Bama Reclaims Sole West Lead

The No. 12 University of Alabama baseball tried something old and something new in its 5-3 win at Mississippi State on Saturday night to even the three-game Southeastern Conference series.

The old was the pitching performance of sophomore left-hander Wade LeBlanc, who held MSU to three runs and seven hits in eight-plus innings, with three walks and six strikeouts.

The new was an Alabama offense that scored three runs in the first inning, two coming on a home run by junior third baseman Evan Bush, as UA did not trail in an SEC game for the first time since a 4-0 win over then No. 4 LSU on April 1 in Tuscaloosa.

The win gives Alabama a one-game lead over second-place LSU in the SEC Western Division. The Tigers dropped a 7-1 decision at home to Kentucky on Saturday. Ole Miss falls two games behind after its 12-4 loss at Auburn.

Alabama (34-15, 14-8 SEC) scored in the first inning for the second straight games as the Crimson Tide touched MSU starter Todd Doolittle for three runs in the inning.

After Gabe Scott drew a two-out walk, Evan Bush slammed a 3-2 pitch just to the right of the batter's eye in center field to give the Tide a 2-0 lead.

"He threw me a fast ball on the 3-2 count and he got it over the plate and I hit it really well," Bush said of his team-leading 14th home run. "We are not used to scoring first. It's different. It's nice to get on top."

Morrow Thomley followed with a base hit to left and Zac Welch reached on another two-out walk. Kody Valverde then ripped a double down the left field line to score Thomley and give Bama a 3-0 lead. Welch, who tried to score from first base, was thrown out at home to end the inning.

LeBlanc (4-3) was in command from the start and pitching with a three-run lead did not hurt the left-hander casus on Saturday.

"It felt kind of funny, but it was one of those good feelings to go out there and know that you could make a few mistakes," LeBlanc said following the win. "It was a lot easier to go out there with a 3-0 lead. I am glad I have these guys behind me.

"Mississippi State is as deep as any team in the SEC. If you go on how you play at home, they are one of the top teams in the country."

MSU (29-16, 10-12) lost just its fifth home game of the season on Saturday. The Bulldogs are 22-5 at Dudy Noble this season and along with Alabama the only two teams not to lose an SEC home series.

MSU got a run back in the bottom of the first to make it a 3-1 game when Thomas Berkey walked, took second on a wild pitch, moved to third on a fly and scored on a Thomley throwing error from right field as Berkey took third on the Corley fly out.

Alabama added an unearned of its own in the second inning when Rocky Sceflo drew a lead off walk, stole second, moved to third on Cale Iorg's sacrifice bunt and scored when MSU left fielder Brian LaNinfa dropped a pop fly that would have been the third out. The Tide then loaded the bases, but Thomley flied out to right field to end the inning and keep the Dogs in the game.

Doolittle settled down after the first two innings and worked six innings for the Bulldogs. He allowed eight hits, four runs (three earned), walked six and struck out six.

Alabama had several chances to increase it lead in the middle innings, but could not score against Doolittle and reliever Brett Cleveland.

Miss. State also had a number of chances in the late innings, but also failed to score. The Bulldogs did make it a 4-2 game in the seventh inning when Joseph McCaskill reached on a ground-rule double and scored on Brian LaNinfa's ground ball single up the middle.

State left the tying runs on base in the inning when LeBlanc stuck out Berkery, who represented the go-ahead to end the inning.

The Bulldogs put the tying runs on base in the eighth inning as Hunter walked and Ed Easley reached on an infield single with two outs, but LeBlanc got McCaskill to pop up to second baseman Greg Paiml to end the inning.

The Tide added a key insurance run in the ninth when Scott singled and moved to third on Bush's ground-rule double down the left field line. Scott extended the lead to 5-3 when he scored on Thomley's infield ground out.

The Bulldogs rallied again and chased LeBlanc in the ninth as LaNinfa drew a lead off walk.

"(Wade's) performance was encouraging," Alabama head coach Jim Wells said. "He made key pitches. when it 2-2 or 3-2 he is able to make those pitches. We also had a stretch where we were leaving runners on base but he would come back out and not all them to score I was going to let him finish is he did not allow a runner in the ninth."

Freshman right-hander David Robertson replaced LeBlanc and promptly allowed a pinch-hit single to Mitch Moreland. After a wild pitch scored LaNinfa to make it a 5-3 game, Robertson then struck out Rea for the first out.

Berkey then drew a walk and moved to second on Robertson's second wild pitch of the inning. The Tuscaloosa native then earned his team-leading sixth save of the season as he struck out Brad Corley and Brad Jones to the end game.

"With all the situations he has been in for us this year, that was the toughest one," Wells said. "He has had to go longer, but on the road, this was a difficult situation and he handled it."

MSU was 0-for-5 in the last three innings with the go ahead runners on base against LeBlanc and Robertson.

The series concludes with a 1:30 p.m. game Sunday afternoon at Dudy Noble Field. Alabama will send sophomore left hander Brandon Belcher (4-0, 4.30 ERA) to the mound for his first start since April 17. He has missed the last two weeks with a strained oblique muscle. MSU will counter with freshman right-hander Jon Crosby (5-2, 3.10 ERA) in the rubber game.


*Alabama is 9-3 in its last 12 games, dating back to April 17th. The Crimson Tide has also won six of its last nine SEC games since its 9-6 come-from-behind win at Florida.

*Alabama and Miss. State combined to score nine runs in the first inning in the first two games of this season. State held a 3-2 lead after one inning in the series opener on Friday, while Alabama grabbed a 3-1 lead after one inning in Saturday's game.

*Alabama led from start to finish in the win over Miss. State, marking the first time since a 4-0 win over LSU on April 1 that the Crimson Tide has not trailed in an SEC game.

*With its win over MSU on Saturday, Alabama is assured of leaving Starkville in at worst a tie for first place in the SEC Western Division. The Crimson Tide holds a one-game lead over LSU (13-10) and a two-game cushion over third-place Ole Miss (12-11). Auburn (11-12) and Arkansas (11-12) are three games out, while MSU (11-12) fell into the basement and trails Bama by 3 1/2 games.

*Alabama is 10-6 in Saturday games this season, including a 3-5 mark in SEC play.

*Alabama is 7-10 on the road this season and has won five of its last nine SEC road games.

*Senior LF Gabe Scott drew a two-out walk in the top of the first inning and has now reached base safely in 38 consecutive games, dating back to Feb. 25th.

*Senior RF Morrow Thomley's first-inning single extended his hitting streak to five consecutive games.

*MSU pitching coach Russ McNickle and head coach Ron Polk were both ejected by home plate umpire Steve Dew for arguing balls and strikes in the top of the sixth inning.

*Former Alabama quarterback and pitcher and current Mississippi State running backs coach Freddie Kitchens stopped by Dudy Noble Field on Saturday to visit with head baseball coach Jim Wells. Kitchens also played baseball for the Tide and pitched for Wells in 1998. Kitchens was 1-0 in 12 games in his lone season under Wells and logged 20 strikeouts in 22 innings on the mound.

*Former Alabama All-American and former MSU head football coach Jackie Sherrill attended Friday night's series opener in Starkville.

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