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By JOEL COLEMAN
What Mississippi State did on Friday, the Bulldogs couldn't find a way to replicate on Saturday.
Less than 24 hours after Heidi Shape's clutch three-run homer boosted MSU past Auburn in the series opener, the Bulldogs couldn't come up with the clutch hit they needed in a 5-3 loss to the Tigers at the MSU Softball Field.
"We had our opportunities and that's what you ask for, just a chance to win the ballgame," said Bulldogs head coach Jay Miller, who was coaching his first game since earning his 1,000th career victory in Friday's win. "We left those opportunities out there."
Mississippi State (20-20, 8-7 in the Southeastern Conference) never led in the contest, but had its chances to earn a second-straight victory over Auburn all the way to the game's final pitch.
With Auburn (31-9, 10-6 in the SEC) leading 5-3 in the bottom of the seventh, MSU's Ali Bainbridge and Shelby Fisher each recorded one-out singles to bring the potential winning run to the plate.
Those developments led to Auburn head coach Tina Deese bringing in Lauren Schmalz to relieve Tigers starting pitcher and eventual winner Angel Bunner (11-3), ending Bunner's 115-pitch outing.
Schmalz went on to record her second save of the season by striking out Ka'ili Smith and getting cleanup hitter Courtney Nesbit to fly out to foul territory in left field to cement the Auburn win.
"Our kids rely on each other," said Deese. "That's what we do. (Bunner) really gutted out a really good performance, scattering six hits, pitching carefully at times and did a nice job. Schmalz was absolutely ready when she came in. We feel real good about both performances."
MSU starting pitcher Kylie Vry (8-9) took the loss for the Bulldogs, going four innings, allowing nine hits and four earned runs.
Most of the damage against Vry came in the first three frames as Auburn took an early 1-0 lead on Amber Harrison's run-scoring single in the first inning, then stretched the lead to 3-0 in the third thanks to RBIs from Lauren Guzman and Kyndall White.
Through it all, Miller felt like his club simply couldn't catch a break.
"(Auburn) didn't hit the ball hard," said Miller. "They'd hit a little bleeder here, a little dribbler or get swinging bunts. I thought (Vry) did a good job of keeping them off balance, but they just found holes. Sometimes hits have eyes and that's what happened there."
Miller's club found a way to erase their three-run deficit in the home half of the third.
The first three Bulldogs to bat in the inning, Jessica Cooley, Bainbridge and Fisher, each reached base and scored to pull MSU even at 3-3 before an out was even recorded.
Mississippi State spoiled an opportunity to take the lead however as Bunner settled down and stranded MSU runners at the corners to end the inning.
"We had first and third with nobody out with our 5-6-7 hitters coming up and couldn't get another run in," said Miller.
MSU's inability to extend its third-inning rally cost them just one frame later as Auburn's Caitlin Stangl drew a one-out walk, advanced to third on Morgan Estell's double, then scored on Kelsey Cartwright's sacrifice fly to put the Tigers back in front 4-3.
That score held until the top of the seventh when Auburn tallied an insurance run off of MSU reliever Misty Flesher courtesy of a Harrison double, a Guzman sacrifice bunt and a Hilary Mavromat sacrifice fly.
"A lot of times, we'll get (early runs) and put them on the board and sit," said Deese. "I was happy about seeing us come out and score in four different innings."
Auburn's offense proved to be just enough as the Bulldogs let their last-at-bat chance slip through their fingers.
"We get a couple of runners on in that last inning and we're right where we wanted to be in the order with our 3-4 hitters up," said Miller. "Those kids have been getting the job done and they'll continue on."
MSU's loss sets up a rubber match between the two schools as the Bulldogs host the Tigers to conclude this three-game series today at 1 p.m.
It's not lost on either coach how important today's contest is.
"It's for the series," said Miller. "It's a big game for our ballclub, not only in terms of SEC standings, but to give us a little influence because we've got some tough weeks coming up. It'd be nice to go ahead and get a series here at home."
Like Miller, Deese is anxious to try and wrap up a series win today for her team, but knows it won't be easy.
"You're going to see gutsy performances from both teams," said Deese. "Everybody's going to lay it on the line. I think you're going to see two scrappy teams match up (today)."