June 1, 2013 11:29:42 PM
Matthew Stevens - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- Survival can come in several forms.
On Friday night in front of 11,102 nervous fans at Dudy Noble Field, the Mississippi State University baseball team found survival and turned it into exhilaration thanks to a 3-6-4 double play. The defensive gem came in the top of the sixth inning on a wheel play call in which infielders rotate to their right. MSU sophomore first baseman Wes Rea, who started the improbable double play, then had a run-scoring single in a three-run uprising in the bottom half of the inning that propelled MSU to a 5-3 victory against the University of Central Arkansas in the second game of the day at the Starkville Regional.
The University of South Alabama defeated Mercer University 9-4 in the first game of the day.
"That's a ridiculously hard play for a guy to make that is 6-foot-6 and 272 pounds, and he made it look like a gold glove shortstop," MSU coach John Cohen said. "We do this play every single day, but you're really vulnerable when you run this play because the entire middle of the field is open. As a coach, you're hoping and praying he bunts."
With the game tied at 2 in the top of the sixth, Cohen opted to use a bunt defense that is designed to get the lead runner at third base. Timing is essential on a play in which the shortstop breaks for third and the third baseman and first baseman charge from the corners. MSU executed the play perfectly, as Rea fielded Garrett Brown's bunt and fired the ball to a trailing Adam Frazier covering third. The junior shortstop, who was selected to the Southeastern Conference All-Defensive team, then whipped the ball back to first base where second baseman Brett Pirtle was covering the bag.
"I would come in the dugout and say to my teammates, 'Wow, this is a crazy game with stuff you just don't see every day' " Rea said. "I was wondering who caught the ball at first base on the double play because I never saw it. A 3-6-4 double play is crazy, and I don't know how many of those have been turned."
UCA coach Allen Gum said Thursday he felt double plays would be the difference in the game and would help determine the winner of the regional. Unfortunately for the Bears, his prediction was right on.
"It comes down to double plays," Gum said. "I knew it would, and we made couple crucial mistakes."
Back-to-back run-scoring hits by Alex Detz and Hunter Renfroe in the bottom of the sixth helped MSU capitalize on its defensive gem. Detz had his sixth three-hit game of the season, and scored the final run from first base on a full count, hit-and-run situation.
MSU (44-17) received its sixth quality start from senior right-hander Kendall Graveman, who survived making two errors on one play in the fourth. Graveman dropped a flip from Rea on a ground ball to the right side for the first error. He fell down after the miss and then fired the ball over the head of third baseman Sam Frost for the second errors. The miscues allowed UCA to take its only lead.
Following the errors, Cohen visited Graveman (6-5) and gave him a chance to stay in the game. Cohen wouldn't have allowed some of his younger pitchers to keep going, but the decision paid off as Graveman didn't allow another hit until he was taken out of the game with one out in the seventh.
"He might be the best defender on the mound I've coached in 22 years," Cohen said. "When things like that happen, it's crazy. You don't expect it to happen. I needed to see Kendall's heart rate go down and settle in."
The 17,788 fans at Dudy Noble Field for the two games Friday was the second-highest attendance total on the opening day of regional play. Only LSU, Jackson State University, Sam Houston State, and the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, which drew 22,463 fans for two games at Alex Box Stadium, had a higher attendance.
Gum said the noise level at Dudy Noble Field caused a problem for his team. "I haven't been to a college atmosphere better than this," Gum said. "I just wish we could've got a break or two, but I don't think our kids were overwhelmed by it."
The home atmosphere also played into a strange play that allowed MSU to tie the score in the fifth. Before Rea's RBI-single past the shortstop, Brett Pirtle hit a fly ball that looked as if it was destined to be the third out. However, left fielder Ethan Harris lost the baseball in the lights and it rolled to the left-field wall for Pirtle's second triple.
"The lights got in my way and I had a bead on the ball," Harris said. "I don't like to make excuses, but at the last second I lost it. It was a tough deal."
Rea had a pair of RBI singles off starting pitcher Caleb McClanahan. The senior right-hander had thrown more than 230 pitches in 10 days in helping the Bears (39-21) run through the Southland Conference tournament.
In the only game the Bulldogs won in the three-game series on March 8-10 at Dudy Noble Field, they attacked McClanahan the second time through the batting order by building a 4-0 lead in the fourth, fifth, and sixth. On Friday, MSU did its damage the third time through and was aggressive early in counts to end McClanahan's night.
"I don't know about other people's approach, but this guy had walked only 10 guys in over 100 innings, so I was going to be aggressive early in counts," Rea said. "That was going to be your only chance to get something to hit."
In a game in which the teams combined for five errors and seven walks, a double play gave MSU new life in its first chance to play host to a NCAA regional in a decade.
"I think our kids were a little too amped up, and even more amped up than I thought they would be because of the atmosphere," Cohen said. "I was on the 1987, 1988, and 1989 MSU teams here that hosted and didn't win a regional. You have to block out everything as a player and try to imagine nobody is out there."
With his classic Johnny Cash tune playing in the background of his warmup, MSU sophomore closer Jonathan Holder made the ninth more interesting than Bulldogs fans would've preferred by allowing the go-ahead run to come to the plate. But Holder added to his school-record 17th save of the season to move three saves behind Vann Johnson's career-best mark of 29.