May 11, 2012 8:59:11 PM
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Mississippi State's run of success in Southeastern Conference series openers came to a halt Friday night as the 25th-ranked Bulldogs dropped a 4-1 decision to fifth-ranked Florida at McKethan Stadium.
The last time these teams met on this playing surface Florida was rallying past MSU to win a super regional and advance to the College World Series. Friday's contest was less dramatic as Florida led from the get-go, while handing MSU pitching ace Chris Stratton his first defeat of the season.
MSU lost a series opener for only the third time in nine conference weekends. The Bulldogs dropped to 30-20 overall and 12-13 in league play, while the Gators continued a late-season push for a possible Eastern Division title, while moving to 37-13 and 15-10.
"Our guys battled all night," MSU assistant coach Butch Thompson said. "Chris pitched real well and put us in a position to have a chance. The home run was big. We did some things, but we weren't as clean early as we needed to be."
Thompson coached the Bulldogs in the absence of head coach John Cohen. Cohen missed Friday's game, serving a one-game suspension from the SEC. Cohen also missed Tuesday night's 6-3 win over Mississippi Valley State, serving a one-game suspension from the NCAA.
Stratton, the league leader in victories, suffered his first defeat to fall to 9-1. Thanks to a couple of defensive miscues, half of the Gators' four runs were actually unearned. Stratton allowed six hits and four runs, with six strikeouts and two walks in seven-plus innings of work.
Stratton was lifted after facing two batters in the eighth inning. Brian Johnson reached on a dropped fly ball in the MSU outfield. Daniel Pigott then slapped his seventh home run of the season to end Stratton's night and to place the Gators in good stead.
Florida scored single runs in the second and third innings. A bases-loaded hit batsman forced in the Gators' first run. In the third inning, Mike Zunino started things with a one-out double when two MSU outfielders collided. After a groundout, an infield error allowed Zunino to score the game's second run.
In the fifth inning, the Bulldogs scored when Hunter Renfroe and Matthew Britton had back-to-back hits. Renfroe doubled and scored when Britton slapped a single back up the middle.
"We had some chances offensively but Florida has such a complete pitching staff," Thompson said. "Your opportunities are limited. We look forward to tomorrow. If (MSU starting pitcher) Kendall (Graveman) can get some sink, he has a chance to have a good afternoon."
The Bulldogs found the going tough against the Florida pitching duo of Hudson Randall (6-1) and Steven Rodriguez (third save). The duo managed to hold the Bulldogs to six hits and walked none.
For MSU, Renfroe led the offensive attack with his first three-hit night.
The series resumes with a 6 p.m. CT start Saturday and concludes with a noon CT start Sunday. MSU then closes its regular season with a four-game homestand, including Central Arkansas and Kentucky, at Dudy Noble Field.