April 28, 2014 10:34:28 AM
STARKVILLE -- Asked if she wanted the ball in her final game at Mississippi State, Alison Owen was emphatic.
"Of course," Owen said. "I always want the ball."
The senior earned the honor of recording the final three outs Sunday in the MSU softball team's 8-0 victory against Arkansas at the MSU Softball Field. Not only did the victory help MSU (37-16, 9-12 Southeastern Conference) earn its third-straight SEC series victory for the first time since April 6-21, 2012 (series victories against Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Kentucky), it also enabled Owen to break the school's strikeout record.
The victory also helped MSU record its best 53-game record in program history, one game ahead of the 2000 and 2008 squads. The Bulldogs' 9-12 mark in the SEC gives the squad its most wins in the league since it had 12 in 2012. MSU also finished 20-7 at home, which makes coach Vann Stuedeman believe her squad can "make a little noise" in the postseason.
"We talked about the series wins against Alabama and Tennessee to convince them what got you there won't take you there, but the resiliency of this group showed after losing on Friday," Stuedeman said.
MSU used a six-run fourth inning sparked by the seniors. Senior Rachael Zdeb reached on a throwing error by the third baseman that allowed two runs to score to make it 4-0. Jessica Offutt reached on a fielder's choice that allowed Winkfield, who re-entered to run for Toler, to score and make it a 5-0 advantage. Offutt, a senior outfielder, stole second and third and scored on a throwing error by the catcher in the same sequence. MSU third base coach Tyler Bratton put on a drag bunt play to manufacture the fifth run and nearly jumped sky high as Offutt crossed home on the play.
"I have to say how impressed I am of (Bratton) becoming a fast learner on the exact right time to be a risk taker, and that play proved it," Stuedeman said of the drag bunt.
The Bulldogs had six players score at least one run. In the final two games of the series, MSU hit .517 (15-for-29) with runners in scoring position. Freshman Caroline Seitz had two hits and was one of five MSU players to drive in a run.
"I believe in this team as a group, and I'll say this, LSU made it to the College World Series two years ago with a batting average around just .260, and that's because they got timely hits," Stuedeman said. "That's the key to everything in this game, and our timely hitting is coming at the most important time."
MSU sent Arkansas (27-24, 5-16) home on run-scoring hits by Offutt and senior Heidi Shape in the bottom of the sixth. Shape's hit Shape increased her consecutive games reaching base streak to 16, the team's longest this season.
"Every senior played and contributed, and it was a great day for them to end with a series win and not just a single victory today," Stuedeman said.
For seven MSU players, Sunday was the last time they'll ever put on a MSU jersey in front of the home fans. Stuedeman made sure the final four outs where made with a senior on the mound, as Shana Sherrod recorded the final out of the fifth before handing the game over to Owen.
"It was such an emotional day for us and our families that it was difficult to block out the distractions," Owen said. "All I wanted to do with such a big cushion was spin some pitches and make sure I had some fun. I won't feel this here again."
Once MSU built its big lead in the fourth, Stuedeman was able to focus on getting everybody playing time in the final regular-season home game.
"We had a conversation before the game started about what the deal would be, and it worked perfectly," Owen said. "Vann always has a plan that works."
MSU will return to action at 6 p.m. Friday at LSU. The teams also will play at 6 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.