HOOVER, Ala. – Chris Lemonis didn’t have a ton to say.
Only moments after the Mississippi State head coach had seen his No. 8 Bulldogs suffer a run-rule, 13-1 defeat in seven innings at the hands of No. 13 Florida at the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Wednesday, Lemonis was asked to give an opening statement at his postgame press conference.
“A disappointing day,” Lemonis said. “There's not a big statement here. Just didn't play well in any phase of the game.”
Lemonis didn’t say much, but what he said told the whole story. MSU was outhit, out-pitched and outplayed by the Gators as the Bulldogs moved to the loser’s bracket in Hoover, Alabama. Mississippi State will now have to fight to stay alive in the SEC Tournament in a 9:30 a.m. central game on Thursday against No. 4 Tennessee, who lost to Alabama 3-2 in extra innings Wednesday.
It was pretty apparent early on Wednesday that MSU was headed towards such a situation. Florida scored early and often and put the game out of reach quickly.
“It was a rough day for us, but that's baseball,” State right fielder Tanner Allen said. “[Florida] came out and swung the bat really good, and their guy was really good on the mound and just beat us.”
The Gators struck for nine runs over the first three innings. MSU starting pitcher Brandon Smith was touched up for six runs on eight hits over his two innings of work. It was an incredibly disappointing outing for the right-hander, who was auditioning for a possible starting role in the upcoming NCAA Regional.
“It's really frustrating,” Lemonis said of Smith’s showing. “I was really hoping to get [Smith] out there and him give us a great start so we could have him as a starter in the regional. He still could do that. [Florida] did a good job staying on him. Fought off some tough pitches in two-strike counts early in that game and then they extended some innings. He had some good stuff. His stuff was good. He just didn't pitch great.”
Smith wasn’t alone in his struggles. Reliever Cam Tullar allowed three runs on four hits in his inning of work. Then, after Cade Smith and Eric Cerantola combined to hurl three shutout innings for the Bulldogs, K.C. Hunt entered in the seventh and gave up four runs (two earned) on five hits.
MSU’s defense also made life tough on the Bulldog pitchers at times. State was charged with a couple of errors and didn’t play especially clean in the field.
“Tournament baseball, you've got to pitch and defend, especially [on a] hard field with balls bouncing everywhere,” Lemonis said. “We've got to make plays and give our pitchers as much help as we can.”
While the runs came easy for Florida, that wasn’t the case for the Bulldogs. MSU tallied its lone run in the first. After falling behind 1-0, State tied the game when Luke Hancock’s single to right field drove home Allen, who’d reached earlier in the inning on a double.
The MSU offense was lifeless from there. The Gators surged back in front 4-1 in the second and Florida pitcher Hunter Barco cruised. He pitched all seven innings of Wednesday’s affair, allowing only the one run on four hits.
“This league is very, very tough, man,” Allen said. “We got behind early. I felt like [offensively] we pressed a little bit and tried to get back in the ball game. We're going to fall behind again, probably in the postseason, so we're going to have to learn to bounce back and just keep playing, man. Next play.”
Like Allen’s insistence on having a short-term memory in-game, the Bulldogs will have to do the same in the big picture as well. MSU can’t afford to dwell on their Wednesday shortcomings with the quick turnaround to Thursday morning’s elimination game.
“I know this is going to sound cliche, but it's got to be out of our mind right now,” Hancock said. “We have to focus on [Thursday] and just coming out here and playing a good game of baseball, which we played all year.”
Putting Wednesday’s struggles in the past might be easier said than done. But Allen indicates State’s SEC Tournament fate depends on it.
“It's very simple,” Allen said. “[Thursday is] a new day, and we're just going to focus on playing one game at a time. We can't win the whole championship [Thursday]. We're focusing on us. We're focusing on playing a good game and let the rest take care of itself.”