May 17, 2013 12:34:33 PM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State University has embraced the art of the comeback.
No. 24 MSU earned its fourth victory after trailing through six innings with a dramatic 5-4 win against No. 14 University of South Carolina at Dudy Noble Field.
In a series MSU (39-15, 15-13 Southeastern Conference) needs a sweep to ensure the fourth seed and first-round bye in the league tournament, the Bulldogs forced closer Tyler Webb into his second blown save of the season.
"We never stop and we stay calm throughout the entire game," MSU junior center fielder C.T. Bradford said. "We have confidence right now. We know we can come back against anybody."
At the start of the month, MSU didn't have a victory when it trailed entering the seventh
inning. Four of its five victories this month have come 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.
MSU reached Webb, the SEC leader in saves with 15, for three runs on four hits off Webb. Wes Rea hit a towering home run into the Left-Field Lounge to make it 4-2 and to start an eighth-inning rally that saw MSU bat around. The third-year sophomore took a slider from reliever Adam Westmoreland to provide a spark.
"We're up 4-2 in that situation and couldn't get over the fact that man, they're playing really well," said South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook, whose team slipped to 38-15 and 16-11. "We were lucky to be ahead at that point."
The score didn't stay that way for long.
In classic Cohen small-ball fashion, the key hit in the eighth may have been Demarcus Henderson's drag bunt down the first-base line. Henderson was given the option to bunt or to hit with one out with the speedy Bradford, who singled against Webb, on first base. With first baseman LB Dantzler playing behind the bag, Henderson pushed a bunt that went parallel to the base line for his third hit.
"I think because I was swinging it so well tonight 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 placed 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 they'll evaluate the options like Henderson did.
"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."
Nick Ammirati followed with a single to make it a one-run game. Adam Frazier followed with a single that tied the game. An intentional walk to Hunter Renfroe re-loaded the bases and set the stage for a bases-loaded walk to Brett Pirtle. The walk helped the junior college transfer reach base for the 27th consecutive game. The 14 hits were the most for MSU in a win since the 12-1 victory against the University of Memphis at AutoZone Park.
MSU closer Jonathan Holder fared much better getting the final three outs of the game for his 15th save. The sophomore right-hander hasn't allowed earned run in 27 2/3 innings, and is five saves behind the program's all-time record of 29 held by Vann Johnson.
"Ever since the middle of my sophomore season, once Jonathan Holder comes into a game it's over," Henderson said. "There's a sense of relief that comes over the other eight guys on the team."
Chad Girodo (6-1) earned the victory by pitching an inning. He left after a lead-off walk in the ninth.
Luis Pollorena started and worked 4 2/3 innings. He allowed five hits and four runs (all earned), but he retired 12 straight after giving up two runs in the first.
South Carolina extended the lead to 4-1 in the fifth and chased Pollorena. Ross Mitchell, Will Cox, Girodo, and Holder combined for 4 1/3 innings of two-hit shutout relief.
MSU left 10 runners on base, made two outs on the base paths, and allowed starting pitcher Nolan Belcher to survive 6 1/3 innings despite giving up nine hits. Still, 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 they never doubted they'd get another chance. I'm impressed with that club."
Bradford (2-for-3) had his third-straight multi-hit game. The former Mr. Baseball in the state of Florida has seen his batting average rise from .277 to .312 in the past 21 games.
The series resumes at 6:30 tonight and concludes at 2 p.m. Saturday. The magic number for earning the fourth seed and final bye into the SEC tournament is one and is down to South Carolina and MSU.
MSU is scheduled to start senior right hander Kendall Graveman (5-5, 3.00 ERA) tonight, while South Carolina is scheduled to start sophomore left hander Jordan Montgomery (4-1, 1.85). MSU hasn't won a series against South Carolina since 2009.