The Diamond Dogs have gotten used to winning without longballs. And Norris in particular had gotten used to not leaving the park. Any college park, and not for 212 at-bats in two partial seasons. "I think my last at-bat of my high school career was the last home run I've hit." In the aftermath of his March 7 kneecap injury the third baseman was doing well to hit for average, forget power.
But with Mississippi State trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the fourth inning, two outs and a pair of partners on bases, Norris saw a fat fastball from Wildcat lefthander Jerard Grundy begging to be blasted. "It just felt good to hit something hard after struggling for so long."
The carom carried into leftfield as Norris finally started jogging around behind RF Brent Brownlee and 2B Sam Frost for a 4-2 lead that lasted. Barely. The Bulldogs used stellar defense and a long list of relievers to survive the remaining innings.
"It was intense," said closer Jonathan Holder after a hitless, scoreless ninth inning to seal the success. "But that's the kind of ball games you love. It's just a fun atmosphere."
Maybe a little too fun. Annoyed how a handful of equally-competitive Wildcats had stayed outside their dugout Thursday until after the first pitch, a dozen or so Dogs lined up right on the grass edge while the lineup took the field for the televised contest. Plate umpire Jack Cox waved both squads off to no avail as neither side glanced at the other. Finally the home team was ordered in first, rousing the home crowd much more than usual.
It didn't help tensions when leadoff Wildcat Austin Cousino nailed a deep-drive double and fist-pumped, more or less in the MSU dugout direction, from second base. Any chance of a low-key contest was gone from there with Bulldog hackles raised. "We try to win everything we do, and we're not going to back down because they're number five in the country," said LHP Luis Pollorena, who would be involved in another emotional moment later. "I mean we respect them but we're not scared."
"That's just two teams really competing," Coach John Cohen said. "We want to win at everything we do and they are having fun. But our kids will find any way they can to compete and that's why we know we have the right guys."
In relief, especially. State starter Kendall Graveman was coming off a shutout win at Florida last week but did not have the same sort of stuff on the home field this time around. A ground-ball expert, the junior righthander was rocked for fly after fly after fly, including doubles in the opening inning by Cousino and Michael Williams for an opening run. It had the Kentucky dugout amped a notch or two higher if possible, and Graveman looking for his usual location.
"He didn't have his normal stuff, he wasn't down in the zone," C Mitch Slauter said. "But he battled through three-plus innings and we pieced it together from then on." Graveman went 3.2 innings charged with five hits, two runs, and a couple of strikeouts. He was tagged for the second score in the top of the fourth after consecutive base hits from Cameron Flynn and Thomas McCarthy, an advancing bunt, and bouncer off the bat of Matt Reida.
Graveman did leave the sacks stuffed in the second on a strikeout of Brian Adams but kept giving up high-flies that, thanks to Dudy Noble Field's deeper dimensions, at least stayed in this ballpark.
"I feel bad for Kendall, we had to get him early," Cohen said. "He faces 18 hitters and gets two ground balls and one of those scores a run. That's just not who he is, he's been brilliant for us as you know. But it's an easy decision when you have those guys in the bullpen."
Lefthander Nick Routt stranded two other Wildcats that inning, then gave up a leadoff double and single in the fifth leading to Kentucky's third score. J.T. Riddle earned the RBI with his fly ball to centerfield. But by that point the Wildcats were playing from behind.
A defensive lapse opened the door for Mississippi State to get on the board. Slauter faded a fly towards the left line that went off the leftfielder's glove for a triple. And the usually-calm catcher did some fast fist-pumping of his own to the home dugout. "This is a big series for us and I like to show my emotions, get into the game and give some energy to the team and try to get us going." Brownlee singled him in for a 1-1 tie broke in the fourth.
A big inning didn't seem in the works though as after Slauter walked a Brownlee grounder forced him. 1B Wes Rea struck out but Frost extended the inning with his base hit allowing number-nine hitter Norris to swing. On 2-1 count he got all the way around on Grundy's offering for the two-run lead.
It was new lefty reliever Pollorena giving up the sac-fly for a 4-3 scoreboard, and nothing more. He stranded lone runners in the fifth and sixth, with some serious frenzy in the latter. The Bulldogs were already upset at how their half of the fifth finished. With bases loaded and two outs, UK reliever Alex Phillips got a Rea ground ball. Shortstop Reida bobbled it before firing to the middle bag for a very, very close out call on Brownlee to prevent a run.
Pollorena had two quick pop-outs of the bottom of the order and a full-count to Cousino, and caught the inside corner. Umpire Cox thought he'd also caught some jersey. Slauter exploded in disbelief, and even the level-headed Pollorena needed a calming-down talk. He was further irked by passing comments made by the Wildcat batter.
"I wasn't talking to him, I don't know why he started chirping. I mean, you know what they say about us Mexicans, you don't want to mess with us sometimes!" On 2-2 he got a called strikeout of Adams. "It was just in the moment," Pollorena said. "He got on the plate and did what hitters are supposed to do. I give a lot of credit to him."
State couldn't extend the lead despite two runners in the sixth and seventh both, with reliever Tim Peterson taking over the latter frame to strand everyone. But the Bulldog bullpen had things under control. In the top of the seventh Pollorena went full-count to Luke Maile, first man up, and State called in righthander Caleb Reed to finish him off and get two more quick outs. Lefthander Ross Mitchell reported for the eighth inning and went in-order even as Kentucky threw two righthanded batters at him. Though, CF Hunter Renfroe had to run down a sinking drive to save a double and end that inning.
Holder, who had closed Thursday's game successfully, was given the save opportunity. "I was pretty sure in the ninth I was going to get it. I was ready for the eighth but we had other guys that could get the job done." A called strikeout of one pinch-batter, a covered bunt of Cousino, and fly ball to Renfroe gave the freshman righthander his sixth save.
Pollorena (4-0) was awarded the win on the 2.0 hitless innings with two strikeouts. Grundy (4-3) took a loss with four hits, all MSU runs, three walks and five strikeouts. Catcher Williams had two of Kentucky's seven hits while SS Adam Frazier hit safely twice and his team nine times total. Norris, of course, made one big hit do the work of many.
"He needed some confidence and I hope that swing gives him confidence," Cohen said. "He also made a big play to the backhand side and with his knee that's a tough, tough play for him." State played a second errorless game.
Having won a fifth weekend of the last six, the Bulldogs can go for a Saturday sweeping and finish over .500 in SEC play for the first time since 2007. As of today they would be seeded seventh in next week's SEC Tournament, and with a win tomorrow State could end up as high as fifth-seed with the right sort of outside help.
Kentucky is 41-14, 18-11 SEC, and now need both a win Saturday and for LSU to defeat South Carolina to tie the Tigers for the regular season championship. If South Carolina wins game-three of that series they are the un-tied champions. Florida can also finish with 19 wins if they finish sweeping Auburn, though in a three-way deadlock of Kentucky, Florida, and West champs LSU the Wildcats would earn first seed in Hoover.
Norris expects the Wildcats to play all-out for a salvaged split and shot at the title, their second ever. The other of course came in 2004 with Cohen the coach. But the Bulldogs have their own ambitions now.
"A win tomorrow would be huge for us to keep going into the SEC Tournament," Norris said.
As of press time, Cohen had not named a starting pitcher to match with UK lefthanded ace Corey Littell (8-0, 2.22). "Evan Mitchell will be one of those guys, certainly Pollo it won't be difficult for him, Brandon Woodruff is someone we're considering. So we do have some options.
"But we weren't worried about that today, we were worried about getting through this one."