Game-three was very different than the prior pair of contests, where Bulldog starting pitchers worked with slender leads most of the way. Not so Sunday, as State hung five runs on the bottom scoreboard line through the first two turns to set the tone. Just as planned, per Parks. "We wanted to score a few in the first and second, get on them early because the last two days they scored some runs in the ninth inning." Besides, he added, "We knew they didn't have much in the pen so we wanted to get rid of him."
‘Him' being Bruin starter James Buckelew, a rookie lefthander with good stuff and bad timing. Before the frosh's short day was done he'd been tagged for eight runs on as many hits with four walks and three strikeouts. Buckelew went to 0-2 on his debut season.
"He's going to be really good but this was the second start he's ever had," said MSU Coach John Cohen. "And with the wind blowing out he was trying to throw away from all our righthanded hitters. You're going to make some mistakes and he did." Cohen in fact rearranged his Sunday order allowing for the stiff south wind, at times over 20mph, with eight righties. Though the sole south-side swinger, LF C.T. Bradford, managed to hit safely twice anyway.
Besides, at least the Bruin pitcher was making a second start. Bulldog opener Evan Mitchell was tossing the first pitch for the first time as a collegian, having done relief work last weekend for a Dog debut. "Today was my first start ever and it was real exciting. And it turned out real nice for me!" Mitchell said. Very nice, as he went six complete innings with two runs on five hits, a walk, and three strikeouts. In this Mitchell (2-0) followed one consistent weekend theme, shutting down Bruin swingers for the first half of games as had the first two starters.
"I tried to throw a lot of strikes and stick to the plan that Coach Thompson and Wes Thigpen told me, just follow what they said," Mitchell said. Which was… "Mainly just get ahead with the fastball and have the second and third pitches to throw for strikes as much as I could. And it turned out well. Our main thing was to keep the ball and keep it on the ground, so I didn't feel the wind should affect me much."
It did impact Buckelew though, and in that first inning as 2B Nick Vickerson worked for a walk and Bradford punched a clean single through the middle. On his first pitch Parks bluffed-bunt which covered for both runners as they successfully stole into scoring positions. Of course they could just as easily have jogged home from any post when Parks unloaded a high drive beyond leftfield for the 3-0 lead.
"As soon as I hit it, I knew the wind was blowing about a hundred miles an hour out so it didn't take much to get it over," Parks said.
Vickerson again got a scoring surge going in the second as with one out he pushed a bunt to the left side that he probably had beat anyway. Third-sacker Zac Mitchell made it easier with a wild throw, for a hit-and-error. Vickerson kept the pressure up by stealing third on the first chance. Buckelew hit Bradford, who managed to make second himself on a wild pitch. Parks joined them via base-on-balls to load the bases.
Given the RBI opportunity 1B Daryl Norris came through with a single into leftfield, plating Vickerson and Bradford for the 5-0 lead. Naturally it was all that much more aid for their freshman moundsman.
"They came out and started hitting the ball like crazy," said Mitchell, "and Jarrod's home run was a nice feeling to know you had some runs behind you."
After three hitless, scoreless innings, the Bruins ended both strings in their fourth. First it was a leadoff single from Derek Hamblen, who advanced on a grounder for scoring position. First baseman Nate Woods did score him, though had Hamblen not been moving off the bag SS Jonathan Ogden might well have a clear enough look at the hopper to field it. Instead the ground ball got through for a RBI-single.
Mitchell wild-pitched Woods up a stop before a ground-out and strikeout kept it 5-1. By the time he returned State had a much more comfortable lead for him, scoring five times in the bottom of the turn.
Bradford bunted for a leadoff base hit and Norris got a one-out walk. Both were advanced on a passed ball with the catcher likely distracted by Ogden's swing. The MSU shortstop connected on his next hack, singling into left for the RBI and pitching change. Saturday reliever Josh Davis was greeted by DH Cody Freeman and a single over first base for another run and 7-1 lead. With two down Davis hit RF Taylor Stark to load the bags, but he should have avoided further damage as Thigpen popped it up to first base.
Except Bruin second baseman Greg Brody for some reason came over and interfered with Nate Woods' routine chance. All three Bulldog baserunners were at full-speed and scored for a 10-1 margin.
Mitchell got the bottom of the order in his fifth inning, and had a runner on second with two outs in the sixth after State changed three infielders. Woods brought Hamblen home on a base hit through one of those changes, shortstop, before a grounder ended the inning-top with a 10-2 difference.
Belmont ran Tyler Graskewicz to the hill for the MSU sixth, only to have a couple of one-out walks and a 2-1 count to Thigpen run him off in favor of Matt Zeblo. The latter didn't have to take responsibility for finishing a walk of the MSU catcher. Or even with CF Brent Brownlee scoring on sub-2B Sam Frost's sac-fly for the 11-2 scoreboard.
New 1B Ryan Collins defied the wind in the State seventh. With new 2B Demarcus Henderson on base via his first collegiate hit, Collins smoked a shot that cleared right-centerfield easily for two more runs.
The Bruins were able to salvage some offensive pride late. MSU reliever Chad Girodo had rolled a double-play to end the Belmont seventh, only to allow three hits around a hit batsman opening the eighth for one run. A force-play at second allowed another Bruin home, then Tim Egerton singled for a 13-5 score and pitching change. Righthander Andrew Busby needed just two pitches, for a pop-out and ground-out both to shortstop, to end the inning, and he took care of the ninth as well.
Cohen said he felt bad for Girodo's rocky stint. "Chad threw a lot of strikes, it just didn't happen and the tempo broke down and he wasn't as crisp as we know he can be."
State's last run came on a third longball, or rather the first of freshman Stark's Bulldog tenure as he rode that leftfield wind for a solo shot in the eighth. A dozen Dogs contributed to the third total hits, with only Bradford (2-of-5, three runs) getting more than a single safety. Belmont's Hamblen was 3-of-4 to complete an excellent weekend against SEC pitching, and scored three times.
One of his runs was the tying tally on a two-run inside-park play Friday that provided the one Bruin win, and so far is the sole blot on State's record. That does grate on the Dogs a bit considering how well most other aspects have gone this early season.
"It's pretty good," said Parks. "We should be 8-0 but I feel pretty good. I still think we haven't seen as much of our pitchers, the competition is good but they have a lot of work to do on the better hitters and better teams we'll get to down the road."
Parks has a good point about the arms though. Their weekend ERA of 3.33 wasn't brilliant but by any measure a 26 strikeout, 6 walk series is exception no matter who was hitting…or not hitting as it were. Similarly, where State hit a modest .302 in the series the Dogs were actually positive in ratio of 16 walks to 15 strikeouts, not to mention four hit batsmen. Eleven MSU batters scored at least once, and while frosh Norris and Bradford hit just .222 and .167 respectively they each reached home three times, best on the team.
Another key comparison was 4-of-5 successful steals for State while Bruins only tried one theft and failed, a comment on both State's pitching and the backstopping of Thigpen and Freeman. And despite one charged error Sunday the Dogs are still fielding admirably with a .990 average through eight tests.
"I was really, really pleased with how we started the game all around. I felt we were focused," Cohen said. "Obviously all our starting pitching was good all three games and today was the same. We sent a freshman out there and he pitched well. Evan is a mature kid, he's contending for that third starting spot. In our league with as much left-handed offense as there is it's hard to go in with three righthanded starters on the weekend, but you have to have your three best guys who are pitching the best. And Evan might end up being one of those guys."
Cohen and pitching Coach Butch Thompson have an interesting week to schedule now. State hosts Alcorn State Tuesday in a 5:00 game (changed from the original start time), then hosts a four-game weekend with Iowa and Georgia State. The matchups are Iowa at 4:00 Friday; Georgia State (12:00) and Iowa again (4:00) Saturday; and Georgia State Sunday (2:30).
State also has two moundsmen yet to throw a live pitch. One, outfielder Bradford who was supposed to be a top closing candidate but hasn't been needed in any such role to-date. "Yeah, that's a little surprising because we really want him to pitch," Cohen said. "But it's got to be a lefthanded matchup. He'll get his chance."
Meanwhile 2009 starter Nick Routt continues his comeback from an aborted '10 campaign, throwing two long bullpen stints this past week. "Hopefully we will get him one or two innings maybe Tuesday, depending on how he feels." Kendall Graveman, C.C. Watson, and others did not get a chance to work the weekend as well so mid-week duty should be in store. As for the coming weekend, Devin Jones and Chris Stratton are the sure 1-2 punch and Mitchell has staked a claim to Sunday.
"So maybe Tim Statz or Busby, we'll wait and see," said Cohen about that third-game of four.