Mississippi State finally seemed to have something brewing.
In the top of the 13th inning Thursday at the Southeastern Conference softball tournament, third baseman Paige Cook led off with her second hit of the day and just the third MSU hit all day against Tennessee’s Ashley Rogers.
But what started out as the Bulldogs’ best chance quickly became their last.
Madisyn Kennedy bunted into a double play, erasing Cook from the base paths, and the third-seeded Volunteers (39-15, 15-8 SEC) finally cashed in with the game’s lone run in a 1-0 marathon win over the 11th-seeded Bulldogs (32-24, 10-14 SEC) in Thursday’s SEC quarterfinal game in Gainesville, Florida.
“Really proud of the fight that this team showed, particularly the pitching staff,” Mississippi State coach Samantha Ricketts said. “They gave us a chance. They kept us in it so we could continue to fight.”
The Bulldogs did fight, but their battle at the plate was a losing one. Rogers shut MSU down through 13 long innings, throwing 161 pitches in all.
Tennessee’s ace allowed just five baserunners in total, keeping traffic off the basepaths and keeping the Bulldogs off the scoreboard entirely.
“That’s a great team and a great pitcher over there in Ashley Rogers,” Ricketts said. “You wish we could have found a way to break through a little bit quicker there, but really it just turned into a mental battle at the plate. It was just one team after another trying to find a way to break through, throwing punches.”
Tennessee dealt the final blow as freshman Lair Beautae singled into right center field with one out in the bottom of the 13th. Rylie West raced around second base and dove headfirst into the plate ahead of the throw from MSU right fielder Saleyna Daniel.
It was an exciting ending to a game that had no shortage of heart-stopping moments. Mississippi State played with fire for over an hour, denying the Vols several walk-off opportunities in the seventh inning and in extras.
Tennessee put a baserunner aboard in every inning from the third on, stranding an absurd 18 runners before Beautae’s game-ending hit. The Vols were a strike away in the ninth inning as MSU pitcher Annie Willis loaded the bases on a hit batter and two walks, then got to a 3-2 count on Amanda Ayala.
In the Bulldogs’ first-base dugout, infielder Aquana Brownlee covered her eyes, unable to watch. But Willis’ payoff pitch was right down the middle, punching out Ayala for the third out and sending the game to the 10th inning.
Willis stranded one runner there, two more in the 11th and another in the 12th before the Vols broke through. West hit an infield single and Kiki Milloy walked before Beautae put an end to a game that was two minutes short of reaching the four-hour mark.
The Tennessee freshman’s walk-off hit came not long after what Cook described as “slightly a momentum killer” as the Vols turned two in the 13th. Kennedy’s bunt down the third-base line was fielded quickly as Tennessee turned a 5-6-4 double play to erase MSU’s leadoff baserunner.
It put a damper on what looked like a strong chance for the Bulldogs to finally break through against Rogers. Besides Cook, only one other Mississippi State player — pinch hitter Montana Davidson in the 11th — had a hit; Mia Davidson walked and was hit by a pitch.
But MSU stayed level thanks to its pitching. Deployed as an opener, Aspen Wesley went just two innings, but Kenley Hawk relieved her with 5 2/3 scoreless frames. Willis went 4 2/3 from there before giving up the winning run.
“If we pitch like this, we use a staff approach next week going into the postseason, I think we’re going to be a really tough team out there,” Ricketts said. “As a pitching staff, they really pride themselves on having each other’s backs, and they showed that today.”
The Bulldogs will await their spot in the NCAA tournament, in which they figure to be a No. 2 seed.
Sunday’s selection show will reveal their fate, but for now, MSU will be happy with its win over LSU on Wednesday and its tough performance Thursday against Tennessee.
“Every weekend feels like a super regional, feels like postseason, and you get hitters like Amanda Ayala, Kiki Milloy, Zaida Puni every weekend on every team,” Ricketts said. “That’s what’s fun, that’s what’s challenging, and that’s what’s going to set us up for next week when we get to go out and finally play someone who’s not in the Southeastern Conference.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.