the first game, we killed the ball with runners in scoring position.”
Allen was a big part of the rally: his single put runners on first and second before a walk loaded the bases. Ole Miss helped MSU with an error that scored a run, but MSU didn’t need help from then on: freshman designated hitter Josh Hatcher hit a two-RBI single and junior center fielder Jake Mangum got MSU to bat around in the inning with his RBI double. Allen struck again with his three-RBI double to conclude scoring.
The Bulldogs put together five hits in the frame; three times in the preceding nine SEC games, MSU ended games with five or fewer hits. MSU ended the game 9-for-30 (.300) with runners on base and 6-for-17 (.353) with runners in scoring position.
“It’s good to do that, we haven’t had a lot of big innings like that this year,” MSU interim coach Gary Henderson said.
“To be able to create a little momentum and excitement offensively, you hope that stuff spreads for a while. It’s certainly good to be a part of one of those.”
The support was more than enough for starting pitcher Konnor Pilkington (2-4), who threw seven innings with five hits and three runs allowed with seven strikeouts. Run support to that degree has been a rarity for Pilkington throughout his career: this season, in his eight starts, MSU has scored three or fewer runs in all but two of his starts, with one or zero runs in five of his starts.
“He was certainly able to relax. I thought the difference in his tempo was very obvious from the second to the third,” Henderson said. “I thought he relaxed, did a wonderful job of mixing his pitches, working ahead, putting guys away and I’m sure the big number helped a little bit.”
The second game was the time for Ole Miss’ starting pitcher, Ryan Rolison (4-3) to shine. He held MSU to one run and six hits in seven innings, striking out nine and allowing just two walks.
“He was throwing two pitches for strikes, fastball-curveball,” Allen said of Rolison. “He was running up there with 90-94.
“He mowed us down for a little bit. We finally scratched one across, but hat’s off to him.”
The performance had MSU reverting back to its norm, hitting .125 (2-for-16) with runners on base and .083 (1-for-12) with runners on scoring position.
Pitching suffered its own regressions: Ethan Small (2-3) had an uncharacteristic outing as he needed 104 pitches to get through just four innings, then JP France needed 72 pitches to compile three innings of relief.
Henderson has made it known those things cannot happen on Sunday. MSU has been in this situation before, having forced rubber matches with LSU and Missouri just to lose those games 4-0 and 5-4 in 11 innings, respectively. As Henderson put it, “it’s time to win a SEC series.”
“Once again, pretty stark difference between how we approached game one and how we approached game two today,” Henderson said. “We need approach game three how we approached game one, with that level of intensity, that level of concentration and determination. I thought we had really good at-bats early on, and we need to bring that to game three tomorrow.
“Competitive at-bats, clean defense and a starting pitcher that pounds the bottom of the strike zone.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson