STARKVILLE — With temperatures dipping into the 30s Thursday night, Mississippi State’s bats followed suit.
Inning after inning, batter after batter, MSU (18-7, 3-4 SEC) failed to blow things open against Kentucky (18-5, 5-2 SEC), stranding runners in each of the first five innings.
A pair of Luke Hancock sac flies were the difference for the bulk of the night. An 0-for-9 mark with runners in scoring position heading into the eighth inning followed. Kamren James promptly ended that narrative.
Tagging an 0-1 pitch from Wildcats reliever Cole Daniels, James cleared the bases with a gap-seeking double for the loudest hit on an otherwise forgetful night at the plate as MSU slogged to an 8-1 win over Kentucky.
“I felt like that was a big hit for our team,” James said postgame. “Going into the ninth inning it would’ve been (5-1), and I think to give us that cushion may have taken a little bit of that pressure off the pitcher or the defense going into that top half of the ninth inning.”
Struggling through a series in which they mustered just 11 runs and finished 25 of 104 at the plate against No. 2 Arkansas a week ago, the Bulldogs struggled to put away the Wildcats throughout the evening.
Junior outfielder Brayland Skinner returned to the lineup rather emphatically with a leadoff double in the first inning, but the Bulldogs wouldn’t muster another extra-base hit until junior Rowdey Jordan’s solo homer in the sixth.
MSU stranded at least one runner in six of its eight innings at the plate. Four times two or more runners were left on to close a frame. In all, MSU hit a combined 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position and left 11 men on base.
Offense aside, Christian MacLeod dazzled in his return to the bump. After getting tagged for six runs — five earned — in just 3.2 innings pitched against the Razorbacks last weekend, MacLeod looked the part of the ace he was projected as entering the year.
In weeks past, the third-year freshman struggled through his first inning of work. Thursday, he set down the side in order. MacLeod’s velocity also returned to its usual low-90s location. His breaking ball, too, located for strikes.
“He commanded the fastball really well, tonight, but I think he had his best breaking ball all year — which he needed to get some of their really good hitters,” Lemonis said. “And when he has all three pitches going like that, he’s really tough to hit.”
Allowing just one hit in his six innings of work, he retired 10 consecutive Wildcats between the second and fifth innings. MacLeod’s 11 strikeouts matched a season-high after he notched the same number against Eastern Michigan on March 12. His 93 pitches also marked a career high.
Finishing the fifth inning the way he started it — in 1-2-3 fashion — the Huntsville, Alabama, native struck out the side. One inning later, he strutted off the mound one last time when he fooled Kentucky left fielder Oraj Anu with a breaking-ball in the dirt for his 11th and final strikeout of the night.
“I worked with Coach (Scott) Foxhall a lot on the breaking-ball the last couple bullpens,” MacLeod said. “Focusing on throwing it with intent and not taking anything off just to throw it for a strike or anything. Every time I throw it, I’m going to throw it as hard as I can, throw it with intent, and I think it’s starting to pay off a little bit.”
Behind MacLeod, sophomore Brandon Smith turned in his second erratic outing in as many appearances. A fielding error on shortstop Lane Forsythe put the second batter of the frame on base. A single by Coltyn Kessler and a Smith-issued walk loaded the bases with two outs. Smith then airmailed a delivery to Chase Estep, finding the backstop and scoring the lone Kentucky run of the contest from third.
Working himself into a two-out jam in the eighth, Smith was yanked in favor of junior Houston Harding. In response, Harding needed just two pitches to earn the final out of the frame.
Furman transfer Stone Simmons recorded the final three outs of the contest, striking out a pair of Wildcat batters and forcing a third to ground out after he put the first two runners he faced on base.
With the win, MSU has now won Game 1 in two of its three Southeastern Conference series and moved its record at Dudy Noble Field this spring to 12-5 — three losses of which came last weekend.
“I really challenged them before today’s game, just you know, we’ll learn a lot about you,” Lemonis said. “Because if you’re going to play in this league, man, you’ve got to be able to handle the punches and you’ve got to be able to fight back and you’ve got to have a real belief in yourself as a player.”
Mississippi State head coach Chris Lemonis said that freshman third baseman Kellum Clark is back to “100 percent” this weekend. Lemonis said onlookers can expect to see him in the lineup in the coming days.
Lemonis also said he’d have an update on senior reliever Riley Self on Friday. Self left the Friday game against Arkansas with an undisclosed injury.
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.
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