HOOVER, Ala. - Mississippi State continued its battle through the nation's toughest conference baseball tournament draw Wednesday afternoon. The 21st-ranked Baseball Bulldogs emerged victorious again with a 3-2 victory over No. 2 LSU in a second-round Southeastern Conference Tournament game at Regions Park.
Sixth-seeded MSU (36-21) will now face fourth-seeded Kentucky (42-15) in a third-round matchup Thursday. That contest will start 30 minutes after the completion of the 9:30 a.m. elimination game between ninth-seeded Ole Miss (35-23) and top-seeded LSU (42-15). The MSU-Kentucky contest will be televised regionally by SportSouth and will also available on ESPN3.COM (with some blackout areas in the southeast).
"These kids are winners," MSU head coach John 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."
The Bulldogs have played the Tigers more than any other opponent in the conference tournament. MSU has now won eight of 15 career meetings, including two straight wins in this venue. Ironically, LSU had won 13 of its last 14 conference tournament games before Wednesday's defeat.
In none of those previous tournament meetings did LSU have to battle with MSU pitching ace Chris Stratton. The junior right-hander allowed five hits and two earned runs in six innings of work, while becoming MSU's first 11-game winner since Bobby Reed won 15 games in 1990.
Stratton (11-1) threw his 10th and the staff's 19th quality start of the season. In two appearances versus LSU this season, Stratton has allowed nine hits and three earned runs, with 25 strikeouts in 14.2 innings of work.
"Chris was so solid," Cohen said. "We got him out of there at 93 pitches on a warm day. He does so many things so well. His pitching performance sets the tone for the entire afternoon."
With his eight strikeouts Wednesday, Stratton is now third all-time at MSU with 275 career punchouts. Stratton passed Matt Ginter, B.J. Wallace and Paul Maholm during Wednesday's win. This season's 123 strikeouts ranks sixth in a single season.
Things would get no easier for the LSU either. The relief duo of Chris Stratton (two innings pitched) and Jonathan Holder (one inning pitcher) retired all nine batters they face. A true freshman Holder matched Reed with his eighth save of the season and has not allowed a run in 25.1 innings of work this season - matching a school-record scoreless streak.
"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. In the ninth inning, you have Jonathan Holder. 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."
For a second straight tournament game, the Maroon and White scored first with a two-run third inning.
Wes Rea began the inning with a single to right field. After a foulout on a bunt attempt, Daryl Norris followed with a single, also to right. Adam Frazier and Brent Brownlee followed with back-to-back RBI singles to give the Maroon and White its early advantage.
LSU finally broke through against Stratton with two scores in the fifth inning. A one-out walk to Tyler Hanover opened the door for the Tigers. After a groundball out for the second out, Austin Nola connected for a single to center, sending Hanover to third. A steal of second by Nola placed both runners in scoring position.
Mason Katz then came through for LSU with a game-tying two-run single. Katz had struck out five times in six previous at-bats against Stratton. However, the tie score was short-lived as MSU quickly reclaimed the lead minutes later.
In the MSU sixth inning, Mitch Slauter capped a nine-pitch at-bat with double right center. Demarcus Henderson continued his recent tear with an RBI-single to right center. A red-shirt freshman, Henderson has battled back strong from injury and is 5-for-12 with four RBIs in his three games.
While the Bulldogs have struggled with a few routine plays in the tournament, those miscues have been offset by some outstanding defensive plays.
Again Wednesday, the Bulldogs flashed some leather. Center fielder Hunter Renfroe had his 10th outfield assist to turn away the Tigers in the third inning, while left fielder Henderson had a tremendous line drive catch to snuff the Tigers in the seventh inning. Catcher Mitch Slauter also threw out his 12th attempted base stealer to end the LSU fifth inning, keeping the teams deadlocked.
The Bulldogs finished with eight hits, including multi-hit games by Frazier and Brent Brownlee. Frazier now has 27 multi-hit games.
Joe Broussard (4-1), the fourth of seven LSU pitchers, took the loss. Raph Rhymes, the SEC's leading hitter, was the Tigers' lone multi-hitter.
"The kids are playing with confidence right now 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."