May 23, 2014 10:41:08 AM
HOOVER, Ala. -- The ninth-seeded Kentucky baseball team proved size matters Thursday in its 12-inning victory against No. 18 and fifth-seeded Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference tournament at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
In a contrast of styles, the Wildcats used their power to negate the Bulldogs' small ball approach to come from behind and earn a 7-6 victory in a 4-hour, 36-minute marathon that ended early Friday morning. Kentucky earned the victory on an infield hit by pinch hitter Zach Arnold with the bases loaded scored Jason Reida.
The Wildcats rallied from a 4-1 deficit to win their second game of the season when down after seven innings.
"There was such a small margin of error that came down to a couple of close plays," Reida said. "Once everything seemed like it was going our way, it got going for us. It was an unbelievable feeling."
Reida had a game-high four hits to lead Kentucky (35-22), which had five extra-base hits, including a home run. Entering the tournament, Kentucky led the SEC in home runs (57), runs (430), slugging percentage (.457), and on-base percentage (.402) and tied for second in doubles (104).
While Kentucky relied on its power game, MSU (37-21) used the bunt, sacrifice fly, wild pitches, and errors to create opportunities and to build four leads. MSU's first run highlighted how it tried to keep pace with Kentucky. Brett Pirtle singled and Gavin Collins, who had with a career-high four hits, walked with one out. A groundout advanced runners and a wild pitch allowed Pirtle to score.
The Bulldogs had five sacrifice plays, including four bunts. MSU played the percentages in each situation and scored every time.
"We brought the Dudy Noble Field type of approach to Hoover and it works," MSU shortstop Seth Heck said. "They might get the long double or the home run, and that works for them, too. What makes this game fun is yes, it was two different styles and it was a 7-6 extra-inning game."
Kentucky reached left-hander Ross Mitchell for four runs on eight hits in 5 1/3 innings. Mitchell, who was working on short rest, wasn't as sharp as he has been this season and didn't generate any swing-and-miss action.
Nobody understands the stylistic difference between the programs better than MSU coach John Cohen, who won a SEC regular-season title at Kentucky by using a similar approach before accepting the job at his alma mater.
"At Kentucky, you better have the ball leave the yard and you better recruit to that type of play," Cohen said. "At Mississippi State and Dudy Noble Field, you can't win that way. It just won't work. It has to be about pitching, defense, and the running game."
MSU's small ball tactics included the first career stolen base for senior first baseman Wes Rea. The speed element of MSU's middle of the order proved effective, as Heck and Pirtle had two hits and two runs scored.
Despite the loss, MSU has scored 24 runs in the first three days of the tournament, which bodes well for its ability to produce next weekend in a NCAA Regional.
"The last couple of games we've been swinging it really well, and that's the one good thing we take away from the loss," Heck said. "We had a lot of chances and we did a solid job of bunting them over and driving them in with clutch hits."
Kentucky's bottom of the order (four through nine) had 15 of the team's 16 hits and scored all seven runs.
MSU will face top-seeded Florida (38-20) in an elimination game at 6 p.m. today (CSS). That game will start 30 minutes after the completion of the 3 p.m. Ole Miss-Arkansas game.
The loss guarantees MSU will have to play on each day of the tournament to win it, something no team has accomplished since it was expanded to 10 teams.
"How do you come back from this?" Cohen asked rhetorically. "You recruit tough kids from good families that are able to put games like this in the rear view mirror."
MSU had won its seven previous seven extra-inning games and was confident it would make it eight in a row, but it had runners thrown out at the plate in the 10th and 12th innings.
"The story of this game is they gave us opportunities we didn't take advantage of and we gave them walks that they turned into runs late," Cohen said. "It was two teams trying to give it all away and somebody eventually had to take advantage of it."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.