By MATTHEW STEVENS
Brett Whitaker didn’t walk to the plate with positive memories Saturday afternoon.
One swing and powerful connection later, the Alabama senior, who grew up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., was pumping his first watching his first hit of the 2011 season easily leave Dudy Noble Field over the left-centerfield wall in the 10th inning for the 5-4 win the opening game of the weekend series at Mississippi State.
It’s safe to say Mississippi State head coach John Cohen was beside himself in the opposing dugout.
“They got a guy who has eight at-bats, who has three punch outs on the year, hits a solo home run off a guy that has basically the lowest ERA in the Southeastern Conference,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. “Alabama – God bless them, they’ve had a tough week just like we have but balls are finding the holes for them.”
Mississippi State (24-17, 7-13 in Southeastern Conference) handed the ball to its most reliable and junior right-hander Caleb Reed had a simple explanation for why Whitaker’s hit landed in Left Field Lounge giving the Tide the opening game win of the Saturday doubleheader.
“I made a bad pitch,” Reed said. “Left it over the middle of the plate and he made me pay for it,” Reed said. “Of course, I wish I could take it back but you just have to move forward.”
Mississippi State came into the weekend hoping to make up ground against Western Division competition but losses to a team Cohen said he felt “matched up very well with” make the Bulldogs chances of reaching the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala., in less than a month a challenging task.
“It’s hard and frustrates us but (today) is a big day for us,” Reed said. “We can’t get down and out and I really believe we can turn it around. We’re in a must-win situation but we put ourselves there.”
Mississippi State built a 3-0 lead early in the game after Jaron Shepherd homered to right field and senior shortstop Jonathan Ogden, who was questionable with an abdominal injury, doubled down the left field line in the second inning.
Alabama (27-18, 9-10) scored four unanswered runs over the next three innings that ended with a strange play where Alabama catcher Brock Bennett hit a pop up straight up that MSU catcher Wes Thigpen couldn’t find in the sun. Before the ball went foul and was picked up by Bulldogs first baseman Ryan Collins, home plate umpire A.J. Lostaglio ruled Collins touched it and therefore was a fair ball. As the ball dropped to the ground, Tide second baseman Josh Sanders raced home for the go-ahead run.
“I’m going to have to go back and look at the film but I’m sure it was a tough call,” Cohen said. “Thiggy is looking straight into the sun and all of our guys are deep, nobody can get to it (and) really the guy that needs to make that play is (the pitcher) and they don’t usually make that play at home plate."
Shepherd erased the lead again with another solo home run as the senior, who came into the game with one career home run in 83 games, planted a fastball into left field for his first multi-home run game of his career.
“I made just a few adjustments on my swing off the field,” Shepherd said. “I’ve been working in the Palmeiro Center on trying to stay beneath the ball and it paid off for me.”
Alabama closer Jonathan Smart (3-1) got the win after tossing 2 1/3 innings of relief and allowing just one hit in 32 pitches. After MSU got to Alabama starting pitcher Nathan Kilcrease for that three-run second frame, the only pitcher to allow another run was seldom used Josh Rosecrans (3 2/3 innings this year before Saturday) as the junior gave up Shepherd’s second home run.
Mississippi State failed to get a quality start out of sophomore Chris Stratton after the Tupelo native was pulled once he surrendered three runs on five hits in four innings that lasted 71 pitches.
Down 4-3 in the sixth inning, MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson went to his go-to bullpen move of Luis Pollorena and Reed to shut down Alabama for the final four innings. However, it was Reed (0-1) who took the loss after giving up his first round-tripper of the season.