But starting in the field, and more to the point in the order? Now that was news, especially slotting a guy with four at-bats all year in the fifth (?!) slot. But with senior RF Brent Brownlee's knee badly swollen again, and freshman Tyler Fullerton struggling at the plate lately, Coach John Cohen figured…well, why not?
"I felt that part of the lineup we've been a little more swing-and-miss and left contact. The thing about Pollo is I know he's going to make contact. You also have to know he's not going to pitch in relief, then you can do that. And you're going to have to maneuver some things."
As it turned out Pollorena did not have to throw, with Ross Mitchell taking care of a left-handed inning. Righties Kendall Graveman and Caleb Reed did the rest. So the DH position was safe. Pollorena wasn't tested in the field as no fly balls came his way…a disappointment to him at least. And at the plate? Yep, the junior gave contact with two very well-struck groundouts to begin with.
Then in the Bulldog half of the sixth with a 2-1 lead and CF Hunter Renfroe on second base, no outs, Pollorena was to make a different sort of contact by bunting. Only he executed the dumpball so well, pushing it towards third base, that he outran the throw for an infield single. It was the first hit of his season, though not career as he had another single in 2010. Pollorena would score on a Wes Rea double all the way from first to home, too, those short—by his own happy admission—legs spinning like a cartoon character.
"It's fun to see him do all that," said Reed. "It makes us pitchers' BP actually pay off! But we all go crazy when he gets the hits. It's real fun."
And by no means a gimmick, Cohen reminds, as Pollorena was a quality hitter and fielder his one junior college season. "Pollo is just a very good athlete, he can bunt, he can move the ball around, situationally he's a really solid hitter, and he runs great in the outfield."
So does a healthy Brownlee, but that was not a Saturday option as the knee which was operated on in March still hampers the senior. Nine Friday innings took a toll, Cohen said. "Brent was really starting to hobble yesterday, this morning it was really swollen up. It looked like a softball was coming out of his knee." Graphic, but a fair description of what Brownlee deals with daily now.
Still, sticking a first-time starter in rightfield—which is the odd-angled area of Dick Howser Stadium—when facing NCAA elimination? "I thought that was the right matchup for our club," Cohen said. "He got the one hit, but he got the walk and every single ball found barrel for us."
Which only reinforces just how pure a ballplayer Pollorena is, per 3B Sam Frost. "Truthfully I think he's only been taking BP with us (hitters) for about w week now. And he has a good swing! No doubt, I was happy to see him in the lineup."
So were State fans once over their surprise because, well, everything Pollorena does pleases. Already a fan-favorite for dominating pitching performances against Southern Mississippi and Ole Miss, his image only expands with each new chance to show something. Even a late-game close call, when Rea ripped a foul-liner that nearly caught Pollorena in the ribs and produced an acrobatic dodging jump, brought cheers.
"That's what we say, people love him!" Reed said. "I think he got a standing-O for striking out against Kentucky. We don't understand it but we like it."
MAKING MOVES: Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson might have some ‘splaining to do about an in-game move. Starting pitcher Kendall Graveman wasn't exactly cruising but had gotten into the fourth with a shutout and one out. A walk didn't seem too dangerous, though after a series of close pick-moves Graveman might have lost the zone; because he plunked the next batter on 2-2 for two on and one out.
Thompson came out for the sudden move, bringing in lefty Ross Mitchell to face a southpaw. It worked for a double-play to end this threat and keep it 0-0 at the time. Still the head coach thought he should clarify afterwards.
"There was nothing wrong with Kendall, we just wanted to get another look in there. Kendall wasn't happy about that! But you don't want him to be happy about it either!" Indeed, Graveman wanted to keep chunking after recovering from a groin injury and short SEC Tournament stint. Besides, he had posted 13-plus scoreless innings in this state this season after a nine-inning shutout win at Florida in May.
"But the strength of our club is our bullpen and I thought that was the story of the ball game," Cohen said. And even an official 1.0 inning from Mitchell where UAB got their only score was considered a success, even if Mitchell aided the Blazers with a two-on, no-outs balk.
"I thought Ross pitched great," Cohen said."If we don't balk in that situation right there they don't score because the (next) two balls were double-play balls essentially."
…AND COUNTING: If that sounds presumptive, the State skipper has season-long proof to back it up. The Bulldogs added two more twin-killings to the account today, fittingly one of them to end the victory. It gave Mississippi State 70 double-dips on the campaign, which is first in the NCAA.
What the Bulldogs are not is a flawless fielding machine by any means. Saturday saw two more errors added to the season total, though one was proven by replay an out instead of a pull-off throw from Frost. Yet this is beside the point because in 2012 very few such miscues have come back to bite the Bulldogs. They have gone weeks now without having a run score either directly on an error, or by anyone reaching that way.
Because, Frost said, they do not get rattled by a bad grab or throw. "Coach Thompson calls it ‘smiling and getting a ground ball'. If we make an error or mess-up our pitchers do a good jobs getting another ground ball. And we have confidence in ourselves that we can get that and turn a double play."
STICK TIME: He doesn't swing the biggest stick on the squad, literally or figuratively. This didn't keep Frost from coming up big Saturday. As big as he's done all season, in fact. With two outs and teammates 2B Matthew Britton and C Mitch Slauter on bases via walks, the junior had State's first good RBI opportunity of the day.
Never mind his .218 average. In fact, and in keeping with what most all Dogs have done this year, this should have been a red-alert to UAB against a team that has succeeded on unlikely heroes. Frost delivered with a double for the 2-0 lead.
"I've been working with (g.a.) Will Coggin and he's been talking about taking my best swing when you only have one or no strikes," Frost said. "It was 2-1, I was just looking for a fastball, I figured that was what he was coming with. And he left it up in the zone."
And Frost sent it to the base of the wall in center-right, which with how the right wall extends at DHS is a poke for a guy with no home runs in 287 college at-bats. Frost hasn't even reached the warning track at Dudy Noble this season…but this wasn't DNF either. "I hit I well. I knew it wasn't going out, it's a tall fence, but I thought it had a chance to get to the fence!"
Frost got his third RBI on a more routine-distance fly ball to centerfield, scoring Britton for State's final margin of victory. The three ribbies were a season high, and most of his career against any team not from the SWAC.
SNAPPED: For the second half of Mississippi State's order to produce almost all the offense made for the game's obvious story line (how obvious, see game story). The flip-side though was lack of any hits from the top of the order; most notably SS Adam Frazier. His 13-game hitting streak ended with a 0-of-3 afternoon, not including two walks. Both were intentional passes, too, not allowing the sophomore those chances to swing and extend the streak.
"Adam has been our big offensive factor all year," Britton said. "Today he and an off-day, it happens. But our lineup is good enough that other guys can pick him up." For his part Frost picked up on the twist, how he had the big day batting ninth with the three RBI and clutch knock.
"It's usually Adam! But he's picked up us a lot this season. It's good to see if he has a day that he struggles we have other people that can pick him up!"
SHORT AND SWEET: Friday's loss was unusual for a few reasons, with a lesser-noticed one that the Bulldogs never bunted against Samford. Never even squared for-real or for-effect, in fact. But against UAB things changed, or changed back rather. Except the Blazers helped turn what should have been routine sacrifices into positive plays.
Pollorena's reaching on a bunt-single was one example; another was Britton's push up the right side that the Blazer pitcher and first baseman miss-played into an error and reach as well. Immediately after, Slauter squeezed Rea in from third base with another bumper up the first base line. The short game stood tall again as was often the case in the regular State season.
What made it all the more interesting was that UAB coach Brian Shoop knows the short game very well himself, and Cohen often consults with his former MSU coach (assistant 1983-89) about infield defense. "The placement of our bunts really caused some havoc," Cohen said. "I think we had three you couldn't roll them out with your hand any better. Coach (Nick) Mingione does such a great job with our players in that area."
Fans recall how State put the squeeze-game to good effect during their regular-season winning stretch, then seemingly abandoned it. Cohen admitted the team didn't even sacrifice bunt all that well at stretches considering how much practice, and live-game situations, they get. Still, "It's just something we believe in. And we have runners." Maybe not a Slauter, but Britton is a 4.1 runner consistently home-to-first. And Pollorena today?
"Luis ran a 4.05 to first, just flying. When you can pressure teams like that there are some mistakes that are going to be made, even good defensive clubs," Cohen said. "It's got to be sequenced properly. It has to be the right guy, that's another reason for inserting Luis. Having him in the middle of lineup makes that more available to us."
CLOSING ACT: In May, senior closer Caleb Reed handed that role to righthanded freshman Jonathan Holder. And the new kid has done it very well with nine saves and a perfect 0.00 ERA in 27.1 innings, a program record best as can be judged.
But for one afternoon Reed returned to closing duty. Albeit, having entered in the bottom of the fifth inning to strand a pair of Blazers and maintain a 2-1 lead. Instead of just doing righthanded matchup work for a turn or two, Reed remained on the mound. The rest of the way, which despite a seven-run margin of victory put him in official save status. It was his ninth of this season and 21st career.
Yes, he asked Thompson permission to run it out this time. "There's no use getting somebody sore for tomorrow, just let me try to finish this one," Reed said. The only reason a change was considered was that Reed had thrown 30 mid-relief pitches Friday. This stint lasted 56 more. But Reed seemed fine at the end, and for that matter felt fresh—or fresh enough—upon entering.
"When I first came in I didn't have the best stuff and when (Patrick) Palmeiro hit that double off the fence, I worked through that and had better stuff later."
Reed now has 96 career appearances, 92 of them in relief. While he doesn't claim to be any iron man, the old Dog on this staff knows what he can do and when he can do it. On consecutive days, if needed, though he cautions younger pups about risking themselves and their futures for sake of pitching pride.
"The biggest thing is you have to know the difference between sore and hurt. Working through soreness is the biggest thing I do. I think Ross (Mitchell) just has one of those rubber arms the way he throws."
MSU-ELLANEOUS: State has now won 40 games in a season for the first time since 2005, which was also the last SEC Tournament title year… By beating UAB the Bulldogs will at very least avoid going 0-and-2 in the NCAAs. It has happened only once to State, in 1993…when the regional was played here in Tallahassee.