STARKVILLE — Mississippi State needed help.
When starter Jackson Fristoe departed the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader with Texas A&M with two men on and nobody out in the third inning, he became the third Bulldogs starter not to complete six innings in barely more than 24 hours. Once again, MSU needed length out of its bullpen, and this time, the ask was a significant one.
Houston Harding was ready to answer the call.
Summoned from the ’pen, the junior left-hander delivered five innings of scoreless relief, Mississippi State (32-10, 14-7 Southeastern Conference) built up a lead late in the game, and the Bulldogs finished a sweep of Texas A&M (24-22, 5-16 SEC) with a 10-5 win Saturday evening.
“I was really pleased with the way they played tonight,” Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis said.
After two closely contested wins Friday night and Saturday afternoon, Lemonis said he “jumped on” his team to play better and bring its energy level up.
“I didn’t want us to sit back and feel like, ‘Hey, we took the series,’” he said. “It’s never about us taking the series. It’s about us winning the next game.”
The Bulldogs took his message to heart. Lane Forsythe’s double broke a 3-3 tie in the fourth, and Rowdey Jordan followed with a single as Mississippi State took the lead for good.
Harding settled down from his only struggles of the day, allowing an inherited runner to score on a third-inning infield single, to lock in for the next four frames.
“I didn’t feel like I had command of all my stuff early on,” he said. “Once I settled in, I started to get a better feel for everything.”
And instead of letting the Aggies hang around, the Bulldogs put them away. Junior left fielder Brad Cumbest, who opened the scoring for Mississippi State with a no-doubt two-run home run in the second, was smack-dab in the middle of a four-run rally in the seventh. He singled home Logan Tanner with a bullet to left, Tanner Leggett singled home Scotty Dubrule, and Rowdey Jordan scored both Cumbest and Leggett with a bloop hit to left to make it a 9-3 game.
Cumbest, earning more and more playing time in a left-field platoon with Brayland Skinner, finished 3 of 4 on the night, scoring three runs and driving in three.
“It’s easier to put him in the lineup when he does that,” Lemonis said. “His swings have been good in the at-bats that he got, and I thought he did a really nice job today.”
After the Bulldogs stretched out their lead, a trio of relievers held onto it. Mikey Tepper was tagged for two runs in the eighth inning as he and Chase Patrick struggled with their control, but Cam Tullar — making his third appearance in two days — got the final five outs without allowing a hit.
It was a necessary performance for a bullpen whose depth was tested all weekend. No Mississippi State starter got more than 15 outs, leaving the Bulldogs’ relievers to carry the load. They succeeded.
“We’ve got a bunch of dawgs, and I’m just super excited to continue on this journey,” Harding said.
Game 1: No. 4 Mississippi State 3, Texas A&M 2
Brandon Smith was thrown into the fire.
Making his first appearance since April 18 against Ole Miss, the Mississippi State junior reliever entered in the biggest spot of the opener of Saturday’s doubleheader against Texas A&M: two men on, nobody out in the sixth inning with the go-ahead run at the plate.
It took four pitches.
A quick double play and a lineout later, Smith and the Bulldogs had abruptly escaped the biggest jam of the game. That escape proved crucial as Mississippi State held off Texas A&M with a 3-2 win.
For the second straight contest, the Bulldogs didn’t play at their best, and it didn’t matter. They scored on a wild pitch, a fielding error and a sacrifice fly, taking free bases and free runs wherever possible to earn a series win.
Sophomore Will Bednar cruised through the first three innings, facing the minimum with the help of two double plays. He posted his fifth strikeout in a scoreless top of the fourth, working around a one-out single
With the bases loaded in the bottom of the inning, Scotty Dubrule raced home on an errant delivery by A&M starter Bryce Miller for the game’s first run. It was the only run of the frame after Tanner Allen followed a Rowdey Jordan walk with a flyout, but the Bulldogs soon added on.
A Dubrule chopper went right past the glove of the Aggies’ Austin Bost in the fifth, putting Mississippi State up 2-0. Brad Cumbest’s flyout to deep center field added another run.
Bednar’s strong start ran aground in the sixth when Bost took him deep on the first pitch of the inning, Will Frizzell singled and Brett Minnich walked.
Summoned from the bullpen, Smith was remarkably efficient in his return from the arm soreness that kept him out against No. 2 Vanderbilt. He induced a ground ball off the bat of Logan Britt for a 4-6-3 double play and got Bryce Blaum to line the ball right to Dubrule at second for a big third out.
A&M managed to score off Smith in the seventh when Ray Alejo lined a two-out single up the middle, but two more Mississippi State relievers combined to hold the lead. Cam Tullar got the first two outs of the eighth inning, and Stone Simmons recorded the final four outs to earn the save.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.