COLUMBIA, Mo. — Glove in hand, Slate Alford cast a glance at the celebration ensuing next to the mound.
The Mississippi State third baseman took it all in on his way off the field. The throng of Missouri players mobbing each other in joy. The coaches shaking hands behind home plate. The fans at Taylor Stadium cheering as the defending champions went down again.
Alford turned away.
It was a scene the Bulldogs never should have let happen, but here it was Sunday afternoon, as Missouri (24-17, 7-14 Southeastern Conference) celebrated a 7-6, walk-off win over MSU (25-20, 9-12 SEC) in Columbia, Missouri.
Mississippi State missed chance after chance to seal a critical series victory but let Missouri off the hook each time. Josh Day’s walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth gave the Tigers their third straight series win over the Bulldogs.
“They got the big hit when they needed it, and we didn’t, so that’s basically what it came down to,” Mississippi State second baseman RJ Yeager said.
MSU dealt itself a serious — if not fatal — blow to its postseason chances by leaving 10 runners on base, including one each in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
There was bad luck. There were bad calls. There was no excuse.
Now, Mississippi State needs at least five wins in its final nine SEC games to stand a chance of receiving an at-large NCAA tournament bid. The Bulldogs’ final three series are against Florida, No. 21 Texas A&M and No. 1 Tennessee.
“We’ve got to win,” MSU coach Chris Lemonis said. “We’ve got to win games. We’re going to have to do more.”
The Bulldogs had every opportunity to finish off a series win over the Tigers on Sunday, jumping out to a 3-0, first-inning lead.
Kamren James hit a solo home run, and Hunter Hines followed with a mammoth two-run shot that traveled 473 feet and cleared the right-field fence by a considerable distance.
But MSU’s offense went cold for several innings as Missouri reliever Carter Rustad shut the Bulldogs down. Rustad limited the visitors to just one run over the next 4 1/3 innings, and the run scored on Yeager’s two-run homer in the sixth against Austin Cheeley.
Yeager finished 8 of 16 in the series with four home runs — at least one in every game — and eight RBIs.
“He was really good. RJ had some big at-bats and was really good out there all weekend long — and all season for the most part,” Lemonis said.
Mississippi State finished with 14 hits but could have had more. Hard-hit outs cost the Bulldogs several times, including twice in brutal fashion.
Logan Tanner’s line drive was snared by Missouri first baseman Torin Montgomery with the bases loaded and one out in the second inning, going down as a double play to end the frame.
In the sixth, Luke Hancock’s smash up the middle was snagged by Day, who was in perfect position for a 6-3, inning-ending double play.
“It’s crappy luck,” Yeager said. “You hate to see that, but that’s baseball. We can get bloop hits too. It’s bad luck, and we didn’t really come through when we needed to, so we’ll regroup and get better.”
Missouri went up 6-3 on a tiebreaking three-run home run by Ty Wilmsmeyer in the fifth inning. Wilmsmeyer went deep to left-center with two out in the frame against starter Cade Smith, who Lemonis hoped unsuccessfully could get through the inning.
“That guy had one home run all year,” Lemonis said of Wilmsmeyer. “We just leave a ball down the middle of the plate, and that guy gets a big hit.”
It was a bigger hit than any all series until Day’s opposite-field homer to lead off the ninth. Right fielder Kellum Clark gave chase but backed into the right-field wall, and the baseball sailed over it.
Lemonis lamented the game-ending blast against reliever KC Hunt, who pitched 2.1 innings of scoreless relief before Day’s home run.
“I thought it was really good,” the MSU coach said of Hunt’s performance. “It was as good as he could be. On most days, that ball’s being caught probably by the right fielder. That’s just the way the ballpark’s playing today.”
That was Taylor Stadium all weekend as the two teams combined for 18 home runs in a series that saw 57 runs scored in three games.
Bulldogs left fielder Brad Cumbest nearly made that 19 with a fly ball in the seventh that came up short of the left-field fence. Cumbest settled for a one-out double to tie the game 6-6.
Mississippi State never scored again.
Cumbest was stranded on third base. Yeager got no further after a double in the eighth. And a one-out walk to Hunter Hines in the ninth was followed by two strikeouts.
Cumbest was caught looking in the ninth on a pitch well inside, and Alford went down in the seventh on a similar bad call.
But Mississippi State couldn’t overcome the mistakes.
“Things just weren’t going our way today,” Yeager said. “We couldn’t get that big hit, but that’s just how it is sometimes.”
It can’t continue if MSU hopes to make it back to the NCAA tournament, let alone its fourth consecutive College World Series.
If a late-season run is in order, it will have to start Friday against the Gators at Dudy Noble Field.
That is, if the Bulldogs are up for it.
“They’re disappointed, and they’ve got to come back and fight and be ready to go for next weekend,” Lemonis said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.