Fortunately Walker's intended take was indeed ball four, and as the Bulldog catcher started the jog towards first base LF Cody Brown trotted in from third with Mississippi State's margin of 4-3 victory over Tennessee. The bases-loaded walk issued by Andrew Lee might not have been the most dramatic ending to a twelve-inning marathon at Dudy Noble Field. But the Bulldogs were delighted to accept both the free run, the Sunday success, and a series victory over the visiting Volunteers.
A win that came the very hard way, even more than Saturday's ten-inning final. Trailing right from the opening inning, Mississippi State did not catch up until the sixth and in a properly dramatic way as 1B Wes Rea lined a tying two-run shot over leftfield. From there it was a matter of at least maintaining the 3-3 deadlock inning after inning, then extra inning after extra inning.
Until at last the home team was able to load up the bases, thanks to some forced Tennessee errors, in the 12th. And it was still two outs with the Volunteers confident they could once again leave everyone un-scored as had happened repeatedly in the intense series. This time though, they did not, as State came away with the sixth overtime victory in as many chances this wild 2014 season.
"It just speaks a lot about our team," Walker said. "We never give up, we never give in. We have energy no matter if we're playing nine or 15." Just as well that the game didn't go that long; even as the Dogs shook hands with frustrated Vols raindrops were falling from an afternoon shower that would have halted play for a couple of hours.
Vol righthander Lee had closed out his team'S Friday win with 2.0 scoreless innings but with three hits and a walk. "And he's throwing nothing but fastballs against us," Walker said. "So we knew what we were going to get, it was a matter of making adjustments. I think we did a good job of that." Not initially though as after taking over for the bottom of the ninth Lee retired the first eight Dogs faced and negated a two-out double by pinch-hitter Derek Garner in the tenth with a shorter fly ball.
But in the 12th RF Demarcus Henderson reached on an error, as shortstop A.J. Simcox threw too high for his first baseman…who himself was a substitute for a much taller starter. Brown was bunting and did so well enough to the left side that third baseman Taylor Smart rushed his own throw. It went completely wild for runners in scoring positions with no outs and the top of State's order up.
Tennessee played the percentages and it almost worked, intentionally walking SS Seth Heck for a force anywhere. 3B Alex Detz' fly ball to center was too short to risk running, then Henderson was outed at home anyway on a ground ball. That left it up to Walker, with just eight official SEC at-bats on the season. But he had the right eye in the right-side of the plate for Lee as he watched three balls.
Even after Lee kept it going with a called strike, "I was taking there and just hoping to get a ball." He did.
Lee (4-3) took the loss on a one-hit stint of 3.2 innings with two strikeouts and two walks. The run was unearned obviously. LHP Jacob Lindgren's win? That was definitely deserved. Taking over in the top of the seventh, the junior southpaw stranded a runner and battled for 5.0 more scoreless frames with three hits, eight strikeouts, and no walks at all.
"He just had a dominating performance," Coach John Cohen said. Lindgren (4-1) had thrown briefly Friday evening to stem what proved Tennessee's winning inning. Sunday he was recovered and ready to bring his hard fastballs and breaking stuff.
"I was fine. Coach (Butch) Thompson really prepared me." The Sunday twist was Lindgren throwing to and sometimes just at Walker, third catcher in the depth chart and least-experienced backstop on the team. This looked like trouble considering State had largely lost the opener with passed balls that scored two Tennessee runs. But Walker was up for this unexpected opportunity when Cohen made the abrupt change in the second inning.
"Cody has caught me many times, I have trust in him and he has trust in me," Lindgren said. Walker had his work cut out but no harm came on any ball bounced in the plastic dirt by the Bulldog pitchers. The problem for RHP Preston Brown was getting outs, as Tennessee put up a pair in their first inning and made it 3-0 in the second.
A leadoff single, steal, and grounder put Will Maddox on third base with one out before Brown plunked Christin Stewart. The runner was going on a pitch C Gavin Collins dropped, and the catcher compounded things with a rushed throw that sailed into centerfield. Not only did the error allow Maddox to score, Stewart went on to third base so he could make it 2-0 on a grounder.
Maybe as key eventually to State winning was getting an odd answer in their first. Heck walked in leadoff but was still on first base with two outs when Collins lifted a fly ball to short rightfield. It looked routine but held up in the wind and then lost in the sun by the second baseman. As three Vols converged on the ball Heck didn't stop, and he was able to beat a late throw to the plate all the way from first.
Any momentum from the unusual score vanished immediately as P.Brown served up a 1-1 homer over leftfield to Smart, his second of the season. Another base hit chased Brown with no outs for LHP Lucas Laster, as well as Walker taking the mitt. Lefty Laster was the right answer as he kept it 3-1 with some exceptional infield aid from Heck, 2B Brett Pirtle, and Detz.
"The defense was really playing hard today," Lindgren said. That included Rea as he would save a couple of runs himself with the sort of picks and snags that exemplify his career at first base. But it was with the bat he really changed the game, after Walker was walked—irony—in the sixth inning. Two outs later the junior was up against Vol starter Andy Cox who had a three-hitter going.
Rea made it four by going after the first pitch, a hard slider, and depositing it beyond left field. There was a wind going that way, but it needed no help at all. "It was a line-drive," said Cohen. "If he'd gotten underneath that ball no telling how far it would have gone."
The two-run shot didn't just tie the score but boosted Bulldog attitudes like nothing else in the game could. "That got us back in the game," Lindgren said. "And I knew the pitching staff would keep us in." By staff he meant himself, taking the ball with two outs and a go-ahead Vol on first base in the seventh. "We felt that was where the game was," Cohen said. "And Lindgren is our best swing-and-miss guy. There just weren't a lot of people putting good swings on his breaking ball."
Lindgren did have two on with two outs in the ninth and the best of Tennessee's order up, only to strike out Simcox swinging. Walker had to block the breaker and make the throw to first which was low, but Rea dug it up to prevent a go-ahead score. In the 11th a leadoff single came to nought, as did a one-out hit in the 12th.
Cohen was as surprised as excited when Tennessee kicked open the door with consecutive throwing errors in the last inning. "Because they played good defense all weekend and were one of the better defensive teams in our league. That allowed us to have the inning in the end." Up to then the Dogs had struggled against relievers Peter Lehnstrom (2.0 IP, 2 hits, 1 strikeout) and Lee. And other than the fluke first inning run Cox had been "outstanding. We just could not put together many good swings against him. Thank goodness Wes got that home run."
Tennessee out-hit State for the only time in the series, nine to seven, with two safeties each by Maddox, Stewart, and Smart. Bulldog base hits were scattered among as many swingers, and while a dozen Dogs struck out they also worked for seven walks; compared to just two walks and one plunking issued to Vols.
"It was a total team effort today," Walker said. "I mean it just speaks leaps and bounds to our team."
It also has Mississippi State (33-19, 16-11) in a three-way tie for third place overall in the conference going into the concluding series, at Alabama. The Dogs are deadlocked with Vanderbilt, whom they have a tiebreak over; and South Carolina. Tennessee left town 29-20, 11-16 and still not locked into the SEC Tournament field with three games left, against overall loop leader Florida.
The Bulldogs are locked for Hoover. What they now want is to grab one of the four byes to avoid the single-elimination first day. For that matter, since beating Tennessee won't boost the RPI if at all, Mississippi State still has work ahead to be confident of a NCAA bid. Hosting a Regional is almost certainly out now, so Sunday was likely a final home field appearance for several Dogs.
To walk off the field after a walk-off walk might be an unusual exit. But they'll take it and smile. "It meant a lot," said Lindgren, a junior likely to be drafted highly next month. "Especially to our seniors."