March 23, 2014 12:41:52 AM
STARKVILLE -- Vanderbilt's reign over the Southeastern Conference is over.
Go ahead and pass that illustrious torch to Mississippi State baseball for the time being. In line to take Vanderbilt's place as the elite club in arguably the most difficult conference in college baseball is the program that delivered a 6-3 victory Saturday night in front of a nationally televised audience.
"I think our kids felt like this our turn this year against a really good Vanderbilt team," MSU coach John Cohen said.
No. 6 Vanderbilt (19-5, 2-3 in SEC) came into Starkville this weekend having won 15 consecutive league series dating back to April 20-22, 2012. That streak was halted suddenly after two games of defensive mishaps, walks and MSU capitalizing on those mistakes for 23 runs in two games.
The 21st-ranked Bulldogs (17-8, 4-1) haven't started 4-1 in league play since 2006 and can make it a 5-1 SEC record for the first time since 2003 with a win Sunday. A rainout, with severe weather expected to arrive in Starkville Saturday night, or a MSU win Sunday mixed with an Auburn loss will mark the first time in the Cohen era of Bulldogs baseball that MSU has led the SEC standings by themselves.
"It's not a secret our guys didn't play very well at all against Vanderbilt last year and I think our guys wanted to show up against them," Cohen said. "For whatever reason, we just hadn't been who we are against them in a long time so it was an important series."
In its last 15 games against Top 20 ranked competition, MSU is 11-4 and the Bulldogs picked up its seventh win against a team ranked in the Top 100 of the latest ratings percentage index. The announced crowd of 10,064 at Dudy Noble Field watched MSU pick up its 10th consecutive home victory.
For only the third time in nine attempts, MSU won a game where the opponent scored first as Vanderbilt used a walk and a hit by pitch to earn a quick 2-0 lead in the opening half inning on MSU starting pitcher Ross Mitchell. From that moment on. Mitchell was nearly flawless as the junior left-hander notched his second quality start in a row after finishing the next 6 1/3 innings without giving up a run. Mitchell is now 6-0 all-time in SEC play with a 1.71 ERA. With all the concerns about the Bulldogs starting pitching coming out of the disastrous weekend in Arizona, Preston Brown and Mitchell have calmed those concerns against a national powerhouse as MSU is now 12-2 when the starting pitcher goes at least five innings.
"Vanderbilt just whooped me twice last year and I couldn't wait to get back out on the mound against top competition like that," Mitchell said. "I don't think Preston got overlooked but maybe he just had to earn that spot but I think our whole team rallies around him every time he goes out there."
Mitchell (4-1) wasn't as sharp with his 94-pitch effort Saturday but made sure Vanderbilt hitters were out in front of his 19 outs put in play (11 ground balls, 8 fly balls). Mitchell played with danger as Vanderbilt left five runners in scoring position while Mitchell was on the mound.
"He put that first inning in the rearview mirror and pitched out of some jams with more fly ball than a week ago," Cohen said.
With his third of the season and 33rd of his career, Jonathan Holder tied for fourth most saves all-time in SEC history Saturday night. Holder's save just reinforced to the MSU dugout that the vibe that carried them to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., last season was back wearing MSU jerseys in 2014.
"It's hard to get continuity when you start three different shortstops, three different catchers, six different outfielders and Jonathan Holder's finger is bothering him," Cohen said. "I wanted to find out as much about our club as possible before SEC play started. We've done that."
Junior shortstop Seth Heck gave MSU its final lead in the third inning with a double off the left field wall that scored two runs and put MSU up 3-2 on Vanderbilt's highly touted left-hander Jared Miller. Heck is hitting .395 (15 for 38) with 10 RBIs, nine walks and nine runs since the beginning of March.
"Probably since junior college is the last time I've swung it this hot but when it's going well you just want to keep going to the plate," Heck said. "You don't care if there's two strikes on you because you still feel you can deliver."
Jared Miller became the second consecutive impressive Vanderbilt starting pitcher to fold under MSU's patience at the plate after Tyler Beede was pulled after 2 2/3 innings Friday night. Miller (5-1) lasted only 4 1/3 innings in 89 pitches because MSU worked him for five walks that turned into four runs. Miller's ERA went from 0.57 to 1.80 after facing Mississippi State's stingy offense Saturday.
MSU will try to go for its first sweep of Vanderbilt since 2000 when they send junior righty Trevor Fitts (2-0, 3.55) to the mound Sunday against Vanderbilt's Tyler Ferguson (3-0, 1.63) for 1:30 p.m. first pitch.
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.
4. Sunday at the Bluff today looks at bioarchaeology ENTERTAINMENT
5. SAAC plans for 'Eye on the Arts' gala ENTERTAINMENT