MSU No. 5 After Sweep, Face Rebels Again

[Premium Article] Perched atop the Southeastern Conference standings following its second straight sweep of a league road series, Mississippi State has yet another meeting with instate rival Ole Miss this week in the annual Mayor's Trophy Game.<P> Riding the crest of an eight-game winning streak while ringing up "W's" in 16 of their last 18 outings, the Bulldogs take on the Rebels, yet again, in a mid-week contest in Jackson. First pitch is set for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Smith-Wills Stadium.

Enjoying its highest national ranking since 1993, No. 5 Mississippi State (22-3-1) swept Ole Miss in a three-game series (2-0, 7-0, 8-4) at Oxford-University Stadium over the weekend, its sixth straight win over its league arch-rival.

As a testament to one of the stingiest pitching staffs in the league, the Diamond Dogs had shutouts in the first two games to clinch the series while rallying to complete the sweep with a comeback win in the finale.

In the opener, junior preseason All-American lefty Paul Maholm (4-1) combined with ace reliever Jonathan Papelbon to hold the Rebels to just seven hits and no runs. Sophomore righthander Alan Johnson (4-0) tossed a two-hit shutout in Game 2 to garner his second "SEC Pitcher of the Week" award, matching former major leaguer Jeff Brantley, the only other MSU pitcher to be selected twice in a season for the weekly honor.

Mississippi State coach Ron Polk said while he was pleased with the excellent start, including SEC sweeps against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Fayetteville, Ark., (March 21-23) and the latest three-game conquest, that the Diamond Dogs still have a lot of games.

"There's a lot of challenges ahead in the SEC," said Polk, who as MSU's skipper is 15-4 all-time at Oxford.

"Ole Miss has a good ball club and Mike Bianco is doing a great job with the program. We have their number right now, but at the same time, it's still early in the year and we have to play them again unfortunately on Wednesday down in Jackson.

"It just seems like this series has always been late in the year with the Mayor's Cup the first time the Rebels and Bulldogs play, but I'm hoping the fans will come out and support the game."

The "Dean of the SEC" coaches applauded the Diamond Dogs for their latest success on the road - six straight league victories!

"What a great weekend for our guys," added Polk as the Diamond Dogs moved into first place in the SEC coupled with Georgia's 7-6 win over Auburn. LSU (7-1-1 SEC) is in second followed by Auburn (7-2) and Florida (5-3-1). Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss are all 5-4 in league play.

Mississippi State went to its bullpen to get the job done in the finale although sophomore lefthander Todd Nicholas pitched well in a starting role before giving way to Jacob Blakeney.

Senior lefthander Brian Owens (1-0) came on to put down an uprising in the sixth and Saunders Ramsey got a strikeout and a double play in the eighth to put out a smoldering fire.

The Starkville Academy product may have upstaged his eighth inning relief stint with an equally strong ninth inning performance. After striking out the leadoff batter, Ramsey gave up an infield hit, setting the stage for a taylor-made double play to end the contest and insure the sweep.

"I thought our relievers came in and did what you have to do, find the strike zone, but the five spot in the seventh was what really turned the tide."

The Bulldogs, who turned a season-high four double plays in the finale, played extremely well on defense throughout the weekend considering the unusually cold, windy conditions Saturday and Sunday.

"We made only one error (for the weekend) and I question that error," said Polk. "It was a ball up the middle and Manny (shortstop Matthew Maniscalco) made a heck of a play."

Ole Miss (17-10, 5-4 SEC) took the early lead on a two-run homer by Charlie Babineaux following a leadoff walk to Brian Pettway in the second inning, the Rebels first lead in the series.

Trailing 4-2 entering the seventh, the nationally-ranked Diamond Dogs rallied for five runs to take a 7-4 lead. MSU added an insurance run in the eighth on singles by freshman right fielder Brad Corley and freshman redshirt second baseman Thomas Berkery.

A tying two-run, seventh-inning double by first baseman Matthew Brinson, a go-ahead run-scoring single by Berkery and a RBI double by pinch hitter Brent Lewis and Mississippi State was well on its way to the sweep.

"Our guys did a pretty good job putting the ball in play," noted Polk. "We still have a long way to go and a lot of challenges in the SEC but so far our kids have played very well."

Junior third baseman Steve Gendron, who had a career-best 16-game hitting streak snapped in the series, leads the Dogs with a team-best .376 batting average, just ahead of Maniscalco, who has a 13-game hitting streak, while batting .375.

Freshman catcher Craig Tatum of Hattiesburg, Miss., had a couple of key hits against Ole Miss, driving in the only two runs in the opening-game 2-0 win while drilling a two-run homer in the second game. He is hitting .356 and has a 10-game hitting streak.

Mississippi State returns to SEC action this weekend with Kentucky coming to Starkville for three games beginning at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Dudy Noble Field. Saturday's game time is 2 p.m. with the Sunday match scheduled for 1:30 p.m.

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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