Before its Southeastern Conference tournament matchup with Ole Miss, the Mississippi State softball team papered its locker room at Nusz Park with the tweets the Rebels posted after sweeping the Bulldogs to open conference play, hoping to instill a little motivation.
In Wednesday’s rematch in Tuscaloosa, Mississippi State got the chance to send its own message.
The ninth-seeded Bulldogs (33-22, 9-15 SEC) beat the No. 8 Rebels (34-20, 12-13) by a score of 3-1, winning for the eighth straight game and advancing to the quarterfinals of the tournament. Mississippi State will play top-seeded Florida (40-8, 19-5) at 11 a.m. Thursday.
“It’s just motivation all the way around reading them after the series and then just putting them up again,” senior Carter Spexarth said. “I think that just inspired us to come out here and play our best game.”
The Bulldogs won Wednesday in largely the same fashion as they composed the seven-game win streak that rounded out their regular season: effective offense, clutch pitching and a much improved defense.
Against Ole Miss lefty Anna Borgen, who baffled the Bulldogs in all three games of that mid-March Oxford sweep, Mississippi State had surprisingly little trouble. The Bulldogs put their first four hitters aboard to score two runs in the top of the first inning and knocked Borgen out after four frames, handing her the loss.
“Whatever she was going to give to us, we were going to take it,” Spexarth said.
That included her monster home run from to left field in the third inning. The senior got the pitch she wanted and drove it well over the wall at Rhoads Stadium for a 240-foot solo blast.
“It was just right there, and I was going to take it for a ride,” Spexarth told the SEC Network postgame.
She’s far from the only season the Bulldogs are on a ride of their own. Emily Williams and Alyssa Loza held Mississippi State’s early lead, combining in the circle to hold the Rebels to a single run. Ricketts said the two pitchers offer distinct looks that can baffle opposing hitters all game.
“Emily’s going to come in, spin, change of speeds, more movement, and Loza is just pure power,” Ricketts said.
Loza entered in perhaps the game’s biggest spot with two Ole Miss runners aboard and just one out in the fifth inning. After a passed ball by catcher Mia Davidson, she induced a fielder’s choice to cut down a runner at home plate and an infield pop-up snagged by first baseman Fa Leilua right in front of Loza to end the inning.
It was the fifth-year senior’s second straight crucial relief outing after pitching the final three innings of the Bulldogs’ 4-3 win over then-No. 22 Georgia on Sunday.
“It’s definitely something that she’s been working on all year, and finally just to see that is just amazing,” Leilua told the SEC Network.
And although it cost the Bulldogs a run, Mississippi State’s defense did more good than harm in the win over the Rebels. Left fielder Jackie McKenna’s nice scoop of a double off the wall in left field in the fourth allowed the Dawgs to catch Ole Miss pinch-runner Kelsha Loftin in a rundown between third and home before McKenna’s wild throw home on a flyout allowed Abbey Latham to come in and score the Rebels’ first run.
More excellent fielding was on display in the sixth inning as Christian Quinn stole extra bases from Latham with a nice running catch at the warning track in right field.
“It just builds trust with the whole team knowing that everybody has each other’s back no matter if it’s pitchers, infielders, outfielders,” catcher Mia Davidson said. “We’re all playing solid defense, and it just shows and it gives us great momentum.”
It was another team win for a Bulldogs squad that got off to an unseemly start in SEC play by losing the series at Ole Miss by a combined 18-1 score. But on Wednesday, Mississippi State delivered on a chance to get back at its in-state rivals.
Still, the Bulldogs have a tough road ahead. Florida, which swept Mississippi State from March 19-21, hasn’t lost an SEC series all season, and the Gators boast the conference’s best pitching staff. If the Bulldogs are going to pull off another upset, it won’t be easy.
“We’re going to have our work cut out for us,” Ricketts said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.