COLUMBIA, Mo. — Preston Johnson appeared to be settling in.
After giving up seven runs in just three innings Saturday at Missouri, the Mississippi State right-hander retired three straight Tigers following a leadoff homer in the bottom of the third. The Bulldogs got two runs back in the top of the fourth to get within a pair, and Johnson returned to the mound.
Last week, he’d settled down after three first-inning home runs at Ole Miss, giving up just four runs across five innings.
This wasn’t last week.
Johnson allowed two more runs in the fourth inning before being lifted from the game, and Missouri broke things open from there in a 19-8 rout of Mississippi State at Taylor Stadium.
The Tigers (23-17, 6-14 Southeastern Conference) set a program record for runs in an SEC game against the Bulldogs (25-19, 9-11 SEC) to even the series.
“You’ve just got to compete better on the rubber,” MSU coach Chris Lemonis said. “I just told the guys after the game, we just didn’t get a great pitching performance all the way around.”
Mississippi State allowed 17 hits, walked six batters and hit five more to keep Tigers on the basepaths all game long.
And Missouri cashed in.
The Tigers scored in each of the first six innings, pulling away with a nine-spot in a long, ugly sixth inning.
Cam Tullar allowed six runs, and Mikey Tepper was responsible for the other three in a frame that featured seven hits, two hit batsmen and a walk. Five of the hits were singles.
Only Cole Cheatham had a good outing on the mound for the Bulldogs. The freshman left-hander pitched the final 2 1/3 innings without allowing a run.
Mississippi State got off to a strong offensive start for the second straight game, but the Bulldogs’ bats were no match for the Tigers from the fourth inning on.
MSU cut the lead to two runs on singles by Logan Tanner and Hinte Hines in the fourth, but RBI hits from Torin Montgomery and Ross Lovich in the bottom of the inning against Johnson stretched it back to four.
Johnson finished with eight hits and nine runs on his line, though he struck out nine Tigers in the first three innings and finished with 10 Ks on the day. He also walked two hitters and plunked two more.
“I didn’t think it was very clean,” Lemonis said. “We know he can punch out guys with the best of them, but the HBPs, the walks early … everything was elevated today, and today was not a good day to be elevated — probably not the best day for him since he gives up a lot of fly balls.”
MSU spotted Johnson a 2-0 first-inning lead when Kellum Clark was hit by a pitch and Kamren James added a two-out infield single, but it didn’t last long.
Missouri’s Fox Leum took Johnson deep to dead center for a grand slam in the bottom of the inning. The Tigers answered a Luke Hancock sac fly in the second with a Luke Mann homer and an RBI single by Josh Day.
Lovich hit his first of two home runs in the game in the third. The Missouri right fielder had just two homers entering the three-game set but is now up to five after his two-run homer off Tullar in the sixth.
Catcher Mike Coletta capped the big inning with a two-run single against Tepper, giving every Tigers starter a hit, a run and an RBI.
RJ Yeager homered for the third time in the series for Mississippi State, sending a solo shot to left-center in the sixth. Matt Corder added a pinch-hit RBI double in the ninth, and Von Seibert had a pinch-hit single.
It was a game reminiscent of last year’s series finale in Starkville, where Missouri surprised MSU with a 16-8 win to take two of three from the Bulldogs.
With its NCAA tournament hopes still alive, Mississippi State can’t afford a similar outcome.
“Tomorrow’s huge,” Lemonis said. “Tomorrow’s huge for us. We’ve had some momentum lately, and we have to come out and play good baseball tomorrow.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.