STARKVILLE — The game ball held firmly in her hand, Fa Leilua broke into a smile.
The Mississippi State graduate first baseman walked over to the camera near the third-base dugout and held the yellow softball up to the lens in celebration. Then Leilua met her teammates behind home plate to sing the Bulldogs’ alma mater with relief legible in the smiles on each of their faces.
Mississippi State had come into Saturday’s home game against Texas A&M without a single Southeastern Conference win in more than a dozen tries in 2021. That streak ended at long last when the Bulldogs (25-20, 1-13 SEC) handled the Aggies (30-14, 7-10 SEC) by a score of 8-1 at Nusz Park, a win Mississippi State coach Samantha Ricketts called “a big exhale” for her club.
“It was fun to see them relax and play loose and get out there and just do what they do best,” Ricketts said.
The Bulldogs certainly needed it after not only being swept in their first four series and dropping the opening game of the fifth but coming oh so close nearly every time. Each of Mississippi State’s past seven conference games was decided by three runs or fewer, including four one-run games in that span.
Now the only streak the Bulldogs need to worry about is a winning streak, which they hope to build over the remainder of the season. Junior outfielder Jackie McKenna said Saturday’s win is something to build on going forward with at least seven regular-season games — all SEC contests — to go.
“I think momentum is really on our side right now,” McKenna said.
She got things started for the Bulldogs with a solo home run to lead off the bottom of the third, crushing an inside pitch from Aggies starter Kayla Poynter out to left center field. After Texas A&M tied the game in the fifth inning, Mississippi State responded with four runs in the bottom of the frame and added three more for good measure as starter Emily Williams limited the visitors to just one run.
“Everybody did their job, and it was just a great feeling,” senior catcher Mia Davidson said.
Davidson was hardly exempt from that. She caught the Aggies’ Makinzy Herzog stealing to end the top of the fifth and ripped a three-run homer in the sixth to put the Bulldogs in control.
“I thought that was kind of the knockout punch for us,” Ricketts said. “It was really capping a strong offensive performance from the whole lineup top to bottom, and I thought everybody did a great job in doing their job.”
Seven Bulldogs had at least one hit, and Leilua was the only one who had two. Her liner off Poynter’s glove hand in the fifth inning sent the Aggies pitcher to an early exit, and Mississippi State found success against reliever Grace Uribe right away.
Carter Spexarth laced a single to load the bases, the last hit the Bulldogs would even need. A pair of sacrifice flies, a fielder’s choice and a walk brought home four runs to put Mississippi State up 5-1.
Once again, the Bulldogs’ strategy of having “team at-bats” rather than trying to do too much had paid off.
“We can score runs by little things like that — by taking a walk with the bases loaded, by taking a deep ball sac fly,” Ricketts said.
Of course, a good old three-run homer didn’t hurt, either. Davidson took a 1-0 pitch from Uribe out to dead center field with one away in the sixth, a blast Ricketts said was a product of a patient approach.
“If she goes up there trying to hit the big three-run bomb, she probably doesn’t,” Ricketts said. “She was just relaxed, making (Uribe) come to her, throw pitches that she knew that she could attack. She’s just got that kind of power that even if she’s trying to find a big hit, it’s going to go over the fence.”
Williams retired the Aggies in order in the seventh, continuing to mix her pitches and hit her spots. She finished with eight strikeouts, allowing just four hits in the complete-game performance.
“E-Dub did her job,” Davidson said. “She did what she needed to do, and it showed.”
Davidson put the final touches on the win as Texas A&M star Haley Lee tapped a weak ground ball just in front of the plate. She fired to Leilua at first base for the final out of a crucial win for the Bulldogs — and possibly the start of a late-season run.
“It’s huge for us,” McKenna said, “so we’ll keep it going.”
Ricketts said new dates for Mississippi State’s series with No. 19 Tennessee should be announced early next week by the SEC. The three-game set, slated to be played April 9-11 in Starkville, was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns with the Volunteers.
Ricketts said the Bulldogs should be able to make up at least two of the contests. … Junior outfielder Anna Kate Segars remains out “for the foreseeable future” with an undisclosed medical issue unrelated to COVID-19, Ricketts said. Segars hasn’t played since March 20 against Florida and has yet to receive clearance from doctors. There is no current timeline for her return. “We want to make sure that we’re taking care of her health first and foremost,” Ricketts said.