May 23, 2014 1:21:20 PM
HOOVER, Ala. -- Kentucky proved in its 12-inning victory over Mississippi State that size does matter.
In a true contrast of styles, the Wildcats power element narrowly escaped MSU's small ball philosophy in a 4 hour, 36 minute contest. Kentucky took home the victory after pinch hitter Zach Arnold produced an infield hit with the bases loaded scoring Jason Reida and sending the Wildcats into Saturday's semifinal round.
The Wildcats came back from a 4-1 deficit to win just its second game of the season when down after seven innings.
"There was such a small margin of error that came down to a couple of close plays," Reida said. "Once everything seemed like it was going our way, it got going for us. It was an unbelievable feeling."
Kentucky (35-22) had five extra-base hits including a home run as the power-hitting Wildcats continued to swing a hot bat at the Southeastern Conference tournament in Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. Coming into the contest, Kentucky had home runs, slugging percentage, runs scored and ignored the idea of giving outs away with the sacrifice.
MSU (37-21) used the bunt, sacrifice fly, wild pitches and errors by the Wildcats to continue creating offensive opportunities and the four different leads they would achieve Thursday night. MSU's first run of the evening highlighted how they thought they could keep pace with UK's offensive attack. Brett Pirtle had a single and Gavin Collins, who finished with a career-high four hits, later added a one-out walk. A groundout advanced runners and a wild pitch brought Pirtle home for the game's first run.
The Bulldogs had five sacrifice plays, including four bunts, and on all of those scenarios where MSU played the percentages they were able to get a run on the scoreboard.
"We brought the Dudy Noble Field type of approach to Hoover and it works," MSU shortstop Seth Heck said. "They might get the long double or the home run and that works for them too. What makes this game fun is yes, it was two different styles and it was a 7-6 extra-inning game."
Kentucky jumped all over the soft tossing style of MSU ace left-hander Ross Mitchell for four runs on eight hits over 5 1/3 innings. Mitchell, who was working on short rest in his SEC tournament start, wasn't sharp as he failed to find any swing-and-miss action with Kentucky's violative lineup.
Nobody understands the stylistic difference between the two programs than MSU coach John Cohen, who won a SEC regular season title at Kentucky with the power bats before accepting the job at his alma mater.
"At Kentucky you better have the ball leave the yard and you better recruit to that type of play," Cohen said. "At Mississippi State and Dudy Noble Field, you can't win that way. It just won't work. It has to be about pitching, defense and the running game."
In a strange game that bled into Friday morning, MSU's small ball tactics even included the first career stolen base for the Bulldogs 270-pound first baseman Wes Rea. The speed element of MSU's middle of the order proved effective as Heck and Pirtle both had two hits and two runs scored.
By being able to score 24 runs in the first three days of the SEC tournament, MSU can leave this even thinking they can compete offensively when they likely travel for a NCAA Regional next weekend.
"The last couple of games we've been swinging it really well and that's the one good thing we take away from the loss," Heck said. "We had a lot of chances and we did a solid job of bunting them over and driving them in with clutch hits."
The difference for Kentucky was their bottom of the order (4 through 9), which still had plus power skills, had 15 of the team's 16 hits and all seven runs.
Fifth-seeded MSU will now face top-seeded Florida (38-20) in an elimination game Friday. That contest will start 30 minutes after the completion of the 3 p.m. Ole Miss-Arkansas game. The MSU-Florida contest will be televised regionally by Comcast Sports Southeast and will also be available nationally on ESPN3. The loss guarantees that in order to win the SEC tournament, MSU must play on each day of the event, something no team has accomplished since the tournament was expanded to 10 teams.
"How do you come back from this?," Cohen asked rhetorically. "You recruit tough kids from good families that are able to put games like this in the rear view mirror."
MSU had won its seven previous seven extra-inning games and was confident they'd make it eight in a row but the Bulldogs had runners thrown out at the plate in both the 10th and 12th innings.
"The story of this game is they gave us opportunities that we didn't take advantage of and we gave them walks that they turned into runs late," Cohen said. "It was two teams trying to give it all away and somebody eventually had to take advantage of it."
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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