STARKVILLE — A bevy of pitching talent and punchouts was the main proponent of No. 4 Mississippi State’s season long nine-game winning streak.
The Bulldogs entered Saturday’s matchup with Ole Miss with the second lowest ERA of any pitching staff in the Southeastern Conference (3.19) and the most strikeouts of any SEC team (433).
Opposing batters were swinging and missing so much MSU’s pitching staff had reached unprecedented heights, recording double digit strikeouts for 13 straight games, a program record by two games.
Then Saturday happened.
While that historic streak somehow reached 14 straight contests Saturday against Ole Miss, that was the only redeeming quality in what was otherwise a glorified Rebels batting practice session in front of 13,338 fans. Ole Miss, second in the SEC in team batting average (.299) jumped on the Bulldogs early, coming back to even the series on Super Bulldog Weekend after scoring six runs in the first four innings en route to a 9-0 drubbing of its rival at Dudy Noble Field. The offense didn’t fare any better, as the Bulldogs were outhit a whopping 17 to 1.
MSU starting pitcher Will Bednar entered Saturday red hot, stringing together five straight starts of seven or more strikeouts and striking out 48 batters in 30 innings of work, pitching to a 2.10 ERA. He hadn’t allowed more than two earned runs in any game except one (four on March 27 against Arkansas).
The 6-foot-2 sophomore ran into a brick wall against the Rebels, turning in his worst outing of the season after getting pounded for six runs on seven hits in just three-plus innings of work. His season ERA rose from 2.10 to 3.55 in the blink of an eye.
“He left his fastball across the middle of the plate,” Mississippi State head coach Chris Lemonis said. “I think his best outing of the year last weekend, so we came in thinking he’d be a good matchup. Kind of gave them an opportunity to put the barrel on the ball and put some balls in play.”
Bednar labored through a 22-pitch first inning, allowing the game’s first run to score on a double from Hayden Dunhurst. The way Ole Miss starting pitcher Doug Nikhazy mowed down the MSU lineup, that would have been plenty. Nevertheless, the Rebels’ bats didn’t leave anything to chance, touching up Bednar for five more runs: one in the second, one in the third and three in the fourth.
“I saw him in the middle of the zone — just a lot of balls in the middle of the zone,” Lemonis said. “Tried to work away, was missing away, then tried to overwork and just missed a lot in the middle of the zone.”
Cam Tullar, Mikey Tepper and Eric Cerantola had mop-up duty for the Bulldogs in relief, each with varying degrees of success. Tullar allowed Bednar’s inherited runs to score after relieving him in the fourth and pitched three innings, allowing two runs across six hits. Tepper pitched two innings and allowed one run, while Cerantola had a scoreless ninth inning.
MSU is back in action against Ole Miss in the rubber match at 1 p.m. Sunday.
“They’re going to have to respond tomorrow,” Lemonis said. “We felt like a million bucks (Friday) and they were pissed; now we’re the ones that are pissed. The sun comes up tomorrow and it’s a big day. We’ll have a chance to win a big game against our rival.”