PEARL — You could call Mississippi State’s 10-9 baseball victory over Southern Mississippi many things. “Crisp” is not one.
Let’s put it this way: State pitchers walked 11 batters and hit another. State fielders committed three errors, leading to three unearned runs. All that – and State still won.
The Bulldogs, down 9-6, plated four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to beat their down-state rivals before an announced crowd of 6,542 at Trustmark Park.
State had plenty of help from the Golden Eagles, who walked eight batters and hit five more. Combined, that’s 19 walks and six hit batters. Little wonder the game lasted nearly three and a half hours. Casey Stengel, the Baseball Hall of Fame manager, once said of his 1962 New York Mets, the worst team in Major League history: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”
The much more pertinent question on a wonderfully balmy February Tuesday night: “Can’t anybody here throw a strike?”
Afterward, back-slapping, high-fiving State players didn’t seem to mind the circumstances. They were pleased with the victory, their third straight, and coach Chris Lemonis perhaps told us why in his opening statement of the postgame press conference.
“You’ve got a really good opponent over there, and it’s rivalry,” Lemonis said. “People say there’s no rivalry in baseball, but there is. We’ve got really good baseball teams in our state and that’s a well-coached team over there. This was exciting.”
Some perspective: State, which won a National Championship in 2021, lost 30 of 56 games last year. The Bulldogs lost three of their first six games this season, but have now won three straight against strong competition. This was no time to be choosy.
“We’re not perfect, but we’re competing,” is the way Lemonis put it. “This gives us some momentum.”
Two portal transfers continue to give the Bulldogs much reason for hope of a bounce-back season. Second baseman Amani Larry, who played last year at New Orleans, slugged a two-run home run and scored three times himself. Samford transfer Colton Ledbetter contributed a triple, two runs scored and three runs knocked in. Granted, it’s a small sample size just six games in, but Ledbetter leads the team with a .400 batting average, three home runs and 19 RBI, while Larry has contributed two homers, 13 RBI and is hitting a robust .371. Said Lemonis: “Those two guys are special.”
Those two guys knocked in five runs and scored five in a one-run victory. Besides special, they were absolutely essential.
Nationally ranked Southern Miss, which got off to an impressive 4-0 start, has now lost three of its last four. Walks are a huge reason. Southern Miss led the nation in strikeouts/walks ratio last year and walked fewer than three batters per nine innings. This season, Eagle pitchers have walked 40 batters in just 73 innings. Big difference.
The Eagles lost five pitchers who could have returned this season in the 2022 Major League draft. Another, Chandler Best, suffered an injury that required Tommy John surgery. Of the five pitchers USM sent to the mound Tuesday night, three were freshmen. Youngsters such as Nick Monistere and J.B. Middleton throw in the mid-90s and have a world of potential. But there’s a learning curve at work here.
Say this for both State and USM. If facing really good competition makes you better, these two teams should improve quickly. State goes to Frisco, Texas, this weekend to face Ohio State, Oklahoma and Cal in the Frisco College Baseball Classic. Southern Miss will host always strong Dallas Baptist for a three-game set. DBU, which swept the Golden Eagles last season, are 7-1, having lost only to No. 10 TCU. Yes, and after that series, the Golden Eagles go to defending national champ Ole Miss for a mid-week game.
Both the Bulldogs and Eagles better buckle up. Even more importantly, they need to throw strikes.