Alright, so it was pure order-luck bringing the top Diamond Dog batter up right after UML cut a 3-0 lead to one run with a two-RBI homer in the top of the seventh. Timing matters, too. Kruger’s was perfect, as an out into Mississippi State’s half he slugged the ball beyond left field. The solo shot stemmed whatever River Hawks momentum had been building and was State’s insurance in a 4-2 victory.
Kruger already had a pair of base hits on the evening with a third-inning RBI, off a bases-loaded walk ironically. This time he worked for the RBI. He also out-guessed River Hawks reliever Kendell Pomeroy.
“It was 2-1 (count) and I’d already had two hits on breakers,” Kruger said. “I figured they were probably going to attack with fastballs and that’s what I got.”
It was Kruger’s second homer of the young season, his seventh extra-base hit, and raised the transfer’s average to an even .600. “It’s been great, you want to start out hot.”
Dakota Hudson wanted to start out hot as well, in his second Friday opening action. Then he not only gave up a base hit to the first UML batter, he lost his catcher in the process. C Josh Lovelady hurt a knee trailing the play. Coach John Cohen has two more full-time catchers on the roster…but it was true freshman infielder Hunter Stovall pulling on the armor and getting behind the plate.
“Just a guy ready to jump in off the bench,” Hudson said. “As soon as he was out there I said are you ready for this because it’s me and you for the rest of the game. He looked me in the eye and said I got you.”
Stovall did, for Hudson and two more Bulldog pitchers. The rookie caught three swinging strikeouts to strand that leadoff runner, and took care of every other pitch tossed. “I thought he was the player of the game,” said Kruger, himself a catcher but unable to work behind the plate right now with an arm issue.
Stovall did not get a hit in three appearances, though he did reach on a fielder’s choice in the third inning and ultimately scored. He also walked his way on once.
“What an amazing job by Hunter,” Coach John Cohen said. “He really has not caught in three weeks, he came in and did a great job.” Cohen explained that catchers Elih Marrero and Gavin Collins are expected to handled Saturday’s two games. “We really wanted Lovelady to have this ball game.”
Hudson certainly wanted a better outing than last Friday when he went 5.0 with two early runs in a no-decision. The second time around, he was able to toss 6.0 full frames with no runs on two hits. Hudson did walk four River Hawks, two in the second inning around a single that set up his biggest challenge.
The Bulldogs got a good bounce to out the lead runner, a pitch off Stovall’s mitt that he recovered to throw-out Michael Young going to third base. With a pair in scoring positions Hudson fanned #9 batter Ben Prada to strand both.
From there, “I knew I had it,” Hudson said. Walks in the third and sixth did no damage, and Hudson ended up with a career-high nine strikeouts to get the victory.
“We saw the strike zone was a little low early on, I was able to adjust my vision and be up a little more and work off my sink.”
UML starter Steve Xirinachs wasn’t a pushover early, keeping it scoreless through two. Then #8 Bulldog batter LF Cody Brown led off the third with a double, and Stovall’s sacrifice bunt turned into a reach-base with Dogs on corners. Walks of CF Jacob Robson and Kruger broke scoring ice, and with two outs 1B Nate Lowe grounded to the right side.
Kruger was forced at second but the return-throw went wild, as Stovall and Robson crossed for a 3-0 lead. It was just what Hudson wanted and expected.
“I knew we were going to get some run support at some time. Our hitters are really good, they’ve been having quality at-bats. Their starter threw strikes and it took a little longer than we thought, but our hitters were constant pressure on him.”
State did leave three un-scored runners in the fourth and fifth innings together. Pomeroy took over for the sixth and stranded Brown after an infield pop-drop single. He returned with a 3-2 margin after Steve Passatempo got to swing thanks to a two-out walk issued by Bulldog LHP Vance Tatum.
His swing sailed just over rightfield for a two-run homer. Passatempo, a freshman, had slugged a three-run shot just hours early off Nicholls State. Tatum shook it off to strike out the next three, before Kruger muted the momentum swing with his own shot.
In the top of the eighth Tatum issued a two-out walk. With a 1-2 count, junior RHP Blake Smith was called in to finish off Chris Sharpe. One good breaking ball did for a called strikeout. Smith took care of the ninth in fine style too, adding three more strikeouts so he could fan all four batters he faced and earn the save.
“Blake came in and dominated with his breaking ball,” Cohen said. “So we pitched it really well, we defended it really well.” State did not hit particularly well, other than Kruger and Brown. They accounted for all six Bulldog hits, three apiece. Xirinachs (0-1) took the loss on four of those hits, three runs with three walks and five strikeouts.
The Bulldogs have a long Saturday in store. It begins at 11:00am against Nicholls State, with either LHP Daniel Brown or RHP Austin Sexton starting that one. The other will start the 2:30 rematch with UML, which defeated the Colonels 11-2 in Friday’s early game.
Baseball fans are reminded that basketball parking rules are in effect Saturday, as Mississippi State hosts South Carolina with a 1:30 tipoff in Humphrey Coliseum.