STARKVILLE — The Ole Miss Rebels didn’t have Jake Mangum to kick them around Friday night. But Mississippi State’s deep, talented pitching did the job anyway in the Bulldogs’ 5-2 victory before an announced crowd of 10,291 fans that might well have been even larger.
The festive crowd surely seemed larger and louder when Bulldog freshman Landon Sims struck out T.J. McCants on a 96 mph fastball for the last out, setting off an extended fireworks show beyond the right centerfield stands at Dudy Noble Field.
So make that 15 Mississippi State victories in the last 17 meetings between the two arch-rivals. Mangum, now in the minor league system of the New York Mets, had been the catalyst for many of those 14 previous Bulldog victories. Mangum was watching on TV from spring training in Florida, but State was just fine without him.
Starter Christian MacLeod, reliever Preston Johnson and closer Sims provided the pitching, allowing only six Rebel hits, while striking out a combined 12 batters. That was more than enough to make up for the sharp pitching performance by Ole Miss starter Gunnar Hoglund, who allowed only four Bulldog hits, while striking out nine, over seven innings.
It was the kind of well-played game you’d expect from two teams ranked among the best in the country. No. 4 (USA Today coaches poll) Mississippi State moved to 26-7 overall and 9-4 in the SEC, while the No. 6 Rebels dropped to 25-9 overall and 8-5 in the league.
The Rebels will try again to break the Bulldog’s seeming hex Saturday in a 2 p.m. game, and a third game is scheduled for Sunday at 1. You can expect Saturday’s crowd to be even larger as it follows immediately State’s spring football game.
State coach Chris Lemonis has utilized a remarkable 24 pitchers in 33 games thus far. Even more remarkably, those 24 pitchers have struck out 430 batters in 296 innings. None of the three Bulldog pitchers were really taxed Friday night. MacLeod, a freshman lefty, threw 85 pitches and fanned five in his five innings. Johnson, a sophomore righthander, struckout four in his two innings and then Sims fanned three in his two innings. It seemed as if any of the three could have pitched more if needed. But if you’ve got all that pitching depth, why not use it?
Sims deserves another paragraph here. A sophomore in school but a freshman eligibility-wise, he has now allowed only one run in 23.1 innings. He has struck out 46 – or two per inning – while walking only seven. This was his fourth save.
Said Lemonis of Sims, “He’s just one of those guys, he brings energy to the ballpark. Our fans, when they see him coming in they give him a standing ovation. Our fans understand. He’s a special player. . . . I’m glad he’s on our side.”
Said Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco, “Credit their pitchers. They were outstanding.”
But then so was Hoglund, who not only fanned nine Bulldogs but did not walk any. “I felt really good,” Hoglund said. “Yeah, it’s a tough atmosphere here, but you just have to make good pitches.”
Hoglund mostly did. There were a few he would have liked to have had back. And all those were thrown to Tanner Allen and Kamren James, the second and third batters in the Bulldog lineup. Allen ripped a double and triple off Hoglund and scored two runs. James powered a fourth inning home run to tie the score after Ole Miss had taken a 2-1 lead. He then put the Bulldogs ahead for good with a sixth inning sacrifice fly, his first of two.
All the while, the SRO crowd cheered lustily.
Lemonis doesn’t take the crowd for granted.
“It’s how much they love baseball,” Lemonis said. ”It’s not out of control, it’s knowledgeable. Our fans know what’s going on. They know everything. They’re in it at the right moments….It just makes it fun for us. Even in batting practice, when the gates open, you see all the fans and students load into the berms. …We’re very fortunate to have a fan base like ours.”
Yes, and great pitching helps, too.