The coach's casual attitude did not stop others from celebrating the occasion. Polk was presented a commemorative plaque by the athletic department, and short-lived cake by the Diamond Girls once #1000 was safely in the books. The outcome was just uncertain enough much of the afternoon to keep the 2,390 home crowd involved. The Bulldogs never trailed, but neither did they run away from the Panthers.
"We had to work," starting pitcher Alan Johnson said, "they had some guys that were pretty good. But we went out and got the job done."
Johnson turned in 5.2 frames to open his senior season with a victory and play a part in Polk's MSU milestone. "He didn't say anything really," Johnson said, "we all knew it was a pretty big deal. Especially to me. It was a little more added pressure." The righthander handled it well, allowing five hits and keeping EIU scoreless into the sixth when a ground ball glanced off his throwing arm for a infield RBI-single.
Mike Valentine took over with two outs and the run in in the top of the sixth, rolling a twin-killing to end EIU's only serious threat. The soph righty worked two more hitless frames but could not get a save; Saunders Ramsey did instead, closing things down in the ninth.
The Panthers opened with Ted Juske, a tall lefthander who battled Bulldog batters almost evenly for five full innings and allowed just three base hits. State was able to bunch just enough contacts to notch their three scores through four innings, which proved sufficient.
The Bulldogs put up the campaign's first run in their second time at the plate. First baseman Brad Jones led off with a fly ball perfectly placed between the left- and centerfielders for a triple. A walk later shortstop Bunky Kateon's ground ball put State in front 1-0.
Juske was not hurt by a Jeff Butts leadoff double in the third inning, but his fourth did not turn out as well as rightfielder Brad Corley's ground ball to deep shortstop went for a single. A walk of Jones had a pair on, and when Joseph Hunter showed bunt Juske's breaking ball got away to advance both runners. Hunter got one RBI with a groundout to shortstop, and Kateon's fly ball scored Jones for the 3-0 lead.
It was all the offense the Dogs would get, or need. Johnson made it through five turns with no damage, stranding runners in four of those frames. His first inning was a challenge though as rookie infielders Kateon and Michael Rutledge booted the first two ground balls of the season and a ground ball advanced both. Cleanup batter Keiji Szalo drove the ball to short rightfield, and Corley not only got to the sinking liner but threw a strike home to get the lead runner and end the inning.
Johnson stranded lone runners in the second and fourth innings, then put a pair on to open the fifth with a walk and single. He rolled three ground-outs to end that threat, but in the top of the sixth he issued a one-out walk and a single. A hard grounder by Eric Huber glanced off the pitcher and into leftfield for a RBI-single and 3-1 score. Valentine was called in to stifle the rally, which he did with a double-play grounder.
Polk said Johnson was due to come out shortly anyway. "Fortunately it's nothing serious, it hit him on the meat. I thought Valentine did a good job, he got his pitch-count to where he can come back Sunday." Valentine left a Panther on the paths in the eighth, yielding to Ramsey who had two outs before a closely-called walk and infield single off Rutledge's glove. The third baseman made a nice running pick and throw for the final out.
Eastern Illinois out-hit State 6-4 and the errors were even at two apiece, though after those opening boots the Bulldogs did not have any real defensive difficulties. "Oklahoma who played them earlier told us they were a nice, scrappy ball club," Polk said of the Panthers. "You could see in the first inning we had nervous nellies out there, but that happens. I thought they made some nice plays afterwards."
These Bulldogs, young and otherwise, get more chances to make more plays Saturday and Sunday as the weekend series continues. Polk plans to start soph righthander Josh Johnson in the second game, and junior lefty Brooks Dunn in the third. And neither of them will have any pressure added by any sort of career numbers…which Polk has quite a few of by now.
"It's the third time I've been honored for winning 1000," he noted, talking of his overall record (now at 1,234 wins) and reaching the mark as a SEC head coach. "This is the last one I can win, right? It's a great number, I've got a few losses, too."