By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State wasn’t about to let this season end with a whimper.
Facing another deficit Friday night, the Bulldogs responded this time, climbing out of a 5-0 hole to upend LSU, 6-5, in front of 4,126 at Dudy Noble Field. In the process, MSU put itself on the cusp of the program’s first SEC Tournament berth in four years.
MSU (34-20, 14-15 SEC) can clinch a spot in next week’s event with a win today, and it still could qualify with a loss depending on other results.
LSU (35-20, 12-17) was eliminated from the field with the loss, only the second time since 1985 it’s missed the SEC Tournament. But the Tigers are still in good shape to get an NCAA Regional bid.
State, which was pounded 17-1 in Thursday’s opener, scored twice in the ninth, with Jaron Shepherd’s bases-loaded infield single – it bounced off the glove of LSU second baseman JaCoby Jones – scoring C.T. Bradford with one out to even the series.
“They really believe,” MSU coach John Cohen said. “We talked about before this game about all the early morning hitting sessions and weight sessions and everything they’ve put into this. Win, lose or draw, they were going to leave it on the field tonight, and that’s exactly what they did.”
Shepherd, one of eight seniors honored prior to the game, had a big night all around. His solo homer in the third inning got MSU on the board, and he covered a lot of ground in right field, running down a fly ball near the line to end the LSU half of the ninth with two runners on base.
In the bottom half, after Cody Freeman’s game-tying RBI single and an intentional walk to Jarrod Parks, Shepherd stroked a 1-2 pitch from LSU closer Matty Ott (1-3) to bring in the game winner.
“He had a pretty good sinker, I was trying to stay beneath it,” Shepherd said. “But it got down to two strikes, I really wanted to put something in play and make something happen.”
MSU’s comeback was made possible in part by reliever Devin Jones, a one-time starter who hurled 5 1/3 shutout innings to keep it close. He allowed five hits and struck out five, including two whiffs of Mikie Mahtook, who was 5 of 6 with five RBIs in the series before Jones entered the game.
“You know it’s in him, that’s why you keep going to him,” Cohen said.
Jones wasn’t intimidated by Mahtook, against whom he pitched last summer in the Cape Cod League. Jones said Mahtook was 0 of 3 against him with two strikeouts up north.
It was the longest SEC outing of the year for Jones, who was pulled from the weekend rotation four weeks into the league schedule. He threw 85 pitches.
“I just didn’t want anybody to think I quit on the team, and I had a long talk with coach (Butch) Thompson,” Jones said. “He said we’re not going to quit, and we’re going to keep pounding away at this. It feels great to throw the way I did.”
Taylor Stark (3-0) got the final out of the ninth to earn the win.
LSU went ahead 5-0 with a four-run third inning against starter Nick Routt, who gave way to Chad Girodo after 2 2/3 innings. Jones came in with one out in the fourth, and he got some help from his defense as well as from LSU’s ill-advised base running.
Two Tigers were thrown out at home in the fourth inning, another was caught in a rundown to end the fifth, and yet another was nailed at third base to end the sixth.
“We ran ourselves out of a couple of innings and couldn’t get those extra runs we needed,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.
MSU climbed back in it by posting a run each in the third, fourth, fifth and seventh innings. Shepherd’s solo homer in the third made it 5-1, and State got within 5-4 when Parks drove in Bradford with a single in the seventh.
“You’re down five at one point, and your players just keep it going,” Cohen said. “In fact, I felt like our players were trying to get the crowd going.”
Game 3 is set for 2 p.m. today. Sophomore Chris Stratton (5-6, 5.17 ERA), who has struggled most of the season, will get the start for MSU. LSU will start freshman righty Ryan Eades (3-1, 4.86).
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.