May 17, 2014 8:04:08 PM
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Before the 2014 season started, Mississippi State fans, coaches and even probably players would've gambled everything on the situation they had in both the sixth and eighth innings.
Wes Rea was coming to the plate with a runner in scoring position in a smaller ballpark. Last season it would've likely resulted in a run on the board for the Bulldogs. In 2014, it was just among the several missed offensive opportunities at Alabama in MSU's 2-1 loss in the regular season finale.
MSU coach John Cohen, a Tuscaloosa native, joked after the loss that he wanted Alabama administration to move the left field line further to the left when the reconstruction of Sewell-Thomas Stadium begins in a few weeks.
"I wish they could just move that left field line when they get this stadium done and this would've been a completely different ballgame," Cohen said. "It's just amazing how much a couple of inches in this game means whether you're successful or not but that play defined it."
Construction on Alabama's new ballpark will force the Tide to play its home games at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium next season while the construction is going on.
With two runners on eighth inning, Rea laced a line drive into left field but it was ruled foul by the slimmest of margins. If the ball is a few inches inside the line, MSU certainly ties the game and possibly takes its first lead of the day with Vickerson already rounding second base on the play.
"We were less than a few inches on one ball hit by Wes Rea from taking the lead in this game and feeling so much better than we do right now about the outcome," MSU senior second baseman Brett Pirtle said.
In a season that was filled with promise and excitement for the 270-pound slugger, Rea has just nine RBIs since the beginning of April and has seen his batting average drop 68 points (.317 to .249) since March 1.
"I do feel like Wes is starting to turn a corner and do some good swings with his swing," Cohen said. "I really felt like late in the game we were taking better approaches but this game comes down to the fact that you throw over 150 pitches and two leave the yard for them."
In order for MSU to make another postseason run similar to what they accomplished last season, Cohen acknowledged the run production has to somehow take a major step forward despite recent evidence to the contrary.
No. 20 MSU (35-20, 18-12 in Southeastern Conference) will be the fifth seed in the league tournament on the opening night of the event in the final game of single-elimination format against Georgia (26-28-1, 11-18-1 in SEC).
MSU left 10 runners on base in a game where they had an opportunity to tie for the Western Division championship and qualify for a bye into the double-elimination games starting Wednesday.
Alabama (34-21, 15-14 in SEC) jumped all over MSU starter Preston Brown (4-2) as Tide shortstop Mikey White took the first pitch he saw deep over the left field wall for their first lead of the weekend.
Brown was taken out after just one out in a 17-pitch effort. Saturday afternoon marked the third time in the last four games since returning from a shoulder injury where he hasn't gotten out of the second inning. Cohen admitted after the loss that Brown "probably isn't back mentally or physically" from its injury.
Ben Bracewell had to come in early from the bullpen and save any chance at possibly salvaging a victory and earning its third straight road sweep. The senior right-hander allowed just four hits and made a single mistake on a changeup to Ben Moore in the fifth frame.
"I was just in escape mode when I came into the game and trying to limit the damage but once I got into a rhythm, I felt like I was able to have good command and put up zeros," Bracewell said.
Moore, Alabama's best power hitter hit his team-leading ninth home run off Bracewell, a Birmingham, Alabama native, during his 65-pitch relief outing.
"I'll wear that pitch because I was trying to sneak a changeup inside near his hands and left the ball right over the middle of the plate," Bracewell said. "With where I threw that pitch, it would be hard for him to make contact and not hit the ball out of the ballpark. That's what he's supposed to do and it's a complete mistake that I take responsibility for."
Both teams Saturday were a combined 0-for-16 with runners in scoring position as Alabama left-hander Justin Kamplain (6-3) worked in and out of jams early on. The junior navigated through MSU's patient approach at the plate for 5-1/3 innings over 96 pitches that scattered three hits.
"He was able to throw anything he wanted for strikes and kept us off balance all day long," Pirtle said. "We had opportunities to knock him out of the game but were one hits short of putting up a run or two."
Cohen said Saturday he envisioned the likely starting pitcher scenario for the Bulldogs SEC Tournament opener would junior left-hander Lucas Laster (0-0, 0.73). Unless Cohen and MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson change up the plan, Tuesday will Laster's third career start.
"Lucas has done such a nice job for us in big ballparks, whether it has been Trustmark Park in Pearl or Dudy Noble Field," Cohen said. "We will have to look at Georgia but we certainly like the matchup that Hoover Met presents being so familiar to Dudy Noble Field."
MSU did win its seventh conference series of the season by taking a 9-4 win Thursday and 1-0 win Friday. The 1-0 win came thanks to Matthew Britton's first career home run.
MSU has now taken three straight series from its closest rival.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.