STARKVILLE — As Luke Hancock uncorked a first-pitch swing on a hanging slider from Tulane reliever Trent Johnson, he fixed his gaze toward the first base line. He never saw the ball land. It didn’t matter. Hancock knew all-too-well what he’d done.
On first base, Josh Hatcher raised a fist in the air. At second, Logan Tanner, whose two-RBI single brought MSU even with a pesky Tulane squad that had foiled Bulldog hitters all afternoon, headed for home. And in the dugout, second-year freshman reliever Landon Sims raced off the top step of the dugout with the soreness of a 59-pitch gem suddenly washed away in a moment of euphoria.
Surrounding it all, the 2,473-person limited capacity crowd at Dudy Noble Field erupted into pandemonium watching Hancock obliterate Johnson’s offering to give Mississippi State (4-2) a 9-5 walk-off grand slam win over the visiting Green Wave (3-3).
“I think that’s the best moment of my life,” Hancock said through an ear-to-ear grin, still panting from the on-field celebration. “That’s something you dream of.”
Four minutes of heroics aside, three hours and 24 minutes of Saturday’s contest was met with MSU-induced ineptitude. Starter Eric Cerantola, a third-year sophomore who ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel rated as the No. 32 player in the 2021 MLB draft, added another perplexing chapter to his consistently maddening MSU career. On his first three pitches of the afternoon he hit 99, 97 and 96 miles per hour, respectively, before hitting 100 a few throws later. He also offered a look at a brilliant breaking-ball that sat around 83 miles per hour.
But rather than ride his tools to a quality start, Cerantola was yanked following just 2.1 innings pitched as he looked closer to his inconsistent freshman year-self than the one some prognosticators feel could find himself toward the top 10 picks of the MLB draft this spring with a successful campaign.
“He has been as good as he can be (in) the preseason for us and then coming out we hadn’t seen this piece,” MSU head coach Chris Lemonis said. “Hopefully he’ll be able to learn from this, work this week and slow everything down and just pitch. (Because) when he does, it’s electric.”
Tanner, who notched his own set of heroics seconds prior to Hancock’s home run, delivered the most glaring blunder of the afternoon, grounding into a double-play with the bases loaded and no outs in the seventh inning to kill a momentary glimpse of engagement and energy from an MSU team that lacked it for much of the afternoon.
As Saturday wore on, though, the Bulldogs exorcised the demons of innings past.
With Cerantola relegated to the dugout, it was Sims who dazzled during the middle frames. The Georgia native sat around 94 miles per hour with his fastball, reaching as high as 95 in spurts. He complimented his heater with a low 90s slider and devastating 84 mile per hour breaking ball. In sum, the three pitch mix amounted to 10 strikeouts in 3.2 innings of relief, perplexing a Tulane order that solved Cerantola’s riddle with ease.
“If I can get ahead early in counts and get them in two-strike counts (then) I can try to work off my fastball or go to my slider,” Sims explained. “I was trying to work a little of both. But I think either way, if I was locating either of the pitches, I was going to be ok.”
As junior Hoston Harding and senior Stone Simmons bridged the gap from Sims to the ninth, Tanner redeemed the sins of his previous at-bats in the bottom of the frame. After a pair of singles from junior Rowdey Jordan and senior Scottty Dubrule, the Green Wave walked three-hole hitter Tanner Allen — who’d already left the yard with a two-run shot down the right field line in the bottom of the first — to get to Tanner.
On paper, the move made sense. In practice, it doomed the Green Wave.
Sitting 0-for-3 on the day with an average that had dipped below .200, Tanner roped a single to the left-center gap to score Jordan and Dubrule. Standing atop second base, which he reached on the throw in from the outfield, and the game suddenly tied, he offered a celebratory wave to the home dugout.
“I was going to make them pay whether (Tanner Allen) walked or not,” Tanner said postgame. “I was just trying to hit it hard.”
Officially, Hancock’s final swing registered as a 404-foot mammoth shot that landed just to the left of the massive pillars demarcating Adkerson Plaza in right field. In broader terms, though, it represented a gritty moment the Bulldogs feel can carry into Sunday’s rubber match and beyond.
“No,” Hancock said of whether he saw where his ball finally came to rest. “I was already running by the time I saw it land.”
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.
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