STARKVILLE — Paige Cook was ready to make amends.
After she flied out to left field with the bases loaded in the third inning, the Mississippi State sophomore infielder stood in the batter’s box with a plan when she came back up in a tie game in the bottom of the seventh. Cook chased the first pitch from Central Arkansas reliever Kayla Beaver and watched the second offering sail in for a strike, but even down 0-2, she wasn’t deterred.
“I was just looking at hitting the ball hard on the ground, especially on the right side,” Cook said.
She slapped the softball off the infield dirt, where first baseman Kaylyn Shepherd snagged it on a hop. Shepherd’s throw home was offline, and pinch-runner Allison Florian slid in hard for the winning run.
This time, Cook had done her job. She capped a seventh-inning comeback for Mississippi State (19-15) in a 4-3 walk-off win over UCA (22-12) at Nusz Park.
“It’s really good to see her kind of regather herself and know exactly what we’re looking to do, which is to have a team at-bat and knowing that a ground ball to the right side gives us a chance to score,” Mississippi State coach Samantha Ricketts said.
Ricketts said Cook’s game-ending at-bat achieved precisely what the Bulldogs struggled to do for most of the season — come up big without setting their sights too high and trying to do everything in one swing. Junior left fielder Chloe Malau’ulu’s leadoff free pass in the seventh, senior designated player Carter Spexarth’s tying single and Florian’s fearless baserunning were exactly what the Bulldogs hoped for.
“We’ve put a lot of focus these last couple weeks on really doing the small things right and being able to execute — not getting too big in tense moments,” Ricketts said. “I thought they really did a good job of that, from Carter to Paige, Alli with the baserunning and even Chloe leading off the seventh with a walk.”
Florian, a graduate transfer from Auburn, sacrificed the most to make an impact. Pinch running for graduate first baseman Fa Leilua, she went first to third on Spexarth’s single into left center field and slid into an awkward collision at home on Cook’s ground ball. Florian took an inadvertent glove to the face from UCA catcher Tylar Vernon as her foot came to rest on the dish, right next to the bat Cook had mistakenly left there. An excited third-base dugout quieted quickly before Ricketts and trainer Macy Simoneaux helped Florian to her feet slowly.
“I have a tendency of throwing the bat, apparently, and the one time I don’t throw the bat, it’s right in her way,” Cook said. “She took one for the team, definitely, and slid in hard.”
Florian’s hard-fought run capped another late-inning comeback for a Mississippi State team that beat North Alabama on Saturday with a six-run rally beginning in the sixth. The Bulldogs fell behind 3-2 with two out in the top of the seventh Wednesday as Shepherd ripped a first-pitch single off Annie Willis into right field, bringing home the go-ahead run.
But Mississippi State wasn’t worried. Malau’ulu and Leilua drew walks, and Spexarth drove a liner past the glove of UCA shortstop Kristen Whitehouse for the tying run.
“Carter’s been hot all season,” senior catcher Mia Davidson said. “That’s something you expect from her. She did her job. She got it done. That’s all that matters.”
Davidson, too, did her part in the rally. With one out in the fifth, she drove her 10th home run of the year to dead center field. The blast put her second in Mississippi State history with 62 career home runs, passing some guy named Will Clark.
Leilua followed Davidson on the very next pitch with a bomb to left-center to tie the game.
Davidson credited the Bulldogs’ offense as well as senior starter Annie Willis, who struck out nine in a complete-game effort, as Mississippi State rebounded from Monday’s loss at Southeastern Louisiana.
“We just had to stay calm and knew what we had to do,” Davidson said. “We weren’t worried at all. We just trusted our pitching and trusted our hitting, stayed within our plan and we got it done.
“Thanks to this one,” she added, turning to Cook.
Bulldogs’ series against Tennessee postponed
Less than 90 minutes before Wednesday’s first pitch, Mississippi State announced this weekend’s home Southeastern Conference series with Tennessee was postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test and contact tracing among the Volunteers.
Seven minutes later, Ricketts put out a clarion call on Twitter, seeking an opponent for the Bulldogs this weekend. She fielded calls from other coaches postgame, working to set something up.
Ricketts said the Bulldogs likely won’t play any games until Saturday and probably won’t be at Nusz Park as originally scheduled.
“It’s looking like we’re going to be on the road again, which at this point we’re pretty used to,” she said.