STARKVILLE — Brad Cumbest waited patiently near home plate.
The Mississippi State left fielder had to bide his time as umpires ruled if a 1-1 pitch that arced over Cumbest’s head had hit his cocked bat, which would result in a foul ball. Instead, the pitch was ruled a ball, giving Cumbest a 2-1 count in the seventh inning Friday against No. 17 Auburn.
So he stepped back into the batter’s box and hit the next pitch over the wall in left center field for a three-run home run.
Mississippi State wasn’t waiting anymore.
Kamren James followed Cumbest’s lead with a two-run homer later in the seventh as the Bulldogs (21-15, 6-8 Southeastern Conference) slugged their way to a 9-5 win over the Tigers (23-12, 7-7 SEC) at Dudy Noble Field in a game featuring a pair of rain delays.
“It still got tight,” Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis said. “It’s amazing: We can make every game tight. But it was nice to get the big hits.”
Despite a 93-minute delay to start the game and another stoppage in the eighth inning, MSU pounded 14 hits against Auburn pitching to clinch the weekend series, winning an SEC set for the first time since March 25-27 against Alabama.
The Bulldogs were paced not only by their offense but by an excellent start by Preston Johnson, who pitched seven-plus innings while shutting down the Tigers’ offense. Johnson limited Auburn to four hits and three earned runs — all in the eighth — while striking out a career-high 12 batters.
It was a statline that rather belied a great night from Johnson, who took on Mississippi State’s top starter role when Landon Sims underwent Tommy John surgery in March.
“I thought Preston gave us a great start — really neutralized their guys,” Lemonis said.
Johnson left to a standing ovation after running out of gas in the eighth, entering the frame with 103 pitches. He walked a man, hit another and gave up an RBI single before reliever Drew Talley allowed a runner to score on another base hit.
He built on a strong start last week in an eventual loss to LSU, striking out at least one batter in each of his first seven innings and recording multiple strikeouts in five frames.
Johnson fanned Brooks Carlson to escape a bases-loaded jam in the third inning and retired the next nine batters before a leadoff single led to Auburn’s first run in the seventh.
“He’s a competitor,” Cumbest said of Johnson. “He’s a good player. When he steps on the mound, I’m going to be confident in him.”
In the eighth, it was KC Hunt’s turn to put out a fire started by Johnson and spread by Talley. Hunt entered with the bases loaded and Mississippi State leading 5-4, striking out three batters around a softly hit infield single to keep the Bulldogs in front. Rain delayed the game for roughly 45 minutes in the bottom of the eighth, but Hunt closed things out in the ninth.
Hunt delivered his fourth straight appearance without allowing an earned run, providing necessary outs from a struggling MSU bullpen.
“It was huge,” Lemonis said. “You don’t want to have to use him tonight, but hey, that’s why we’ve got him, and sometimes you have to use him. … That ballpark’s scary tonight because the wind’s blowing out. You’re one swing away from being in a really tight ballgame.”
Thanks to Hunt, though, the Bulldogs kept the Tigers at arm’s length and preserved a lead they grabbed for good in the first inning on a sac fly by Logan Tanner and a single by Hunter Hines. In the sixth, RJ Yeager doubled two more runs home to put Mississippi State up 4-0.
MSU led by as much as eight runs after Cumbest and James went deep in the seventh.
The Bulldogs will go for the sweep behind Cade Smith on Saturday. Lemonis confirmed the start time for the series finale was pushed back two hours to 3 p.m.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.