March 24, 2014 10:37:29 AM
STARKVILLE -- Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin left Dudy Noble Field on Sunday relieved his team wasn't swept out of Starkville.
No. 6 Vanderbilt relied on pitching and defense to earn a 5-1 victory against No. 21 Mississippi State in the final game of a three-game Southeastern Conference series at Dudy Noble Field.
After watching more highly touted pitching teammates fail to get a victory in the first two games, Vanderbilt sophomore right-hander Tyler Ferguson limited MSU (17-9, 4-2 SEC) to two hits in six innings. The Fresno, Calif., native pitched to contact and had three strikeouts in a 74-pitch outing that allowed the Commodores to salvage a game in their first series loss since April 2012.
"We were embarrassed about how we played Friday and you saw the hangover of that on Saturday," Corbin said. "The result today is good and maybe we grew up a little bit, but we've got a lot maturing to do with our club from now until the end of the season."
Vanderbilt (20-5, 3-3) scored its runs in the final three innings after Trevor Fitts gave MSU its third quality start of the weekend. MSU hasn't had three-straight quality starts since its successful postseason run in the 2011 Atlanta Regional hosted by Georgia Tech.
"We've had some good ones and we have a great staff this season that we rely on heavily, but boy I must say, Mississippi State is just so good on the mound -- so good," Corbin said. "We couldn't do anything with (Ross) Mitchell the previous night and we had to do some interesting manufacturing with Fitts today as well."
After strong performances from Preston Brown and Ross Mitchell on Friday and Saturday, Fitts (2-1) joked after the game he might be the weak link of the starting rotation. He didn't pitch like it, giving up five hits in 6 1/3 innings. Fitts suffered the loss when left-hander Jacob Lindgren allowed an inherited runner to score in the top of the seventh on a sacrifice bunt attempt by Rhett Wiseman. Fitts walked one and struck out six in an 82-pitch outing.
"I read something that said I was the innings eater of the staff, but if Ross and Preston are going eight and nine innings each time out, I must be the bullpen guy," Fitts said. "They're doing a great job, and I hope they keep doing that the rest of the season."
Only two of Vanderbilt's runs were earned. The Commodores used two fielding errors, two walks, and the sacrifice bunt to make the Bulldogs pay for their fundamental mistakes. They extended the lead to 3-0 with two runs in the eighth, thanks in part to a pair of hits, an infield error, and a wild pitch.
"We really pitched it well," Cohen said. "I am not sure Vanderbilt got a ball to the outfield. We certainly didn't defend it as well as you would have liked, and we have been a very good defensive team all year. However, we pitched it well enough to win for a third-straight day."
However, through a three-game series against arguably the most dominant baseball program in the league in the last three seasons MSU pitching allowed just three extra-base hits and forced Vanderbilt to leave nine runners on base.
Vanderbilt cleanup hitter Bryan Reynolds had three hits, while Xavier Turner, Dansby Swanson, and Wiseman had run-scoring hits to avert a sweep by MSU for the first time since 2000.
For MSU, there was a point where the team's top eight hitters were 0-for-18 and No. 9 hitter Gavin Collins had the Bulldogs' only two hits.
"Based on our charts, we had 15 hard-ball outs," Cohen said. "That is how the game of baseball sometimes works. The weak ground ball out can sometimes be the better thing. We take a lot of positives away from the weekend because we played really well against a top team. We had our chances."
Despite not getting the sweep, MSU is tied with Auburn and Ole Miss for the SEC lead after two weekends of league play. MSU has limited opponents to a .235 batting average and nine earned runs in winning four of its last five league games.
"We leave the park knowing we have a successful weekend even though Sunday leaves a bad taste in your mouth," Cohen said.
Vanderbilt arrived in Starkville having won 15 consecutive league series dating back to April 20-22, 2012. The Commodores struggled through two games of defensive mishaps and walks as MSU capitalized for 23 runs. In its last 16 games against top-20 competition, MSU is 11-5. The Bulldogs' victory Saturday was their seventh against a team ranked in the top 100 of the latest Ratings Percentage Index.
MSU will play host to Southeast Missouri State at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.