April 20, 2013 9:25:35 AM
STARKVILLE - The Auburn University baseball team simply beat Mississippi State University at its own game Friday night.
The Tigers managed to take the nine-inning game Friday night by showcasing fantastic infield defense and consistent pitching to take the 3-1 victory in front of an announced crowd of 10,143. After conclusion of the 2 hour and 17 minute game, MSU cleaned up the final six outs for its 6-3 win from Thursday night to leave the ballpark with a split.
Auburn junior left-hander Michael O'Neal (8-2) kept the No. 16 Bulldogs off balance with his ability to change speeds from his ¾ delivery. The transfer from Chatahoochee Valley Community College transfer held MSU to just five hits in a seven-inning shutout performance that included four strikeouts.
"He's a guy that really gives us a different look on the mound but the key for him is to know when it's a big situation and then have a go-to pitch that he can turn to," Auburn coach John Pawlowski said. "Against a very good offensive club like Mississippi State, he really came up big in each of those situations tonight."
O'Neal got plenty of help from his friends as he got two double play balls and stellar middle infield play from shortstop Mitchell Self and Jordan Ebert being involved in 14 plays. The Tigers duo had been inconsistent and were coming to Starkville with 10 combined errors including Self's .846 fielding percentage. However, Self went deep in the hole twice to rob MSU players of hits and was the relay on both of the double plays to end any MSU (31-10, 9-8 in SEC) offensive momentum.
"I thought that was the difference because without that defense, we're cooked," Pawlowski said. "I think we saved some runs on some mental plays like catching the kid in a rundown at home plate when we could've been stuck arguing that call. All those little plays and then mixed in with the spectacular is what turns this into a win for us."
On a night where Mississippi State senior right-hander Kendall Graveman didn't have the proper sink on his stuff Friday night, Auburn's top of the order punished him for all three runs in the game. The 1-5 hitters in the Tigers (24-14, 6-10) order went 8 for 19 on Graveman with three players (Ryan Tella, Cullen Wacker and Patrick Savage) end with multi-hit games.
"I thought we had a great offensive approach that we instilled in them (Friday) to do against Graveman," Pawlowski said. "We manufactured some offense and got some balls to fall there that were key."
Graveman (5-3) would give MSU a fourth consecutive quality start but has received just six total runs in support in his three losses this season. The Alexander City, Ala., native, who had a 8.64 ERA against Auburn in his career before Friday night, scattered 10 hits over one earned run in a 106-pitch effort.
"Really proud of Kendall tonight because he did not have his best stuff tonight but he just gutted through it and even with the 10 hits and not pitching as well as he'd like, he's the best defending pitching that I've ever seen in college baseball," MSU coach John Cohen said.
MSU junior C.T. Bradford had another multi-hit game as the second-generation Bulldogs player has rebounded nicely since seeing his average tumble 100 points (.377 to .277) in the month of March. Bradford has seven hits in his last four games after starting the month 3 for 25.
"I had to go back to the drawing board," Bradford said. "Really worked hard at my approach and honestly, it feels good right now."
In a resumption of Thursday night's postponed game, MSU held steady in the final 2 ½ innings to preserve a 6-3 victory. Bulldogs sophomore closer Jonathan Holder worked 2 2/3 inning of no-hit relief that included strikeouts in seven of the eight outs to earn his 12th save of the season. Holder tied his former bullpen teammate Caleb Reed for third all-time in school history with both 12 saves in a season and 21 saves in a career.
"My role on this team is to come in and get outs when I'm needed and whenever that may be in a game so the thing is basically I want to be out there to help nail down a win," Holder said. "That critical area of the game may be the ninth inning, it may be the seventh or whenever. I'm not picky about when I come in."
Ross Mitchell (7-0) earned the win, with three innings of four-hit shutout relief, following starting pitcher Luis Pollorena.
In Saturday's series finale at 4 p.m., MSU is scheduled to start sophomore left-hander Jacob Lindgren (3-1, 3.08 ERA), while Auburn is scheduled to start junior left-hander Will Kendall (0-4, 6.75).
"Here's what I feel good about - I thought in the first game that we lost that our kids are taking good swings and crushing balls but not getting rewarded because they played great defense and did what you're supposed to on that end," Cohen said. "I really kept thinking we were going to get to (O'Neal) but had some things work against us."
All of the Dispatch MSU Sports Blog readers: feel free to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/matthewcstevens for up-to-date Mississippi State coverage.
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