Chloe Malau'ulu, pictured against Miami (Ohio) on Feb. 13, had a key home run in the bottom of the sixth inning Sunday against Southern Illinois. The solo shot led off a five-run MSU rally, although the Bulldogs couldn't secure the win in eight innings. Photo by: Austin Perryman/Mississippi State Athletics
February 21, 2021 10:52:08 PM
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State softball team typically has no problem turning on the offense when it's sorely needed in the late innings.
But a nagging inability to bring that intensity from the beginning of every game finally cost the Bulldogs on Sunday at Nusz Park.
A late comeback against Southern Illinois in Mississippi State's second game at The Snowman (Alex Wilcox Memorial) Tournament couldn't save the Bulldogs from suffering their first loss in 18 games and 365 days. No. 22 MSU (3-1) lost 6-5 to SIU in eight innings, the team's first loss since Feb. 22, 2020, against Oregon.
The Bulldogs beat Stephen F. Austin 4-2 earlier Sunday, but Mississippi State coach Samantha Ricketts said the issue came into play in both contests.
"I think it kind of showed up a little bit today -- not bringing it from the beginning in both games," Ricketts said.
In the nightcap against the Salukis, Mississippi State scored all five of its runs in a stunning sixth inning featuring three home runs as the Bulldogs' bats came to life. Chloe Malau'ulu led off the frame with a homer to left, Montana Davidson tied the ballgame with a two-run blast just inside (and well over) the left-field foul pole, and Jackie McKenna put Mississippi State ahead with a solo blast to straightaway center.
But the steadier offense of the Salukis -- and some help by an uncharacteristically poor Mississippi State defense -- gave SIU a big win in Starkville. With two out and two strikes in the top of the seventh, Jenny Jansen drove in her third run of the night against Alyssa Loza to tie the game at 5-5.
The Salukis added a run in the eighth when Sidney Sikes dropped down a bunt and Annie Willis misfired on a throw to first, the Bulldogs' fourth error of the game. Chloe Malau'ulu gunned down a second runner at the plate, but the damage was done.
Ricketts said Mississippi State's miscues -- factoring in three more errors against the Ladyjacks on Sunday afternoon -- were somewhat understandable. Catcher Mia Davidson, who had one error in each contest -- is playing shortstop with the Bulldogs' top two options at the position currently injured, and Nusz Park was a sheet of ice all week because of nasty weather.
Still, Ricketts said, Mississippi State needs to make the plays it couldn't Sunday.
"We expect to make those, especially the catching and throwing errors," Ricketts said. "Those are ones that shouldn't matter what position you're at -- something we should be able to do at a high level here. I think it just goes back to the focus. I don't think it's so much physical as making sure that we're locked in."
Fa Leilua was placed on second base automatically to start the bottom of the eighth, but after a one-out wild pitch, the Bulldogs couldn't bring her home. Mississippi State's 17-game win streak -- a program record -- was snapped.
"Give credit to Southern Illinois," Ricketts said. "They played a great game. That's a really good team over there."
The Salukis got two runs in the first on a fielder's choice and a solo home run from Jansen. SIU scored in the second on a sac fly by Sikes and in the third when Jansen delivered an RBI single.
Mississippi State, meanwhile, struggled to do much of anything against SIU starter Sarah Harness. She struck out eight hitters in 5.2 innings before Davidson's two-out, two-strike home run chased her from the circle.
It was a familiar theme after the Bulldogs were stymied by Stephen F. Austin starter Shaylon Govan for five innings Sunday. Govan allowed just one run -- on a Christian Quinn double in the second inning -- through five before Fa Leilua cleared her own name and the entire left-field scoreboard with a tiebreaking leadoff homer in the bottom of the sixth.
Govan walked the next two batters before being pulled, and Paige Cook and Quinn each hit RBI singles to push the Bulldogs' lead to 4-1.
It was necessary insurance as the Ladyjacks added a run on a groundout in the seventh before Willis closed out the contest.
The opposite was true in the Bulldogs' second game, as Loza came one strike away from ending things before Jansen ripped a liner into right to score Maddy Vermejan from second.
But despite the loss, Ricketts said MSU can't overlook the importance of the fight the Bulldogs showed in their late rally.
"There's still a lot of good from it to come back and score five in the bottom of the sixth," Ricketts said.
Now, the Bulldogs have learned "the hard way" that they need to apply that resolve to the rest of their contests. Mississippi State will face Missouri State at 2 p.m. Monday and Mississippi Valley State at 4:30 p.m. Monday to close out the tournament.
Sophomore infielders Madisyn Kennedy (ankle) and Aquana Brownlee (finger) remain day to day, Ricketts said. Kennedy injured her ankle in practice the week before the Bulldogs' season started, and Brownlee was hurt laying down a bunt single in Mississippi State's Feb. 13 season opener against Miami (Ohio). Neither was in uniform Sunday, with Brownlee sporting a splint on her injured finger. "We're not trying to rush them," Ricketts said. "I think it will be sooner rather than later, but we want to make sure they're not in position to reinjure themselves before we bring them back."
Theo DeRosa reports on high school sports and Mississippi State softball for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.