STARKVILLE — Will Bednar didn’t have to hesitate.
Cornered in the dugout by pitching coach Scott Foxhall after the sixth inning of Friday’s Starkville Regional opener against Samford, Bednar was asked if he was good to go back out for the seventh. The sophomore right-hander said he was.
Then he backed it up.
Bednar pitched around a leadoff single in the seventh, retiring three straight Samford hitters to keep the Bulldogs ahead 6-3. It was the capper on a strong performance from Bednar to set the tone as Mississippi State (41-15) beat Samford (35-23) on Friday afternoon, 8-4, to move into the winners’ bracket. MSU will face the winner of Friday night’s game between VCU and Campbell.
Even after Samford’s Max Pinto hit a solo home run on Bednar’s very first pitch of the day, the sophomore settled down and pitched out of jams all game. He allowed another homer leading off the fifth and let five of seven leadoff men reach but managed to keep calm and deliver a quality start after its inauspicious beginning.
“It’s kind of a little bit of a shock to have the first pitch you throw in regionals be a home run,” Bednar said.
But when the Bulldogs needed him most, Bednar locked in. With Mississippi State up 5-3, he stranded two runners in the fifth by striking out the powerful Sonny DiChiara on a high fastball.
Even when he appeared to be tiring in the sixth after a leadoff double, he got the next three Samford hitters out.
The same happened after a leadoff single in the seventh as Bednar helped the Bulldogs avoid burning through their bullpen in their very first postseason game. Preston Johnson settled down after another first-pitch home run in the eighth, and Stone Simmons worked around a two-out walk in the ninth.
“I’m really happy I could do that for us and kind of eat up as many innings as I could just to kind of save us for the next few days,” Bednar said.
A strong offensive performance helped back the right-hander as the Bulldogs rebounded from an unsightly Southeastern Conference tournament showing. Mississippi State scored in five of its eight at-bats thanks to 11 hits, including three apiece for center fielder Rowdey Jordan and first baseman Luke Hancock.
“Today at the plate, I think we played a really clean game of baseball,” Hancock said. “We just have to carry that over the next couple of days.”
The junior had a big two-out, two-run single in a three-run second inning, putting the Bulldogs up 4-1. He added another run with a chopper through the infield for a seventh-inning RBI base hit.
“I just try to hit the ball hard, and luckily today the ball was just finding some holes for me,” Hancock said.
Third baseman Kamren James brought home the first run of the game with a first-inning groundout, then walked with the bases loaded in the second to give Mississippi State a 2-1 lead. Hancock followed with a two-run single, and Jordan scored on a groundout in the fourth.
Shortstop Lane Forsythe and catcher Logan Tanner each had sacrifice flies to build the Bulldogs’ lead late in the game. Designated hitter Kellum Clark had a pair of hits, including an eighth-inning double, and scorched a lineout to right field in the sixth to move left fielder Brad Cumbest to third and set the stage for Forsythe’s sac fly.
“Kellum’s a great, great player,” Hancock said. “He’s continued to get better and better, and I’m glad he’s hot right now.”
The rest of the Bulldogs hope to get as hot as Clark as regional play continues. Coach Chris Lemonis said Mississippi State will watch tonight’s VCU-Campbell matchup and scout the Rams and Camels, hoping to get the scoop on whichever team the Bulldogs will face Saturday.
But for now, Lemonis and MSU will enjoy a win that will set them up nicely for the remainder of the regional.
“They were ready to play,” Lemonis said. “They were ready to get after it.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.