By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – There was no celebrating.
For the first time since 2007, Mississippi State qualified for the SEC Tournament on Saturday. But the Bulldogs lost to LSU, 6-3, in the decisive third game of the series.
That made it hard to rejoice. Plus, there’s so much more MSU wants to do, so a celebration would be premature.
State (34-21, 14-16 SEC) will be the No. 6 seed for the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala. It plays third-seeded Florida in the first round on Wednesday.
“They wanted to win this game,” third-year coach John Cohen said. “They wanted to go out and claim something for themselves and not have to rely or worry about other people. I couldn’t be more proud of those guys and what they did for us.”
MSU officially qualified before its game ended, because Tennessee rallied to beat Auburn. That made the finale of the Arkansas-Ole Miss a put-out game, and the Razorbacks won to claim the Western Division title and the No. 2 tourney seed.
Auburn is still in as a No. 8 seed.
Had MSU and Ole Miss both won Saturday, the Bulldogs could have claimed their first division title since 1984. They won the SEC overall crown in 1989 during a period in which the league didn’t have divisions.
“They’ve been trying to knock down that stinking door, and I think they’ve been knocking that door down all year,” Cohen said. “This would have been an exclamation point for them.”
LSU (36-20, 13-17) won’t be in Hoover because of Friday’s 6-5 loss to MSU, the second time since 1985 the Tigers haven’t made the trip. But they have a very strong résumé and could earn an NCAA Regional at-large bid. Those bids will be handed out May 30, the Monday after the SEC Tournament.
“I don’t really know what to do with myself for the week, or with the team. I’ve never had an experience like this before,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.
None of the current Bulldogs have played in the postseason. It’s been a grind for them just to get to this point – at one point, MSU was 7-13 in the SEC and on the outside looking in. But then it won six of seven league games to get in good postseason position entering the LSU series.
“We’re pretty loose, and we’re pretty confident about it,” senior Nick Vickerson said. “We’re not going in tight. We’re playing to win, we’re not playing not to make mistakes.”
In Saturday’s loss, starter Chris Stratton (5-7) lasted only two-plus innings, and junior Caleb Reed logged the final seven innings in relief. LSU never trailed and was clinging to a one-run lead for much of the game until Raph Rhymes hit a two-run homer in the eighth for the 6-3 edge.
Vickerson’s two-run homer in the fourth had gotten State within 3-2, but the bats went fairly silent after that.
LSU starter Ryan Eades (4-1) worked six innings, allowing three runs on six hits. Ben Alsup finished it off with three shutout innings in which he yielded just one hit, and he retired the final seven hitters he faced.
Jarrod Parks, the SEC’s leading hitter at .386, was ejected in the seventh inning when he threw down his helmet after being called out on a close play at first. Since it was his first ejection of the season, the senior third baseman will not be suspended for any part of the SEC Tournament.
MSU will need Parks and Reed and Vickerson and everyone else to be in top form in Hoover. While these Bulldogs haven’t been here before, they’ve been through a lot, and Cohen thinks that counts for something.
“From where we started two years ago into Year 3 here,” Cohen said, “I just feel like we have to earn everything. You can’t rest on your laurels. You have to earn everything.
“We’ve got to keep competing, because we can’t take anything for granted.”