Image credit: Mississippi State third baseman (Trevor Birchett, Mississippi State Athletics)
HOOVER, Ala. — Louisiana State and Mississippi State have a long, storied rivalry. They’ve been playing each other since 1907 and have met in the College World Series and in a super regional. There have been hundreds of games at Alex Box Stadium and Dudy-Noble Stadium, two of the game’s premier venues.
But the Tigers and Bulldogs have never played a game quite like they did Wednesday night at the SEC Tournament. For six hours and 43 minutes, they battled at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, setting the record for the longest game in SEC Tournament history. Finally, just after 3 a.m. CT, Gunner Halter, who had entered the game in the 11th inning, delivered a two-out single up the middle, scoring Justin Foscue from second base to give Mississippi State a 6-5 victory in 17 innings.
It was a game that will long be remembered around both programs. But, in the immediate, it meant Mississippi State (46-11) advanced in the winners’ bracket and on Thursday night will play Vanderbilt with a trip to the semifinals on the line. LSU (35-23), meanwhile, falls into the losers’ bracket and will play an elimination game against Auburn. The loss also was a blow to the Tigers’ hopes to shore up their regional hosting resume.
Both teams had to fight for everything they got Wednesday. Little came easy, and while Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis said the Bulldogs lost their typical grinder approach at the plate for much of the game, there was little doubt they brought it to the game overall.
“They grinded out the night, I can tell you that,” he said.
Mississippi State jumped out to an early lead, scoring four runs in the first three innings against LSU righthander Eric Walker, who earlier this season had stymied the Bulldogs in Starkville. But after they pushed a run across in the third on a bases-loaded hit by pitch, they wouldn’t score again until the 16th inning. In between, Walker threw a scoreless fourth before the bullpen took over. Righthanders Matthew Beck and Zack Hess threw four scoreless innings each and righthander Ma’Khail Hillard began his outing with three scoreless innings.
That work by their relievers gave the Tigers time to mount a comeback. They scored twice in the fifth against freshman righthander Brandon Smith, who was otherwise excellent, and then tied the game at 4 in the eighth inning on a two-run home run from Giovanni DiGiacomo.
But after that, they too, ran into a brick wall until the 16th. Righthander Cole Gordon delivered five scoreless innings, a season high, and lefthander Jack Eagan threw 1.1 scoreless innings.
“I thought we played really well early on, and then we lost the momentum of the game,” Lemonis said. “They got the big hit and then we kind of got gridlocked there. I give our guys a lot of credit for keep competing, making plays, making pitches when we weren’t real offensive.”
In the 16th, LSU pushed ahead when DiGiacomo hit a sacrifice fly. The Tigers nearly had the game closed out in the bottom half of the inning, but with runners on the corners and two outs, second baseman Brandt Broussard couldn’t field a ground ball off the bat of Jake Mangum and the tying run came home to score.
In the 17th, Mississippi State again took advantage of LSU’s defensive miscues. Foscue reached base when strike three got away from catcher Brock Mathis for a wild pitch. Another wild pitch moved Foscue to second base with two outs, giving Halter the opportunity to win the game.
Halter was an unlikely hero for Mississippi State. He has struggled to find his footing this year and has largely become a platoon player. An inning before, he had been unable to get a bunt down, striking out against Hillard.
Lemonis said he got on Halter for that mistake and was glad he had a chance at redemption.
“It was huge because I jumped him in the dugout,” Lemonis said. “He missed the bunt and I got on him a little bit for that and then he walked around like somebody had took his dog. He came out in the last inning and gave us a great AB that we hadn’t had all night long. He’s a really talented player.”
By the time Halter punched the game-winner through the infield, it was after 3 a.m. But there were still probably a few thousand people in the stands from the crowd of 13,902 that attended the night session of the tournament. It was the fifth-largest crowd in SEC Tournament history and for it to come on a Wednesday night said a lot for the fan bases involved.
Those who stuck out the game through the end will likely be moving a little slowly Thursday morning, but they made for a great atmosphere all the way until the final out.
“When we finished the game, we had so many fans sitting above our dugout still here at three in the morning, it says a lot about both fan bases,” Lemonis said. “Pretty neat night.”
Mississippi State will be hoping for several more neat nights over the next month. The Bulldogs are playing like national title contenders and they showed Wednesday night and into Thursday morning that they know how to win a game even when they’re not at their best. More than anything, they can take that from Wednesday night as they advance in the SEC Tournament and eventually turn their attention to the NCAA Tournament.
That all lies ahead for the Bulldogs. On Wednesday night, however, LSU and Mississippi State produced a classic that was part heavyweight fight and part marathon, a fitting latest chapter in the rivalry.