By MATTHEW STEVENS
In the new era of dead bats, quick games and low scores, Mississippi State spent 34 minutes to score eight runs in the opening inning while giving its pitcher his biggest cushion of the 2011 season and making the afternoon of Auburn's hurler Will Irvin one he'd certainly like to forget.
The Bulldogs clinched its first series win in Southeastern Conference play since last year's series with Tennessee (April 16-18) with a dominating 15-8 victory Saturday and will go for its first league sweep since MSU head coach John Cohen took over the program in 2009.
"This is first time we've been over .500 in the SEC at the point in the season since I've been here," senior outfielder Ryan Collins said. "A sweep would be huge in getting us going this season."
The last SEC series sweep for the Bulldogs was in 2007 also against Auburn at Polk-Dement Stadium. When asked if he knew that statistic in the post-game media session, Cohen shook his head no and shook it again when it was revealed to him.
"Yeah, those are the kind of things we don't think about," Cohen said.
The eight-run opening frame was the second-most runs in a single inning this season with the most being the 13-run explosion in a 17-2 victory on Feb. 20 against Lamar.
Six consecutive base runners reached first base with two outs in the first frame allowing the Bulldogs (17-6, 3-2 in SEC play) to run Irvin from the game after the junior right-hander allowed seven runs on six hits in just 28 pitches of work. It was easily the shortest in the Itawamba Community College transfer's career.
"We didn't get out of the gates real well and that's hard to overcome a big deficit like that. They put some quality swings on it and put together a big inning," Auburn head coach John Pawlowski said. "We will regroup, flush this one out of our system and try and win one here, which is obviously a very important game tomorrow."
There have been 19 of State's 22 runs this weekend scored with two outs on the board with senior shortstop Jonathan Ogden providing five of them Saturday.
"That comes with confidence and we're really meshing well right now as a team," Ogden said. "We've been swinging it well all year."
Ogden was 3-for-4 at the plate with five RBIs and three runs scored including a two-run home run to left-centerfield in the fifth inning that represented the Bulldogs final offensive production of the day but gave the home crowd of 3,826 at Dudy Noble Field a 15-4 score to cheer about.
"I guess I'll have to give credit for another home run to the wind blowing out but I'll take it," Ogden said.
Ogden, who leads the team in home runs with four, was a combined 0-for-11 last weekend at Vanderbilt and is hitting .500 in the first two days against Auburn pitching.
Seven Bulldogs had two or more hits, led by Collins, who was 4 for 4 (all singles) with two RBIs.
"We have older kids that understand what is at stake and I think they have a bit of a chip on their shoulder," Cohen said. "They want to prove to the world that we're a good club in the best league in America."
Mississippi State starting pitcher Chris Stratton (4-1) didn't have his best command Saturday afternoon, mostly due to having to sit and wait for State's 13 runs in the first two innings, but worked into the eighth inning. The sophomore from Tupelo allowed just three earned runs and had five strikeouts in a 118-pitch effort.
"The thing with a big lead is you just can't get into a rhythm out there and you see that even in the big leagues," Cohen said. "He struggled with that do but gave us a chance to win all the way into the eighth inning."
The only downside to the win Saturday was a shaky defensive effort in the ninth inning allowing Auburn (14-9, 2-3) to plate four runs in the frame and force MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson to bring in Bulldogs closer Caleb Reed with an eight-run lead making the junior practically unavailable for today 1:30 p.m. contest with the Tigers.
"We did not want to bring Caleb Reed in there but we knew he'd shove it in the strike zone but when the opportunity presents itself, we have to get those young (fielders) in there because they are talented kids," Cohen said.
Mississippi State will look to complete the sweep today when left-handed junior Nick Routt will take the mound in Starkville for the first time since March 17, 2010 against Mississippi Valley State.
"If we can can get him going with the rotation we already have, I think we'll be pretty good," Collins said.
Cohen said Routt will be limited to 60-70 pitches in his outing after throwing 47 in a 14-4 win last week at Lipscomb.