Arizona ends Mississippi State’s season

Published 11:22 pm Saturday, June 11, 2016

STARKVILLE — Mississippi State’s fans, all 13,452 of them, were clanging cowbells and starting to make plans for a return trip to Dudy Noble Field on Sunday.

Arizona brought all of that to a screeching halt and is now making travel plans of its own.

The Wildcats overcame a four-run deficit in the eighth inning and then won it in the 11th on Cesar Salazar’s walk-off RBI single to beat Mississippi State 6-5 in Game 2 of the Starkville Super Regional on Saturday night.

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Arizona (44-21) swept the best-of-three series and clinched its 17th trip to the College World Series. It’s the program’s first time there since winning the 2012 national championship.

“I try to pride myself on knowing what to say, and right now, I’m speechless,” Arizona coach Jay Johnson said. “I’m so proud of these guys and their teammates, I really can’t even put it into words. I thought I knew what toughness was, competitiveness, heart, and then I met them. Greatest moment of my life.”

It was a bitter ending for Mississippi State (44-18-1). The Bulldogs enjoyed a turnaround season after not making the NCAA Tournament in 2015. They won the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship for the first time since 1989, earned the No. 6 national seed for the NCAA Tournament, and went 3-0 in last week’s regional at Dudy Noble Field.

The Bulldogs lost Game 1, however, and then suffered a catastrophic meltdown after leading 5-1 in the eighth inning of Game 2.

“It’s just disappointing. It’s disappointing to come this far and not be able to finish it,” Mississippi State outfielder Brent Rooker said. “The disappointment to me is that I don’t get to be around this group of guys anymore. It’s a special group, and that’s what hurts the most.”

Mississippi State was in control for most of the first eight innings. Rooker homered twice and drove in three runs, while Austin Sexton allowed one run in 5 1/3 innings.

Rooker’s second solo home run of the game made it 5-1 in the top of the eighth inning, and then everything started to cave in.

Singles by Zach Gibbons and Alfonso Rivas put runners at first and second with no outs, and Ryan Aguilar followed with a home run to right field to cut Mississippi State’s lead to a single run.

“I just think that after I hit that, everyone believed more than ever that we could win that game. It gave us that extra boost of confidence we needed to pull that win out,” Aguilar said.

Arizona got two more runners on in the eighth, but didn’t score again. In the ninth, however, they got things rolling again. Cody Ramer led off with a double and scored the tying run on a one-out single by Rivas.

After a scoreless 10th inning, the Wildcats loaded the bases on a single and two walks. Salazar pulled a 1-1 pitch through the right side of the infield to bring in Kyle Lewis with the winning run, and the Wildcats dogpiled on the right field grass while the Bulldogs watched in stunned silence.

After the game, the fans at Dudy Noble Field gave the Bulldogs a standing ovation — something Rooker said was appreciated.

“It is special. The fans are behind us all year. That is huge. That is why you come to Mississippi State, to have the support that we do. That means the world to us,” Rooker said. “Fans show up every day and we played hard every day. As players, we are really thankful for that.”

In 5 1/3 innings of work, Mississippi State’s bullpen gave up five runs on 11 hits, and walked three batters. The starting pitcher, Sexton, allowed one run on seven hits, walked one and struck out six in the same amount of time.

“Coach brought us together and told us don’t swing if it’s not our pitch. Early in the game, we were giving them outs. We were swinging at their pitches instead of ours,” Gibbons said. “As you could tell, towards the end, we started swinging at our pitch. I’m just speechless. It’s great that we were able to come back, and it just shows that we’re never out of the fight.”