STARKVILLE — High above right-center at Dudy Noble Field, the fireworks boomed out one by one, a rainbow of colors on display in the Starkville sky.
Hardly anyone stopped to watch.
By the time the first pyrotechnic rocketed into the night, most of the 8,470 in attendance were in the process of filing out of Polk-Dement Stadium in disappointment. Mississippi State (36-12, 17-9 Southeastern Conference) had just gone down 1-2-3 in the ninth inning to seal a 7-6 home loss to Missouri (13-33, 6-20), the SEC’s last-place team.
And instead of the Dudy Noble magic the Bulldogs have become accustomed to, there was little more than silence as Mississippi State missed out on a chance to keep the pace for a conference title.
“This one hurt,” right fielder Tanner Allen said. “This is probably the one that hurt the most this year because we know what’s at stake.”
The Bulldogs now trail No. 1 Arkansas by a game and a half for the SEC West lead after the Razorbacks’ 6-5 win Friday at No. 4 Tennessee. The Volunteers, too, boast a better record than Mississippi State, and No. 2 Vanderbilt also has a higher winning percentage.
So with just four SEC regular-season games remaining, Allen and the Bulldogs know exactly how costly Friday’s defeat will prove.
“We have a chance to win an SEC championship, but we take a loss that we win nine times out of 10,” Allen said.
But Friday’s game was certainly that rare 10th instance as Missouri matched wits with Mississippi State throughout the night.
The Tigers scored first in the second before the Bulldogs responded in the third for a 4-2 lead, pulled ahead again with three runs in the sixth and broke a 6-6 tie on an infield hit in the top of the ninth.
“You’ve got to tip your hat to Missouri,” Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis said. “They had some big hits and made some big plays. They won the ballgame, but man, I’m disappointed in the way that we played.”
The Tigers’ final tally of the game was a good example as third baseman Kamren James charged a ground ball from Joshua Day with two men in scoring position. Instead of nabbing Day for the second out, James watched the ball glance off his glove as the go-ahead run came in to score.
It was far from the only missed opportunity for Mississippi State on Friday night.
Allen and James made outs with two men on in the eighth as the Bulldogs threatened to take the lead, and Brad Cumbest popped out in the fifth with runners at the corners and Mississippi State already up three runs.
“We make a couple mistakes and do some different things and let that game stay tight, and they get back in it in the middle of the game,” Lemonis said.
Missouri took advantage quickly. The Tigers put together a rally in the sixth as a wild pitch and groundout tied the game, and Andrew Keefer’s grounder to short was overturned on replay review to a go-ahead infield single.
But Kellum Clark put the Bulldogs level with a first-pitch solo blast to right off Missouri starter Seth Halvorsen in the sixth. Lemonis said the freshman designated hitter has been providing similar pop in batting practice.
“He’s showing some power — some left-handed power, which we need,” Lemonis said.
The Bulldogs could have used some more when Allen stepped to the plate with Lane Forsythe at second, Rowdey Jordan at first and one away in the eighth. His groundout to third moved the runners up, but Kamren James struck out to end a long at-bat and keep the game tied.
Missouri responded by starting the ninth with a leadoff single from Keefer, the fifth such hit of the night for the Tigers.
“When you get a leadoff guy on, it opens your playbook up, and they took advantage of it,” Allen said.
Torin Montgomery cracked a single, and a bunt advanced the runners. James’ misplay gave Day the go-ahead hit before pitcher Stone Simmons finished off the Tigers on back-to-back strikeouts.
But instead of late-inning magic like the Bulldogs’ seventh-inning display Thursday, the middle of Mississippi State’s order caved in. Luke Hancock, Logan Tanner and Scotty Dubrule went down in order as MSU’s second straight off game resulted in a “real frustrating” loss.
“I didn’t think we were great last night, and we weren’t great tonight,” Lemonis said.
Will Bednar allowed three runs in five innings for the Bulldogs, turning in another solid performance but not a dominant outing.
“I didn’t think Will was great tonight,” Lemonis said. “He’s been really good for us all season. It wasn’t a bad start, but it wasn’t a great start.”
The Bulldogs still backed him up with a four-run third punctuated by Allen’s two-run triple as his ground ball scooted past the glove of Montgomery at first base and careened down the right-field line. Hancock plated a run with a groundout, and Tanner singled in another.
But Missouri rallied against Cam Tullar and Parker Stinnett to take the lead for the second time. Lemonis said his relievers struggled to locate effectively throughout the night.
“We need to throw strikes and get outs,” Lemonis said. “We’ve been good in our bullpen all year, but we’ve lost two leads late here in the last two out of three games, so we’re going to have to be better.”
That will have to start with Saturday’s 1 p.m. series finale, for which the Bulldogs have yet to name a starter. Mississippi State will be tasked with righting the ship and coming out on top for the third straight SEC set.
“Tomorrow’s a new day,” Allen said. “We’ve still got a chance to win a series, but we’ve got to come out and we’ve got to play better baseball.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.