STARKVILLE-- Dudy Noble Field was the stage for a matchup between two of college baseball's top programs: Mississippi State and Cal State Fullerton.
Cal State Fullerton entered with the nation's top earned run average, It took three innings, but MSU's offensive formula came through.
Thanks to clutch hits and a resilient performance from Austin Sexton, the Bulldogs prevailed 4-1 and earned a berth in the Starkville Regional Championship.
"We're really proud of our kids," MSU coach John Cohen said. "I thought Austin took the ball tonight and really did a great job. He battled through some adversity."
Runs were at a premium early on for both teams. The Bulldogs got on the board in the third following Jack Kruger's double. Nathaniel Lowe's RBI groundout helped MSU take a 1-0 lead into the seventh.
Sexton gave up his first extra-base hit of the day on a leadoff double from Scott Hurst. As Hurst moved to third on a sac bunt, Gavin Collins made up for two earlier errors by catching a hard hit grounder and threw home as Kruger applied the tag.
"Gavin just battled through it," Sexton said. "I told him after the second one that he missed, he needs to be ready for another one. The guy at the plate went around a slider and luckily hit that ball to Gavin. He made a heck of a play."
The Bulldogs made Fullerton pay for not bringing that run home.
In the top of the seventh, MSU got a leadoff double from Brent Rooker. He reached third on a sac bunt and scored when Ryan Gridley reached on an error for a 2-0 lead. MSU got insurance on a two-out RBI single from Jake Mangum, expanding its lead to 3-0.
"Whenever Gavin makes that play the whole stadium got excited and it shifts the momentum back to us," Mangum said. "It changed the momentum of the game and got us going offensively."
Fullerton finally got on board in the bottom of the seventh with a solo home run from Josh Vargas, which sent Sexton packing, Blake Smith came out and finished the inning keeping the lead at 3-1.
The run was given back to MSU in the top of the eighth. A Jacob Robson RBI double closed the game's scoring.
Smith was brilliant in relief pitching the final 2.2 innings without surrendering a hit and striking out three batters. He earned his fifth save of the season. Sexton (8-3) went 6.1 strong with five hits scattered and just one run striking out four batters.
Freshman Titan Colton Eastman pitched 6.2 innings giving up eight hits and three runs while striking out seven.
MSU strung together nine hits in the game led by the 22nd multi-hit performance from Mangum.
The Bulldogs had eight of their nine batters in the lineup record a hit. The Bulldogs have the luxury of waiting Fullerton and Louisiana Tech on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. The winner must beat MSU twice in the next two days starting with a game at 6:30 p.m. Sunday night.
Cohen hasn't decided on a pitcher, with Poplarville's Zac Houston and Konnor Pilkington of East Central among the possibilities.