STARKVILLE — RJ Yeager still can’t find his helmet.
The Mississippi State second baseman cast it aside right before leaping into the mass of bodies crowded around home plate. As a cramping Yeager tried to avoid them, his teammates ripped off his shirt. They tore away his EvoShield elbow pads.
It was chaotic, to say the least. But RJ Yeager came to Starkville for moments like this.
The Mercer transfer’s walk-off homer capped a furious comeback for Mississippi State (14-9, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) over Alabama (13-10, 1-3 SEC) in a 7-6 win in 10 innings Friday at Dudy Noble Field.
“That’s one of the sayings here: ‘We’re going to grind you out from the first inning until the last inning,’” Yeager said. “That definitely drew me here, and that’s what we did tonight.”
The Bulldogs rallied from a 5-1 deficit to tie then beat the Crimson Tide. They did it on the strength of three massive home runs: Kellum Clark in the seventh, Hunter Hines in the ninth and Yeager in the 10th.
“We were able to get some big swings,” coach Chris Lemonis said. “We weren’t able to get them early.”
Mississippi State turned things around after leaving nine men on base in the first five innings, scoring just one run on a fortuitous double in the second. Hines’ two-run homer with two out in the ninth marked a reversal of fortune so abrupt Lemonis commented on his happy expression after the game.
“I didn’t know I’d be smiling,” Lemonis said. “I thought I’d have been pissed.”
Instead, Lemonis and the Bulldogs delighted in a series-opening win over the Crimson Tide that seemed unlikely for slightly more than three hours before Hines took a 3-1 pitch down the line in right.
Yeager said he knew as soon as Logan Tanner walked in front of Hines that the freshman was going to deliver.
“We’re one swing away,” Yeager said in the dugout. “I’ve seen it too many times.”
In his first year with the Bulldogs, Yeager hasn’t even seen it as much as some of the Bulldogs’ veteran players have.
“That was the best thing about tonight: We’re learning it as a team,” Lemonis said. “Some kids like Luke Hancock know what it feels like. But this group, these kids on this journey, they’re starting to figure out how to win, how to play and what SEC baseball’s all about.”
Mississippi State seemed to have a knack in prior seasons for pulling out games like Friday’s, and it was much needed after the Bulldogs lost last week’s conference opening series at Georgia and seemed in danger of dropping their SEC home opener as well.
Alabama struck for three runs in the fourth inning and added to its lead with a two-run double by Owen Diodati in the seventh. Even after Clark cut the deficit to one run, the Tide responded with an insurance run in the ninth.
With Mississippi State down to its final out, Hines finally got the fastball he coveted, rocketing it out of the park at 114 mph to tie things at 6-6. The Madison Central product credited his teammates’ faith in him as well as his own innate talent, which has been on display throughout the season.
“We have confidence in everybody who goes up there,” Hines said. I have confidence in everyone 1 through 9 who goes up there and even on the bench. We’re all great players.”
Third baseman Kamren James’ play in the 10th inning proved crucial as the Bulldogs kept the game tied. After a leadoff hit batsman, James raced in from third and dived to keep a bunt from hitting the grass.
He fired to first in time for a double play that proved huge for James after several misplays at third base and losing a fly ball in the sun while in the outfield against Princeton.
“I think it’s huge,” Lemonis said. “You love to see him play with that emotion. You can just tell. Boy, it just lit up the ballpark when he made that play. That was a huge play in tonight’s game.”
Freshman Brooks Auger struck out Bryce Eblin to end the top of the 10th, and Yeager ended the game with one away by taking a curveball low and away to the opposite field.
“That one was crazy,” Yeager said. “I kind of blacked out running around the bases, I was so pumped up.”
He put the finishing touch on a badly needed win for the Bulldogs, who can take the series at 2 p.m. Saturday. Yeager said what seemed evident after Friday’s victory: Mississippi State can get on a roll from there.
“We’re going to take some momentum and get going,” Yeager said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.