It took a few extra days but fans will finally get the matchup they’ve been clamoring for. Mississippi State used three homers and smothering relief pitching Sunday to eliminate South Alabama 7-3 at Pete Taylor Park.
The victory will pit the two Mississippi teams against one another in host USM and the second-seeded Bulldogs (38-25).
First pitch is scheduled for 1 p.m. Should MSU win, the two teams will play again in a decisive game at 6 p.m.
“We’re really excited and looking forward to the challenge of playing a terrific Southern Mississippi team,” MSU coach Andy Cannizaro said. “I think they won their 50th ballgame today. They’re an outstanding team. They’re extremely aggressive at the plate, defend it at a high level and throw strikes on the mound.
“Fifty wins are certainly not an accident.”
Of MSU’s seven runs against USA, six came on home runs. Trailing 1-0 in the third, Hunter Stovall hit a two-run shot over the billboard beyond the left field wall. Three batters later former Biloxi Indian Cody Brown hit his eighth homer of the season to extend MSU’s lead to 5-1.
“In that situation I thought they were going to try and surprise me in and throw a fastball in. I was sitting on it. It ran back in on my barrel, I was waiting on it and did what I did with it,” said Brown who finished 3-for-4 with a walk, run scored and three RBIs.
Hunter Vansau’s groundout in the eighth pushed Mississippi State’s lead to 6-2, but it was pinch hitter Cole Gordon who possibly deflated USA (40-21) the most with his first pitch homer to left in the ninth inning.
“Probably a round the fourth or fifth inning I told Cole he was going to get a swing in at some point tonight, to stay ready, stay moving around and be ready to help his teammates,” Cannizaro said. “That was the perfect opportunity right there to lead off against the righty and he put an incredible swing on a tough pitch to handle.
“On a fastball up in the zone he got on top of it and — it didn’t just clear the fence, that (billboard) just knocked it down.”
Gridley joined Brown with a two-hit performance for MSU. Stovall added a two-hit performance.
Denver McQuary turned in one of his better starts of the season to help extend Mississippi State’s season.
The freshman from Houston, Mississippi, surrendered 12 runs in his three most recent outings but limited the Jaguars to two runs — both on homers by Wells Davis. McQuary also struck out three and walked five for the fourth consecutive start and sixth time this season.
“Denver can get you six or seven (innings) or Denver can get you 2/3,” Cannizaro said. “It has nothing to do with lack of stuff. It just has everything to do with being able to calm down and find the strike zone early in the ballgame.”
Reliever Peyton Plumlee also had a bounce back performance. After surrendering three runs in three innings Friday against USA, the right-hander was much better Sunday. Plumlee allowed one run on two hits and a walk with five strikeouts in four innings to earn his first save of the year.
“He was attacking hitters all night tonight,” Cannizaro said. “He wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t scared. He kept pounding strikes, work down in the count.
“You could just tell he really wanted it tonight.”
USA starter Andy Arguellas lasted just 2 2/3 innings, surrendering five runs on six hits and one walk. He also struck out two.
“If you’ve seen some of the teams he’s faced and beaten, this was a little bit of a shock,” USA coach Mark Calvi said. “We expected to go out there and win today with Andy Arguelles on the mound. He’s beaten Auburn, beaten LSU and we expected him to win tonight.”
Wells and Paul Russo led USA with two hits. Although D’Iberville’s Dylan Hardy was hit by a pitch in the first he went hitless for the first time in 14 games.
Cannizaro didn’t commit to a starting pitcher for Monday’s must-win game but hinted that Jacob Billingsley (1-3, 5.15 ERA) will likely take the mound.
“You guys who have followed us all year you know who we have left,” he said. “We want to check in with Jacob Billingsley to make sure he’s OK before we announce anything. There’s one or two guys we’re thinking of and Billingsley is certainly at the top of that list.”