"In the long run we found a way to win the ball game," said Coach John Cohen with absolutely no pun intended. The 17 innings also matched Mississippi State's most recorded, tying the 2007 marathon at Ole Miss that those Bulldogs also won.
These Diamond Dogs were playing under another sort of pressure. Missouri, making its first-ever SEC Tournament appearance, had nothing but more season to play for. Mississippi State (41-16) however came to Hoover looking to solidify their case to host post-season play. A win might not improve their standing with the selection committee; but a loss to the 12th-seeded Tigers could have done real damage.
Even so, as the innings stacked-up there wasn't a NCAA thought in State minds, according to Slauter at least.
"No, I don't think anyone was worrying about it. We just focused on the task at hand. And we had to come with our best stuff today."
The best did come last, at least offensively. State had 16 hits in the 17 turns but most went for nothing but frustrations. No less than 19 Bulldogs were left un-scored, and often they were standing on third base when innings ended. Or in one embarrassing case run-down after too big a turn by 2B Brett Pirtle in the 12th. And when Slauter came up in the 17th with two outs and pinch-runner Hann on second base, he posed an unlikely hero. The hand cracked at Texas A&M had sidelined the senior for 10 of the following 16 games, and he'd gone 0-of-8 in limited opportunities since.
Yet on a 1-2 count, he saw something from Tiger reliever Jake Walsh that had to be hit. "I didn't get a whole lot of it, I got jammed pretty good. I had a feeling it would fall in front." Of the Missouri centerfielder he meant, and it did. Logan Pearson had run down a lot of better-struck Dog drives but this one faded and fell as Hann hustled home.
The at-last RBI single made a winner of RHP Will Cox (3-1), who had entered in the top of the 15th as the sixth pitcher of State's day. And night. He seized the challenge and retired nine of ten Tigers faced, with only a two-out single in the 16th against him. That batter never made it past first base anyway.
"I just knew we had to keep it rolling, get quick outs every time, just get the team back in the dugout and get a chance to win it," Cox said. "My stuff had sink on it , I was trying to get ground balls. And the defense played phenomenal. Without them I wouldn't be anywhere." Cox had two strikeouts and no walks in the 3.0 innings.
This came after shutout stints from Chad Girodo (2.2 innings), Ben Bracewell (2.1), Jonathan Holder (2.2 with five strikeouts), and Ross Mitchell (3.0). That quartet held Missouri to seven combined hits and any could have been awarded the win based on efficiency. For that matter RHP Trevor Fitts acquitted himself very well under tournament pressure and in only his second college start. Fitts went the first 3.1 innings with three hits and two strikeouts.
If not for a couple of wild pitches in fact, Fitts would have had a shutout as well. But in his third inning a one-out single had Brannon Champagne on first base. The first dirtball put him on second base; the second let him go for third even though C Nick Ammirati got to it quickly. Trouble was, Ammirati's high throw got over 3B Alex Detz and scored Champagne. It was an officially earned run because a batter singled afterwards.
Otherwise Fitts did what he needed to. Girodo and Bracewell were rested enough, but Cohen really did not want to use Holder and Mitchell at all unless absolutely necessary. By the ninth, it was that sort of situation.
The Bulldogs were struggling with Missouri ace lefthander Rob Zastryzny all his nine complete innings. Not used in the last regular season series with back concerns, Zastryzny put his team on his back and carried them. "He was outstanding," said Slauter. "You could see from the dugout he had really sharp stuff, in the strike zone." Zastryzny gave up seven hits but the lone run, with two walks and seven strikeouts as Bulldogs helped him out with easy fly balls and too much swing-and-miss.
They left loaded bases in the third inning, and almost wasted a fifth-inning chance too with a pair on. But struggling RF Hunter Renfroe went and got a tough pitch and dropped it in centerfield for DH Derrick Armstrong to race home and tie the game up. Where it stayed, and stayed, and stayed. Even after the starter was excused for the first extra inning, Tiger reliever Keaton Steele—also the starting first baseman—was almost as good from the right side. He scattered eight State hits with two walks and five strikeouts.
Scoring-positioned Dogs in the ninth, 10th, 11th, and 13th stayed put on third outs. "We put up hits but they did enough to put us off-balance to keep us from the run column," Slauter said. Credit for extending the evening into record territory was due Missouri second sacker Josh Lester. In the bottom of the 16th with two on and two outs he first knocked down a Renfroe grounder that looked certain to get through for a game-winning hit.
Instead it left bases loaded, and Pirtle's sharp grounder to the other side of Lester still ended up in the glove and thrown just ahead of the sliding Dog at first base.
But 17 was enough, as Walsh was given the ball against the middle of MSU's order. 1B Wes Rea, who'd missed a sixth-inning homer to left-centerfield by a few feet, worked a walk to lead off. Hann took his place on the paths and was bunted over by CF C.T. Bradford. A strikeout almost gave Walsh the escape as Slauter fell behind. But only almost as Slauter finally got back in the hit column.
"Hopefully that's a monkey getting off my back," he said. "That's all we were looking for from extra-innings on. It seemed like we had runners in scoring positions every inning and we were putting ourselves in a situation to win. But the hits didn't happen to fall." Or not until his hit did.
"We just didn't hit enough balls in the middle of the field," Cohen said. "It's symbolic we finally got one in the middle of the field."
All the time bullpen Bulldogs kept the Tigers stuck on one run too. "We did a really good job," Cox said. "17 innings puts a big compliment on our bullpen and how good we are."
How much of it is left for a Wednesday evening game with South Carolina is another matter entirely. Cohen expects to give LHP Luis Pollorena—who did one pinch-run appearance in this game—the start barring a late change of mind. But at least Mississippi State is back on the more typical tournament track of double-elimination, having survived a one-and-done Tuesday night.
And Wednesday morning, too.