STARKVILLE — Rowdey Jordan was dead to rights.
Caught between first and second base after his two-run, sixth-inning single, Mississippi State’s center fielder weighed his options. He stared at the VCU infielder holding the baseball, who stared right back.
Then he sprinted back to first base, diving into the outfield side of the bag in a spray of dirt and beating the tag. Designated hitter Kellum Clark, with whom Jordan nearly collided on the basepaths unaware Clark hadn’t made the turn for third base, ended up at third anyway.
Once again, Mississippi State had gotten exactly what it wanted.
It was a common theme for the Bulldogs (42-15) on Saturday night in a 16-4 win over the Rams (38-15), sending MSU to Sunday’s regional final and snapping VCU’s nation-leading 22-game winning streak.
Jordan’s single was part of a big sixth inning that helped the Bulldogs pull away after VCU closed a five-run gap to just two runs against starter Christian MacLeod. Tanner Allen followed his fellow senior outfielder with a two-run base hit to score both Clark and Jordan, and Kamren James homered to cap the nine-run frame that left no doubt for all 10,011 fans assembled at Dudy Noble Field.
“That sixth inning, we just came in with kind of the same approach we always try to have: just do your job, get good pitches to hit,” James said. “In that inning, I don’t feel like we missed many pitches — we didn’t swing at many pitches out of the zone.”
The disciplined approach gave the Bulldogs some big insurance after the Rams’ Michael Haydak shocked the Starkville crowd with a two-out home run to left off MacLeod in the sixth. The lefty had just given up an RBI single to catcher Hunter Vay on his 120th pitch, but coach Chris Lemonis left him in and paid the price. MacLeod got a standing ovation as he departed for Brandon Smith.
“I left it all out on the field,” MacLeod said. “Obviously, I hate giving up a home run to finish the outing. That’s part of it. But I competed my butt off, and that’s all I could do.”
To open the third inning, the lefty walked No. 9 hitter Hogan Brown on four pitches. Leadoff man Steven Carpenter also walked without seeing a strike, and MacLeod then misfired on his first pitch to Rams star Tyler Locklear.
After one long-awaited strike, a wild pitch got by catcher Logan Tanner, allowing both runners to move up. MacLeod said postgame his hands were sweaty because of the humidity, and it was tough to get a grip on the baseball.
But the redshirt sophomore turned a possible early exit into perhaps the biggest cheer of the night. He used the rosin bag, licked his fingers and promptly struck out Locklear, Liam Hibbits and Brandon Henson to escape the jam and keep the Bulldogs ahead 3-1.
“Obviously not how you want to start an inning, throwing nine straight balls, but I just knew I needed to settle down, bear down and minimize as much as possible and just attack the zone,” MacLeod said. “I should have done that to start off the inning, but I thought I made the correction I needed to — maybe a little later than needed, but it worked out.”
MacLeod finished with a career-high 12 strikeouts in his 5.2 innings, and Smith picked up the slack after allowing a double to bring the tying run to the plate. The righty kept the Rams scoreless through the eighth, and Parker Stinnett pitched a clean ninth.
VCU’s bullpen, however, didn’t have it so easy. Jaden Griffin was greeted with back-to-back home runs by Brad Cumbest and Clark in the fourth.
“I like the lineup when you have the twin towers there at the back,” Lemonis said, referring to the bulky pair of hitters.
The Rams’ Andrew Ward was tagged for all nine runs — eight of them earned — scored by the Bulldogs in the sixth.
Mississippi State’s top three hitters — Jordan, Allen and James — had three hits apiece as the Bulldogs totaled 14 knocks in the game.
“When your first three guys are going like we did tonight, I think it just kind of frees up the whole lineup — really, the whole game, whether it’s defense, pitching, when you get runs on the board,” James said. “Especially when the back end of the lineup is producing like they were tonight, it’s just huge. If we can get the whole lineup going, we’re going to be dangerous.”
Mississippi State manufactured a two-out run in the second when Jordan doubled and Allen’s laser shot into the shift went off Haydak’s glove and into right field.
Luke Hancock’s groundout to first base brought home the Bulldogs’ first run after Jordan reached on an infield single and James moved Jordan to third on a double. Logan Tanner plated James with a scorching single into left.
VCU got a run back on Jack Schroeder’s leadoff home run to left-center in the second. It was all the Rams could manage against MacLeod until Vay drove home Liam Hibbits in the sixth.
“Once Christian settled in there in the third, he just took off,” Lemonis said. “After that, I thought the middle part of the game, he was phenomenal.”
VCU will play Campbell in an elimination game at 2 p.m. Sunday, and Mississippi State will face the winner at 7 p.m. with a trip to Super Regionals on the line. Lemonis did not name a starter for the contest, saying the Bulldogs will throw several pitchers, as they would in a typical midweek game.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.