HOOVER, Ala. – Give Florida some free passes and a favorable wind, and it’ll take a few runs.
Mississippi State, back in the SEC Tournament for the first time in four years, lost to the No. 3-ranked Gators in heart-breaking fashion Wednesday in the first round, 7-5, to fall into the loser’s bracket.
MSU (34-22), seeded sixth in the tournament, will face No. 2 seed Arkansas (36-19) at 9:30 a.m. today in an elimination game.
The Bulldogs had just scored twice in the top of the seventh inning for a 5-2 lead over third-seeded Florida when things fell apart in the bottom half.
MSU freshman Taylor Stark, who had come on in relief of starter Evan Mitchell an inning earlier, hit and walked the first two batters of the inning before being pulled. Then Luis Pollorena, who was recently moved into a starting role, came in and gave up a single to SEC player of the year Mike Zunino to load the bases with no outs.
Up stepped the Gators’ designated hitter, Brian Johnson, who lifted a 2-2 fastball high into the air above Regions Park. Like most of the people watching, Johnson figured it was going foul.
“I remember the wind blowing out to left, and I looked up, and it’s staying straight as an arrow,” Johnson said. “So I started running.”
The run quickly turned into a trot as the ball stayed fair and cleared the right-field fence to give Florida a 6-5 lead. It was the third career grand slam for Johnson, a sophomore.
MSU coach John Cohen wasn’t perturbed so much by the home run as what led up to it.
“The home run, the grand slam’s not the issue, it’s having two (base runners) down on second and third there,” Cohen said. “That was pretty much the ballgame. … You just can’t hand a team like Florida those kind of opportunities, and we certainly did.”
Pollorena (6-5) took the loss, with three of those runs belonging to him. The bullpen’s meltdown wasted a sterling effort by Mitchell, a freshman making just his second career SEC start. In five-plus innings, he allowed two runs on five hits and struck out five.
“I thought I got my fastball over and got ahead in a lot of counts,” Mitchell said. “I was kind of anxious in that first inning. After that I calmed down.”
He did walk four batters, however, and MSU pitchers wound up handing out seven free passes, plus the one hit batsman.
Florida had trouble taking advantage early on, collecting only four hits through the first five innings and stranding six runners in the same span. Zunino and Johnson were both 0 for 3 at that point.
Mitchell left after allowing a leadoff single in the sixth.
“I thought we were going to be able to throw it in the strike zone, and we just didn’t do it,” Cohen said. “That’s the thing that carried us all year, the seventh, eighth and ninth inning, having the ability get contact early in the count.”
MSU grabbed an early 2-0 lead on Nick Vickerson’s two-run triple to center field, and that ended the day for UF starter Tommy Toledo after 22⁄3 innings. Vickerson struck again in the sixth with a leadoff homer – his seventh of the season – to give State a 3-2 lead.
The Bulldogs tacked on two more in the seventh thanks to Jaron Shepherd’s RBI groundout and a wild pitch that scored C.T. Bradford. Still, more could have been had, as MSU was 1 of 10 with runners in scoring position. Five of the Bulldog hitters’ 12 strikeouts came in those situations.
Steven Rodriguez (3-1), the Gators’ third relief pitcher of the game, worked 12⁄3 innings scoreless innings to earn the win. Austin Maddox pitched the ninth for his fourth save.
Florida will play Alabama at 4:30 p.m. today. The Crimson Tide beat Arkansas, 7-4, in the day’s first game.
At Regions Park, Hoover, Ala.
– G1: Alabama 7, Arkansas 4
– G2: Florida 7, Miss. State 5
– G3: South Carolina 7, Auburn 3
– G4: Vanderbilt 10, Georgia 0
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal