By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
HOOVER, Ala. – Nick Routt thinks highly of the SEC Tournament. Very highly.
“To me, winning the SEC Tournament would be awesome. That would be almost as good as going to Omaha,” said Routt, Mississippi State’s junior left-handed pitcher.
Omaha is the site of the College World Series. Getting there requires a bit more work, but MSU has a chance today to win the SEC Tournament title after Saturday’s 2-1 win over Kentucky.
The Bulldogs (38-22) will face Vanderbilt (33-25) at 2:30 p.m. today at Regions Park.
Routt (3-5) had a big hand in MSU returning to the championship game for the first time in seven years. He tossed 31⁄3 shutout innings in relief to earn the win, as State beat Kentucky (43-16) for the fourth time in five meetings this season.
Routt entered in the fifth inning with two outs and two men on base, and he froze A.J. Reed with a 3-2 curveball to end the threat.
“To me that was the defining moment in the game,” MSU coach John Cohen said. “He really slammed the door there.”
That strikeout preserved a 2-1 lead, but Routt would be tested again. In the seventh, he faced Thomas McCarthy with a man on second and two outs. McCarthy had six hits in two games against MSU during the tournament.
Routt retired him on a routine fly ball to right field.
“I was not going to give him a good pitch to hit,” Routt said. “It was 2-1, I still didn’t want to break down and give him a strike, so I threw him a changeup off the plate, got him out in front and popped him up.”
Jonathan Holder did his usual solid work in the ninth to earn his ninth save.
Kentucky coach Gary Henderson, who worked under Cohen at Kentucky before taking over the program, was visibly upset after the game.
“Extremely disappointed we’re not playing (today),” Henderson said.
UK won the previous meeting, a 5-1 decision on Thursday, after MSU swept a three-game series last weekend. The Wildcats were well-rested, this being their third game of the week. It was MSU’s fifth in as many days.
Kentucky had some tough luck, with well-hit balls finding MSU gloves. Second baseman J.T. Riddle lost a popup in the sun and got conked on the head.
The Bulldogs got to UK starter Corey Littrell (8-2), a pitcher they’d already beaten once in Starkville, with two runs in the first three innings.
Trey Porter’s two-out single scored Adam Frazier in the third to make it a 2-1 game. State got some solid defensive play on the infield, and only a solo home run by Riddle in the second inning got Kentucky on the board.
“They’re so used to hanging in those one-run games. We’ve played a ton of them,” Cohen said.
MSU is now 11-9 this season in one-run games and has won seven of its last nine such games.
Frazier had two hits for MSU, while Riddle had three for Kentucky. The Bulldogs only went down in order one time but stranded nine runners.
Wes Rea’s RBI single in the second gave MSU a 1-0 lead.