“It was the turning point for us in the dugout and in the game.”
Friday afternoon at the Ragin’ Cajuns’ stadium was everything a south Louisiana summer day is expected to be. Hot, sticky, miserable, and doubly so for Mississippi State and San Diego State’s baseball teams who were spending hours in the sun on an artificial turf field reflecting the heat right back at them.
“Even for us who live in the south,” Bulldogs’ head coach John Cohen said, “this was hot and humid.”
Sweat was running down their backs and dripping off their faces and beards before batting practice was even over, and MSU’s players eventually retreated to the shade of their dugout in pre-game, not talking or moving, just sitting still and willing the heat to leave their bodies.
Occasional clouds offered brief respites from the glaring sun, though they did nothing to help the steamy air.
The pine trees surrounding the outfield were on the wrong side of the stadium to offer any shade, though they sat in the perfect spot to block any wind that might try to sneak in and cool off the players on Tigue Moore Field. Hard to say which was stickier: the sap on the trees or the jerseys on backs.
It was a swampy afternoon in Lafayette.
Then the game finally started.
And in the second inning, it blew open like one of the heavy rain clouds surrounding the stadium had been threatening to do all day.
Trevor Fitts had thrown a stellar 1-2-3 first frame, but something got a little off when the second inning began and the Aztecs managed to push across two runs, taking a 2-0 lead much earlier than any State fan felt comfortable with.
Batting in the bottom of the second, MSU’s first batter went down. So did the second. It moved almost too quick and seemingly everyone in Maroon and White had the same fear they were scared to verbalize. It was only the second inning, but somehow the game felt almost over. SDSU had landed the first punch and it felt like a knockout blow.
But then the Aztecs slipped. An eventual theme for the game, senior Alex Detz singled with two outs to get on first as the designated hitter. A sign of life and the first hit of the game.
Following him, the team captain stepped to the plate. Wes Rea, a hero so often, took a chop at the pitch, knocked it up the middle and watched it bounce into the glove of the shortstop. Neither he nor Detz had hope of reaching their respective bases safe and the inning looked like the disappointing inning was about to end.
It was a routine play, one the Aztec shortstop had made dozens of times before.
“Ray was running and had an opportunity to set his feet and throw it to first,” SDSU assistant coach Mark Martinez recalled. “But he chose to try and flip it [to second] instead and it kinda hung in the air too long.”
As the ball hung in the air over second base, Detz slid into the bag on the ground underneath, safely reaching the base as Rea strode across first, safe himself.
The play that should’ve ended the inning instead finished with two runners safely on base.
“I think that was the determining play of the game,” Martinez later told reporters. “If we get out of the inning, we put up a zero.”
But they didn’t get out of it. Matthew Britton stepped to the plate next and his RBI single scored Detz, getting the Bulldogs on the board and only down one.
Still two outs, even though it should have been three and done, C.T. Bradford came up next and was walked, loading the bases for the Bulldogs.
“Coach Cohen pulled me over and told me to be ready to swing on the first pitch,” Vickerson said afterward. “The pitcher had thrown four-straight balls and Coach said he’d want to get back in the strike zone.”
So Vickerson followed orders. The result was a crushed ball to deep right field, one which for a moment looked as if it may even leave the park and land somewhere among the pines surrounding the fence.
“I knew it was going over the outfielder’s head,” Vickerson said. “I just put my head down and ran.”
And he kept running, all the way to third base, a bases-clearing triple giving MSU the lead and then some.
That two-out hit gave MSU a lead they would never lose. Though they really shouldn’t have had the chance at that hit anyway.
Baseball can be funny like that, Cohen remarked later that night.
Some kind of bayou voodoo or sweet air slipping through the trees made a quick change on that hot field. Momentum switched dugouts in the split seconds when that flipped ball hung in the air over second base, mojo siding with the Bulldogs and never leaving.
“There’s an energy,” Cohen answered when asked if he felt the momentum shift to his dugout. “You’ve got two teams really fighting. It’s early in the day, it’s pretty warm … You really felt in the dugout that there was some momentum. That’s how it goes in this game, having something fall your way. The big hit, clearing the bases – all those things are really important to the psyche of the club.”
From that moment until the end of the game, his Bulldogs were in control. The story after that wild second inning became MSU’s pitching, as the duo of Fitts and sophomore reliever Myles Gentry shut the Aztecs down.
“We were really sloppy in that inning,” Cohen said, “and from that point forward we got a lot better.”
Something changed in Fitts and he cruised through the next three innings, retiring batter after batter and never slowing down.
“Hats off to him,” SDSU’s Tim Zeir said after conceding praise for the pitcher he and his teammates struggled so much against the rest of the game.
Fitts retired his last four batters in a row, running through the end of the fifth inning, only to be followed by Gentry who sat down an incredible 12-straight to end the game flawlessly.
“I’m so proud of what Trevor did – he beat the game,” Cohen said.
He then switched his commentary to Gentry, sharing how badly they wanted the sidearmed sophomore in the game.
“We felt like Myles was gonna be a great match-up for this club before we even played,” Cohen continued. “His last three or four outings, he has really spun the baseball well. You watch it and go, ‘This guy’s gotta pitch.’”
Following the 5-2 win, Fitts and Gentry, as well as Vickerson, got their due moment in front of the camera.
When MSU’s sports information director asked Fitts to speak to media to postgame, he had to explain that it wasn’t like usual. At home games, reporters just stand around outside the dugout and chat.
This, however, was the NCAA Tournament.
“You’re on a stage, behind a table, microphones in front of you and an NCAA sign behind you while a moderator runs the press conference,” Kyle Niblett told Fitts.
“I was really pumped about it,” Fitts later admitted. “I was like ‘Heck yeah, I really wanted to do this last year and I never got to during that whole World Series run.’ Then I was like, ‘Dang I should take a selfie up there.’”
The same pitcher whose PowerPoint convinced Cohen to let the team have beards again was the guy who in the middle of an NCAA Tournament press conference took a selfie on the podium with his teammates and his coach who wasn’t looking.
And that’s who Fitts is. His teammates call him an energy bunny, while opponents just get mowed down and don’t call him much of anything.
And his reference to last year’s run seems appropriate. The mojo MSU had Friday is similar in kind to what gave them so much momentum around this time last summer.
Mental strength, timely hitting, dominating pitching – all under the summer sun.
No one on the team was surprised to see all five runs come when the Bulldogs had two outs Friday afternoon, nor was it a shock to see such command on the mound.
MSU was just waiting on its moment, and they got it in that second inning.
“We talk about it all the time,” Vickerson said, “creating the big inning.”
“I think it says a lot,” Cohen mused. “It speaks to the maturity of our kids. When we got on that run to Omaha last year, it happened a lot. We got a ton of two-out production. I think good clubs do that.”