STARKVILLE — Getting swept against Arkansas one week ago left a gloomy forecast hovering over No. 8 Mississippi State.
Six days later, the sun was shining bright as ever in Starkville and admittedly may have been the home team’s secret 10th player after Kentucky consistently misplayed fly balls and pop-ups in the sun Saturday, leading to just enough offense for the Bulldogs to complete the sweep of the Wildcats with a 4-3 victory at Dudy Noble Field.
“It’s huge,” MSU coach Chris Lemonis said. “It’s fun to watch them bounce back, get their confidence back and play really good baseball. Kentucky is going to win a lot of games this year, so getting the sweep is huge in the conference rankings.”
The Bulldogs (20-7, 5-4 SEC) were bolstered by stellar starting pitching for the duration of the weekend. MSU ace Christian MacLeod racked up 11 strikeouts in an 8-1 win Thursday, while Will Bednar notched double-digit punchouts with 10 in a tight 3-2 victory Friday. Although it wasn’t quite as sharp as the previous two outings from his rotationmates, freshman Jackson Fristoe showcased flashes of brilliance of his own in a contest that meant quite a bit for the Paducah, Kentucky, native.
“I thought he was great,” Lemonis said of Fristoe. “He’s a Kentucky kid, so for him to go out there with all that emotion, the only coaching point there is to keep your focus. His stuff was good, his composure was great … He’s one of the better Sunday starters out there. He’s ultra competitive for a freshman.”
The 6-foot-4 righty, who originally committed to the Wildcats (18-7, 5-4) before flipping to MSU, tied a season-high with eight strikeouts, picking up the win against a team he very nearly was a member of after throwing five innings and allowing two runs on three hits and four walks.
“You definitely want to go out and dominate the home team,” Fristoe said. “I had to do that.”
MSU picked up its first run in the bottom of the first after Kentucky center fielder Austin Schultz tried to use his glove as a pair of sunglasses to no avail and let a soft fly ball off the bat of Rowdey Jordan drop harmlessly beside him for a triple. Tanner Allen drove Jordan in one batter later on a sacrifice fly.
After Kentucky answered with a run in the second, Luke Hancock led off the bottom frame by turning on a first-pitch fastball to launch his seventh home run of the season over the right field fence. Later in the inning, Logan Tanner recorded a double that never left the infield after a small convergence of Kentucky’s catcher, pitcher and third baseman couldn’t decide which one was in charge of catching a pop-up. Lane Forsythe drove Tanner in with a two-out RBI single for a 3-1 lead.
In the bottom of the fourth, Tanner salivated seeing a 1-1 pitch from Kentucky starter Zack Lee and lifted a solo shot over the brick wall in right field to extend MSU’s lead to three.
“(Lee) went heater, then changeup down for a strike, I thought he’d go back to the heater and he did,” Tanner said of the pitching sequence. “I got a barrel on it, and it happened to sneak out on me, which is nice.”
Lee struggled in 3.1 innings of work, allowing four runs on six hits, and he only struck out one batter. Wildcats reliever Dillion Marsh kept his team in the contest, pitching 3.2 scoreless innings after replacing Lee in the fourth.
Kentucky added a run in the fifth and later in the eighth after Jaren Shelby was picked off with one out, but Schultz, stationed at third base, wisely stole home while the Bulldogs were preoccupied with running down Shelby.
After a heart-pounding ninth inning, Parker Stinnett closed the door on the Wildcats, pitching around an error and a walk by picking up the save after striking out Cam Hill with the tying run on second with two outs.
“We play a lot of close games,” Lemonis said. “When you pitch and defend, you’re in a lot of close games. I’d like for us to be able to separate a little more, but I think our team is used to it.”
MSU is back in action in a midweek contest against Southern on Tuesday in Starkville before a road weekend series at Auburn.