Critical defensive lapses undermined a late comeback attempt for South Carolina in its 7-4 defeat in the series opener.
"Ultimately we didn't execute well enough and play good enough defense to win the game," South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook said.
The matchup between South Carolina right-hander Clarke Schmidt and Mississippi State's Brent Rooker promised to be a treat. Schmidt entered Friday's start with a minuscule 1.15 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 47 innings pitched. Rooker has been the nation's most productive hitter by just about every metric, hitting .450 on the year with a Ruthian slugging percentage of .992.
It didn't disappoint.
Schmidt got Rooker to a 2-2 count in his first at-bat and located a fastball just off the edge of the plate. The junior first baseman extended his barrel to the outer-half and lined a home run to dead center field, giving the Bulldogs an early 1-0 advantage.
"That guy – he's a special talent," Schmidt said of Rooker. "Even though in the first at-bat I felt like I was executing pitches. Obviously the pitch he hit out was an okay pitch, I wanted to get it in more."
Schmidt would win the remainder of their battles, recording strikeouts in Rooker's next two at-bats.
Mississippi State tagged Schmidt for four runs in the top of the second. Designated hitter Elijah MacNamee initiated the Bulldogs' rally with with a leadoff single to center field. With one out and runners on first and second Luke Alexander squibbed a ground ball past the mound. South Carolina second baseman LT Tolbert failed to apply the tag on the runner advancing to second, enabling Mississippi State to load the bases. After a pair of two-run singles the Bulldogs led 5-0.
The Gamecocks employed a passive approach at the plate early on against left-hander Konnor Pilkington. The sophomore had pinpoint command working inside and generated the majority of his seven strikeouts on called third strikes.
Through six innings South Carolina failed to advance a runner to second base, although Bulldogs' left fielder Cody Brown brought a potential home run back from the visitor's bullpen to rob Jacob Olson in the second inning.
The Gamecocks' bats finally broke through in the fifth, capitalizing on a pair of errors and a wild pitch to score four runs. With two runs home, Tolbert singled off Pilkington to left field and Olson was called out at the plate after trying to score from second. The umpiring crew decided that Olson had evaded the tag after reviewing the play and overturned their initial call. Jonah Bride poked a double to left to score Tolbert, but Mississippi State executed a perfect relay to prevent Madison Stokes from scoring the tying run.
After he required 39 pitches to escape the second inning, Schmidt retired his final 19 batters. He finished with 11 strikeouts and walked just one. Only two of his five runs were earned.
"They attacked his fastball early in the game," Holbrook said. "He obviously adjusted after the second inning there. He went to his off-speed pitch to set up his fastball a little bit better. He was special from the second inning on. Then from the third inning on he was dynamite."
Senior Josh Reagan relieved Schmidt in the ninth and was greeted with a leadoff double by MacNamee.
Reagan fielded a sacrifice bunt and attempted to get the lead runner at third, but Bride dropped his throw to give Mississippi State runners on the corners. Reagan came up with a pair of strikeouts and nearly escaped the jam when left fielder Alex Destino tracked down a line drive in the gap. The ball bounced out of his glove and Mississippi State stretched their lead to 7-4.
"Right now when we don't make a play, the other team capitalizes on it," Holbrook said. "That's the trend we're in right now."
With the loss South Carolina has now dropped four of its last five contests.
"The close games – it wears and tears a lot on you mentally – we're kind of seeing what we're made of right now," Destino said. "We're battling back in a lot of these games when we're down going into the later innings."
"It just comes down to being mature and kind of going up there and stepping up and wanting to be the guy," Destino said. "We're still trying to do that right now. But like I said, we're not done. Our season isn't over."
The Gamecocks will look to avoid their third straight series loss tomorrow in game two. First pitch is scheduled for 4 p.m.