STARKVILLE, MS (WDAM) _ Fielding has not been one of the University of Southern Mississippi’s strong suits so far in the early baseball season, and Sunday afternoon, it cost them not only a game but a series.
USM shortstop Storme Cooper threw away a ground ball at first base with two outs in the bottom of the ninth-inning , and one pitch later, Mississippi State University first baseman Tanner Allen laced a double into the right field corner as the Bulldogs celebrated an abrupt 4-3 victory at Dudy Noble Field.
“It’s hard when you’re giving them extra outs to win baseball games,” USM coach Scott Berry said. “You better score a lot of runs if you’re doing that, and we’re not doing that. When it’s all said and done, we didn’t play well enough defensively. In that last inning, we just didn’t defend like we needed to.
“But hats off to Mississippi State. Very good club. Probably the best pitching staff, I feel like, that we will see in a three-game series this year.”
The walk-off win gave the ninth-ranked Bulldogs (6-1) the final two games of the best-of-three series with the Golden Eagles (4-2). USM had won the series opener 1-0 Friday in 10 innings before State rebounded for an 8-1 victory Saturday afternoon.
“It was a hard-fought game,” USM first baseman Hunter Slater said. “Proud of us for coming back and giving ourselves a chance. But, we’ve got to finish the job, you know.”
Cooper, who had been in the middle of USM’s two-run, sixth-inning rally that tied the game 3-3, had not committed an error through the Golden Eagles’ first five games.
But after scooping and then double-clutching a grounder from State shortstop Jordan Westburg, Cooper fired high and wide at first base.
Allen then took the first offering he saw from USM left-handed reliever Ryan Och (1-1) inside the right-field line. The ball caught and then ran along the convex face of “Adkerson Plaza” in the right-field corner, sending Westburg around the bases with the game-winning run.
USM has committed 13 errors in its first six games, including three Sunday.
One play wasn’t counted as an error, but certainly appeared all glitch.
The intrigue began right at the beginning when right fielder Hunter LeBlanc lost Westburg’s towering fly ball in the sun, and it fell for a one-out double with one out in the first inning.
Allen followed with a run-scoring single to give the Bulldogs a 1-0 lead off USM starter Mason Strickland.
Strickland’s outing appeared cursed from the start when the senior jammed his foot into the edge of first base while covering the bag on a bouncer to the right side.
“Strick, I hate that he strained that ankle on the very first play, and then it got tight on him,” Berry said. “I think it affected him, especially that inning when he gave up the runs.”
USM tied the game in the top of the third inning against MSU starter Keegan James when center fielder Fred Franklin walked, moved to second on Gabe Montenegro’s bunt and scored on a two-out single by Slater.
But the Bulldogs got to Strickland for two runs in the bottom of the third inning. Jake Mangum walked with one out and went to third on single to center by Westburg, who took an extra base when nobody bothered covering second base.
Allen was intentionally walked to load the bases and set up a force play, but right fielder Elijah Macnamee ruined the strategy with a seeing-eye single up the middle that scored Mangum and Westburg for a 3-1 lead.
But right-hander Cody Carroll came out of the bullpen to strikeout the next two batters and get out of the inning. Over the next five innings, Carroll, left-hander Adam Jackson and right-hander J.C. Keys combined to allow two hits and a walk while striking out seven.
“After that, our guys performed very well on the mound, threw five shutout innings until that last inning when we gave up the unearned (run),” Berry said. “The pitching staff gave us a chance there, and we battled.”
James was lifted after working out of a bases loaded jam in the third inning ran his pitch count to 64 after three frames.
Right-hander Jared Liebelt worked a scoreless fourth inning and left-hander Jack Eagan blanked USM in the fifth.
But USM got to Eagan and right-hander Riley Self with two outs in the sixth inning to tie the game.
After Eagan had recorded two strikeouts, LeBlanc lifted the first home run of his Golden Eagles’ career over the wall in right-center field to get the Golden Eagles within a run.
“He hung a curveball, a slurve-type pitch, and I was just sitting on it,” LeBlanc said. “I saw it out his hand, and I just do what I do. That started the rally.
Eagan gave way to Self, who promptly gave up a double off the right-field wall to Cooper. Franklin followed with a crisp liner into left field that sent Cooper home with the game-tying run.
Montenegro followed with another single, sending Franklin to second base, but Trysten Barlow came in to get second baseman Matthew Guidry on a fly ball to center field.
MSU reliever Cole Gordon (2-0) pitched the final two innings, allowing a walk to lead off the eighth inning and walking a pair of Golden Eagles with two outs in the ninth.
While USM got eight hits Sunday, one more than the Golden Eagles had the first two days combined, it couldn’t come up with any in the final two innings.
State also had runners aboard in the seventh and eighth innings, but Keys got a fly out after a two-out walk in the seventh and after left fielder Rowdey Jordan reached on an one-out error by Guidry in the eighth before Keys got a groundball double-play to end the threat.
Slater had a pair of hits Sunday and Franklin (two singles, walk) and designated hitter Matt Wallner (three walks) each reached base three times.
Westburg, Allen and Macnamee combined for six of MSU’s seven hits. Westburg scored three runs, while both Allen and Macnamee knocked in two runs apiece. Mangum reached base twice on walks and scored a run.
USM will host the University of New Orleans at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Pete Taylor Park.