May 17, 2013 2:28:42 AM
STARKVILLE - Mississippi State University has quickly embraced the art of the comeback.
The 24th-ranked Bulldogs completed their fourth victory after being down through six innings with a dramatic 5-4 win over No. 14 University of South Carolina at Dudy Noble Field.
In a series where MSU (39-15, 15-13 in Southeastern Conference) needs a sweep to ensure the fourth seed and first round bye in the league tournament, the Bulldogs converted only the second blown save of the season against South Carolina closer Tyler Webb.
"We never stop and we stay calm throughout the entire game," MSU junior center fielder C.T. Bradford said. "We have confidence right now, period. We know we can come back against anybody."
At the start of the month, MSU didn't have a victory this season when down in a game with nine outs to play and have now won four of their five victories this month in that fashion.
"You'd certainly prefer to not have to do it that way so much but I think it says so much about our kids to have that swagger about them late in games," MSU coach John Cohen said.
Thursday night included three runs and four hits off Webb, the SEC leader in saves with 15, and batting around in a eighth inning that was started by a towering Wes Rea home run into Left Field Lounge to make it 4-2. The third-year sophomore took a slider from Gamecocks reliever Adam Westmoreland to give the Bulldogs dugout some life and allow some doubt to creep into the visiting dugout despite the remaining two-run lead.
"We up 4-2 in that situation and couldn't get over the fact that man, they're playing really well right now," South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook said. "We were lucky to be ahead at that point in time."
MSU's shutdown closer Jonathan Holder fared much better getting the final three outs of the game for his 15th save of the season. The sophomore right hander has not given an earned run in 27 2/3 innings and now is five back of the all-time saves record of Vann Johnson's 29.
"Ever since the middle of my sophomore season, once Jonathan Holder comes into a game - it's over," MSU junior outfielder Demarcus Henderson said. "There's a sense of relief that comes over the other eight guys on the team."
In classic Cohen small ball fashion, the key hit may have been a drag bunt by Henderson down the first base line. Henderson was given the option to bunt or hit with the speedy Bradford on first base and one out in the eighth inning. With Gamecocks first baseman LB Dantzler playing behind the bag, Henderson pushed a bunt that went parallel of the base line for his third hit of the night.
"I think because I was swinging it so well tonight that they forgot about the bunt," Henderson said. "I saw how far back he was playing and between me and Derrick (Armstrong), if either of us place a bunt down, there's no way to throw us out."
Cohen said after the game he's thrilled to give his players the freedom to make that decision if he'll evaluate the options on the spot like his upperclassmen outfielder did in that situation.
"You don't know in our dugout if they can put all those pieces together mentally in that split-second scenario because it's an outside pitch and he knows he runs a 3.65 (seconds time) to first base," Cohen said. "There's not too many guys in the big leagues that can handle a bunt and run like that. Demarcus Henderson can."
MSU took the lead for the last and first time Thursday night with a bases loaded walk to Brett Pirtle as the junior college transfer reached base for the 27th consecutive game. The 14 hits were the most for MSU in a win since the 12-1 victory at AutoZone Park against the University of Memphis.
MSU left 10 runners on base, made two outs on the base paths and allowed South Carolina's starting pitcher Nolan Belcher to scattered nine hits over 6 1/3 innings. Throughout all those elements, MSU was able to get its sixth straight home victory.
"Even with their backs against the wall, Mississippi State simply didn't quit playing," Holbrook said. "With everything unlucky that happened to them all night long, they never doubted they'd get another chance. I'm impressed with that club over there."
Bradford had his third straight multi-hit game as the junior went 3 of 3 with a RBI and a run scored and the former Mr. Baseball in the state of Florida has seen his batting average rise 35 points from .277 to .312 over the last 21 games.
The series resumes at 6:30 p.m. tonight and concludes at 2 p.m. Saturday. The magic number for earning the fourth seed and final bye into the Southeastern Conference is one and is done to between the two teams playing in Starkville. MSU is scheduled to start senior right hander Kendall Graveman (5-5, 3.00), while USC is scheduled to start sophomore left hander Jordan Montgomery (4-1, 1.85) in game two of this series. MSU hasn't won a series against the Gamecocks since 2009.
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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