Dogs Playing With Confidence

[Premium Article] Streaking along amid the SEC pace-setters, Mississippi State stepped it up even another notch over the weekend, sweeping the Arkansas Razorbacks in a three-game league series on the carpet at George Cole Field at Baum Stadium.<P> Taking on one of the hottest teams in the country, the Diamond Dogs pulled off an incredible sweep, their first ever in Fayetteville, Ark., capped by a complete-game 5-1 performance Sunday by sophomore lefthander Todd Nicholas.

Arkansas was cruising along 18-2 overall, 2-1 SEC, and 12-0 at home, about as "hot" a team as any in the country, before being cooled off by the Mississippi State pitching staff. The Dogs used only four pitchers over the weekend with two - Paul Maholm and Nicholas - going the distance, while sophomore righthander Alan Johnson and Jonathan Papelbon combined to stop the Razorbacks 8-3 Saturday in Game 2 of the series.

Maholm (3-1, 1.80 ERA) perhaps could have had a shutout in the extra inning opener except for a miscue, but settled for a momentum-swinging, 4-3, win in 10 innings.

Johnson (3-0, 2.35) notched the win in the second game with Papelbon (4-0, 0.44) getting his first save of the season, while Nicholas (3-0, 1.65) nabbed the victory in the finale to complete the sweep.

A 6-2, 215-pound sophomore from Greenville, Ala., Nicholas three-hit the Razorbacks in his first career complete game, while striking out eight and walking four. He was in trouble in only one inning, the second, but pitched around a two on, one out situation, while allowing but one run on a walk to Andrew Wishy, a single by Clay Goodwin, a sacrifice and a groundout.

It was Mississippi State's first series sweep at Fayetteville, since the Hogs joined the league. The Bulldogs, who last swept the Razorbacks at Dudy Noble Field in 1992, hold the upper hand in the overall series 32-21.

No. 9 Mississippi State (17-3-1, 5-1 SEC) swung the bats well in the three-game series, collecting 39 hits while ripping the ball at a .345 clip. MSU outscored the Razorbacks 17-7 in the three games. The Bulldogs also pitched it well, holding "hot-hitting" Arkansas to a composite .175 batting average in the series with defense to match.

Mississippi State coach Ron Polk attributed the sweep to a combination of excellent pitching, air-tight defense and timely hitting.

"I was very concerned about this weekend going on the road against this ball club (Arkansas) on the carpet," said Polk.

"We pitched real well. All our starters did a good job and I think we just made one error all weekend, and we got some timely hitting. We had some strikeouts, but at the same time, we got some guys in when we had to."

Mississippi State raised its team batting average to .321 in the three games and lowered its earned-run-average to 2.35 while the Dogs have a .976 fielding percentage. MSU has now won 11 of its last 13, including the sweep at the foot of the Ozarks.

Leading 3-1 in the finale after three innings, the Bulldogs added a run in the fourth and an insurance marker in the ninth.

Sophomore left fielder Jon Mungle went 3-for-4 with an RBI double and showed signs of returning to the form of his honorable mention 2002 Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American campaign. He drove across freshman rightfielder Brad Corley, who led off the inning with a two-bagger, with the first run of the game.

Freshman second baseman Thomas Berkery, who had a pair of hits, picked up Mungle with a run-scoring single to left to put the Dogs up 2-0.

No. 16 Arkansas (18-5, 2-4) scored its only run of the game in the bottom of the second to make it a one-run game, but not for long. Andrew Wishy walked leading off the frame followed by one of the three hits Nicholas surrendered, a single by Clay Goodwin. Both runners moved up on a sacrifice by Nick Pitts and Wishy came home on a ground out to second by Ryan Fox.

First baseman Matthew Brinson, who hit .444 as the Dogs went 4-1 for the week, got the run back, driving a ball over the right field fence, his third round tripper of the season to give the Dogs a 4-1 lead.

"I thought we swung the bats well," said Polk, noting Matthew Maniscalco, who drilled his second home run of the season in Saturday's win, "hit the ball hard" a couple of times in the finale.

Maniscalco, leading the team with a sizzling .393 average, has hit in 20 of the Dogs' 21 games. He had a single the final day and stung the ball on several plate appearances while just missing his second home run of the series on a ball that had the distance but sailed foul.

Junior third baseman Steve Gendron, who hit his first home run of the season in the series, extended his hitting streak to 14 games with a fifth inning infield single.

Mississippi State added its final run in the ninth on a leadoff single by Craig Tatum and a bunt single by Mungle, followed by a sacrifice bunt by Berkery and a sacrifice fly to center by Joseph Hunter.

The Bulldogs ripped the ball at a .345 clip over the weekend, while the MSU pitchers held the Hogs to a composite .175 average at the plate. MSU had a lone error in the three games (28 innings).

In the meantime, Nicholas continued to retire the Razorbacks inning after inning, striking out the side in the ninth sandwiched around a walk to Wishy. The last two Arkansas batters went down swinging to end the game.

"I thought one of the keys (to the sweep) was we pitched well," noted Polk. "Paul Maholm could have had a shutout and I thought Todd Nicholas was in command - three hits on the road against a good ball club is good. He walks only four, and for Todd, that's pretty good, and strikes out eight.

"Pitching and defense wins you games on the road and timely hitting ultimately was in our corner," noted Polk, who added, "there are a lot of challenges ahead" as the Dogs resume SEC play with a road trip to Ole Miss this coming weekend.

Jarrett Gardner (3-1) took the loss for the Razorbacks after allowing four runs on seven hits in 3 1-3 innings.

NOTES: Mississippi State (5-1 SEC), tied for second place in SEC West behind pace-setter LSU (5-0-1), returns to conference play Friday, traveling to Ole Miss (5-1 SEC) to take on the Rebels. The opener has a special 4 p.m. staring time followed by 1:30 p.m. starts Saturday and Sunday.

Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page.

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