Centerfielder/pitcher Bradford wasn’t exaggerating too much either. After seven relatively routine victories to open the season, Mississippi State was due for a serious test. They got it, watching Purdue rally first from 2-0 down to take a 5-2 lead half-way through Saturday’s rematch. Fortunately the Bulldogs passed their test in fine fashion, storming back for two and three runs in ensuing innings and holding on at the end with the tying and go-ahead Boilermakers on bases.
“It actually is a good test,” said RF Hunter Renfroe. “I’d rather go into a SEC series knowing we could do that, and against a good team like that.” The Bulldogs stretched their season-starting win streak to 8-0 with the second win of Saturday, and the third of the weekend’s Diamond Classic. State, which beat up on Samford 8-2 in the afternoon, faces the Birmingham Bulldogs again Sunday at a scheduled 2:30 to complete the three-day event sponsored by Polks Meat Products.
Purdue (3-4) and Samford (4-3) meet at 11:00 am Sunday.
Coach John Cohen was as pleased as any player to keep streaking. “This game was ugly for us in some ways. But it’s a character-builder in some ways because good teams can play poorly at times and find a way to win.”
The ‘poorly’ parts proved to be two aspects expected to be this team’s strengths in 2013: starting pitching, and defense. But staff stalwart Kendall Graveman struggled against a freer-swinging Purdue order than seen Friday, absorbing six hits and a lot more sharp contact in 3.1 innings. He allowed the first four runs, though just half were earned, with a walk and strikeout before relief.
The un-earned scores pointed to surprisingly shaky defense with four official errors charged to State and a few other dangerous miscues. “We had some errors,” said Renfroe, himself charged with a throwing gaffe that scored a Purdue run. “But our offense showed up and we got the win. That’s all that matters.”
The offense did, with a dozen hits and more timely stick-work that ultimately cracked Purdue pitching. The top-third of the order alone accounted for half of State’s safeties with three by Renfroe, including the game-changing triple for the winning runs. It wasn’t the normal MSU formula for success, Cohen said.
“But at the same time our kids founds ways to get hits when they matter, I thought we ran bases very well, we run to the ball in the outfield real well. And our bullpen has just done an unbelievable job.”
That they did, again. No reliever of the six used threw more than 1.2 innings but all got key outs against the aggressive Boilermaker batsmen. Bradford among them, as with the 7-5 lead in danger he left the tying runners unscored in the seventh inning. Ben Bracewell did the set-up honors for Johnathan Holder, who despite some final defensive breakdowns picked up the save; this a day after earning Friday’s win over Purdue.
In the first win, State pitching limited Purdue to five hits. The reigning Big Ten champions were a very different offense the second time around, coming after Graveman. A ground-ball pitcher, the senior righthander watched a steady stream of line drives and fly balls zooming past. “Kendall just did not have the stuff he normally has,” Cohen said.
Still Graveman survived three scoreless innings. And he had a lead to work with after the second turn. Purdue starter Robert Ramer walked 1B Alex Detz with one out, followed by a scratch single from LF Jacob Robson. On 1-1 count 3B Daryl Norris yanked a one-hopper down the third base line and into the corner. The Boilermakers had reason to argue the ball angled outside bag and was foul; and there was no umpire on that corner in a three-man crew. The argument was perfunctory and State led 2-0.
But after the Bulldogs left two on corners in their third, all that Purdue contact finally produced. A close one-out walk seemed to frustrate Graveman as he allowed a single, then had Josh Estill rip a shot off the pitcher’s leg. It caromed into the lead Purdue runner but that didn’t matter. What did were loaded bases and a single through the right side by Angelo Cianfrocco for one RBI. It was compounded by a bad throw-in by Renfroe allowing the tying run home.
The key was to keep it even and State couldn’t. SS Adam Frazier didn’t come up with a grounder, his first error of the year, and Estill crossed with the go-ahead run while Cianfrocco took third base. There he could score on a bunt off reliever Preston Brown for the 4-2 lead. It became 5-2 when designated hitter Kyle Wood pulled a solo shot over rightfield in the fifth.
Some sort of answer was imperative and State did shave two off their deficit in the bottom half, beginning with a Frazier single. An out later Renfroe joined him. DH Trey Porter’s grounder to the first base side went to second but Porter managed to get to first ahead of the return as Frazier scored. Trey Fullerton was sent to run for Porter and that proved wise. Because a single by C Mitch Slauter had him on second base where he could score from as Detz found an opening in the four-hole.
The rally temporarily halted there, but in the MSU sixth a Norris single brought the first Purdue change with Brett Andrzejewski. He was greeted by order-bottom 2B Sam Frost and everyone except the pitcher seemed to know a bunt was coming. Frost made it work anyway for an infield hit.
“I felt I had to get Sammy in a game,” Cohen said of the surprise start. “We were going to bunt and he’s telling me it’s a little loose in front of home plate so I’m going to push it a little harder down the third base side and beat that sucker out. And that’s exactly what he did.”
With the pressure now on Purdue, Frazier tried bunting both along into scoring position only to have Norris forced at third. But Bradford dropped a single over shortstop—“an underneath fastball”—and even if it wasn’t hit deep Frost was waved around. “I knew Sam runs so I was excited to see him keep going,” said Bradford.
Frost somehow got under the reach-around tag for the 5-5 tie. It didn’t stop there either as Renfroe lifted one long. Not long enough to leave, but tailing just far enough to the corner that rightfielder Hudnall couldn’t quite make the diving catch. “It was a fastball, outside the plate. I was trying to take it that way because he was underarm and I couldn’t really see it that well. I didn’t watch it, I wasn’t going to stop until Coach told me to stop!”
Which was at third base as both preceding teammates raced home on the two-run triple. After a strikeout, Tim McElroy replaced Andrzejewski and ended that inning with the 7-5 scoreboard now in State’s favor again.
Purdue had a shot at re-tying in the seventh after a Norris throwing error and hit batsman, the latter by one-batter reliever Myles Gentry. With lefty slugger Wood back up, southpaw Bradford—who’d warmed the previous inning—jogged in from centerfield and threw three strikes. Wood didn’t have a fair chance. “We weren’t going to throw him a fastball, he got all sliders!” Bradford said.
Another strikeout into the eighth and with a 2-2 count Bradford gave the ball to Bracewell. He rolled consecutive grounders to end that frame and set Holder up for the ninth. It got intense fast as Purdue pinched a couple of lefties, one hitting his way on. With two outs Stephan Talbott bunted for the single, then Sean McHugh grounded to the left side. Sub-3B Kyle Hann went to the hole for the grab but forced a try to second that sailed for a run-scoring error.
It gave Wood one more chance too, and he worked Holder to full-count before grounding back to the mound. Holder easily snagged and flipped to first base to complete his third save of the year and 12th career, already putting the sophomore in the MSU top-ten there after a season and two weeks.
Lefthander Chad Girodo (1-0) got the decision by finishing the Purdue sixth with a double play, then being on record as State regained the lead. He worked 1.1 with two strikeouts and nothing else on the linescore. Ramber allowed the first five State runs on nine hits with two walks and a strikeout, but it was Andrzejewksi (0-1) taking the loss on the last two runs with three hits and a strikeout.
Bradford and Norris had two hits while Refroe paced his team with a trio, same as Purdue’s Estill on a 3-of-4 evening.
“Our offense came to play today, we hit the ball really well,” said Renfroe, who hit his second homer of the season in the early game. He’d gone yard Friday evening off Purdue, too.
“I’m really proud of our club,” Cohen said. “We fell behind early and found a way to get back in the middle of this. The kids didn’t stop competing even though we did some things that were uncharacteristic.”
Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson will choose between Will Cox or Trevor Fitts for Sunday’s final game.