HOOVER, Ala. – Mississippi State head coach John Cohen often speaks of finding just the right recipe in order win at the highest level of college baseball.
Wednesday in Hoover, Ala., Cohen’s Bulldogs added a dash of Chris Stratton, a pinch of stellar defense, and added a few timely hits for the perfect recipe to move past No. 2 LSU with the 3-2 victory at the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
The win lifts seventh-seeded State (36-21) into the third round undefeated and facing yet another ranked foe in fourth-seeded Kentucky (42-15), a team it swept just five days ago.
“These kids are winners,” Cohen said. “They want to win so badly. They will do whatever it takes to win. They are winners. That is why it is fun to be around them every day. They understand what it takes to be successful on this level.”
Chris Stratton (11-1) took the mound for the Bulldogs looking to build on the 17-strikeout effort he had in the SEC opener against the Tigers.
While Stratton might not have performed to his lofty standards, he still managed to hold the Tigers to just two runs on five hits while striking out eight through six complete innings.
“(Wednesday) they were really going after me," Stratton said. "That is something everyone is going to do, try to get hits before I can get deep in the count and strike them out. They were going to be really aggressive early, and I knew that so I threw some out of the zone, and they chased them. We had a good plan before we went in the game.”
Already holding a 3-2 lead, State turned to the bullpen to continue to dominate opposing batters as they have done the second half of the season.
Caleb Reed took the mound in a near perfect situation for the right-hander as the Tigers sent six consecutive righties to the plate, only one reached base and he was retired when Reed picked up the timely ground ball for the 62nd double play of the season for the Bulldogs.
“You could not go wrong with going to Caleb there in the seventh inning,” Cohen said. “He totally dominates right-handed hitters and LSU was sending six-straight righties to the plate.”
State once again turned to freshman closer Jonathan Holder in the ninth to do what he has done so often this season – close the door.
“In the ninth inning, you have Jonathan Holder," Cohen said of Holder who struck out the final two Tigers he faced. "Right now, no one is hitting Jonathan Holder. I have never seen any freshman this dialed in. He is on a different level right now.”
Holder says he was just sticking to what’s been working.
“I was thinking I was going to pump the zone and mix up the pitches in and out, fast balls and curve balls," said Holder, who now has 25.1 innings of work this season and hasn’t surrendered a single run. "Caleb has great control over his fastball and can really throw that slider hard. It’s good for me after that because my off speed is a bigger break and not as hard.”
At the plate, the Bulldogs picked up the timely hits they needed early as they once again struck first in the third inning. Wes Rea began the inning with a single to right field. Sam Frost failed to advance Rea to second on a bunt attempt but Daryl Norris followed with a single to right. State got on the board 2-0 with back-to-back RBI singles from Adam Frazier and Brent Brownlee.
LSU tied the game in the fifth when after a one-out walk to Tyler Hanover, Austin Nola delivered with a two-out single and quickly proceeded to steal second base putting a pair of Tiger in scoring position. Mason Katz then came to the plate and battled with Stratton before coming up with the game-tying two-run single.
Mississippi State regained the lead in the sixth inning when Mitch Slauter got things started with a double to left-center. Demarcus Henderson continued to swing a hot bat with an RBI-single to center. The MSU outfielder has gone 5-for-12 with four RBIs in the last three games.
The redshirt freshman also flashed the leather late when former teammate Jacoby Jones belted a ball to left only to have Henderson make a highlight reel catch to end the Tiger seventh inning.
“I have had that opportunity a couple of times earlier in the year," Henderson said. "Who knows if that ball hits the wall what can happen, but I felt pretty confident in myself that I could make the catch. I struggled early in the day. You can’t let one or two at-bats get your head down. You have to keep battling for your team.”
For the game, State scored three runs on eight hits while holding LSU to a pair of runs on five hits.
Adam Frazier continue to have a solid SEC Tournament with a 2-for-4 outing and RBI. He was joined by senior Brent Brownlee, who also had a 2-for-4, one RBI effort in the Bulldog win.
“The kids are playing with confidence right now and that is the key,” Cohen said. “We are doing a little better with our situational hitting. The pitching and defense is there. The main thing is success. When you win, you feel good about yourself and you can’t wait to get to the ballpark the next day.”
State takes on the Kentucky Wildcats this afternoon with the first pitch from Regions Park set for approximately 12:30 p.m. or 30 minutes following the elimination game between LSU and Ole Miss.