"You live or die by contact plays," said Coach Ron Polk, as his Diamond Dogs made the last contact and just enough plays to save the day.
It was a stunning setback for the Governors, who had taken a 3-2 lead in the top of the eighth inning on a two-run homer by shortstop Jared Walker. Staked to the first lead of the game, AP starter Rowdy Hardy was on his way to a complete-game victory. The southpaw had survived lone Bulldog runs in the second and seventh innings, seen a bid for a go-ahead homer by MSU centerfielder Joseph Hunter caught at the fence in the bottom of the eighth, and gotten two quick ground-ball outs to open the last MSU chance.
"My gosh, he was nasty," Polk said of Hardy. "They said he started out at Ole Miss two falls ago, I'm glad he's not on their team now. He's a SEC-type guy, in fact he's a preseason all-American and didn't lose a game in their conference." Hardy (2-1) was touched for nine hits, two of them doubles by Rutledge, and struck out six.
In fact the game should have ended for Hardy on a routine fly by Rutledge, but the Governor leftfielder lost track and let the ball fall five steps in front for a two-out double. Hardy quickly got two strikes on MSU leftfielder Butts, who blooped the third pitch over the third baseman for his only base hit of the afternoon. It was good for a tying RBI, and Butts stole second to get into scoring position.
Substitute catcher Edward Easley, who entered the game in the second, chopped a 2-2 grounder to the right side that second baseman Jake Peterson charged and grabbed. Easley looked likely to reach on an infield hit, but Peterson forced a running, underhand throw that sailed wide of first base and let Butts come on around for the game-ending score.
The last-inning runs made a winner of reliever Mike Valentine, who had taken over in the eighth after starter Alan Johnson surrendered the go-ahead homer. The bullpen righty allowed a single hit with a strikeout to get his first college victory.
Johnson looked on his way to getting the win, working seven strong frames with just one run on four hits against him and nine strikeouts. He lost the shutout in his fifth turn, on a single, sacrifice bunt, and RBI-double from Tommy Smith. That tied the score 1-1.
Then when the Bulldogs broke the deadlock in the seventh the starter was in line for a winning decision. With one out shortstop Bunky Kateon singled and Rutledge bounced a double down the third-base line for two Dogs in scoring positions. Butts got his first RBI of the day on a ground ball in front of the mound that Hardy bobbled long enough for Kateon to reach the plate and put State in front 2-1.
The lead did not survive the next half-inning. Johnson retired two before AP outfielder Jacob Crass reached on an infield single to deep shortstop. After working the count full Walker connected, his drive going high enough and just far enough to evade a leaping Hunter's glove over the fence. It was Walker's first homer of the season.
"They get an infield hit and a wind-aided home run," Polk said. The breeze didn't give enough aid when Hunter came back with a two-out,one-on drive to almost the same spot in the bottom of the inning, the fly caught a step in front of the fence.
But it set up the ninth-inning drama as Walker tried to finish things out, only to run into bad luck of his own. "Both kids pitched deserved to win," Polk said of the starters. "You feel gad to win a game like that, but that's what the game is all about. The whole key today is the leftfielder lost it and Jeff did a great job putting the ball in to play."
State's other run came in the second inning as Hunter doubled to lead off, took third on a fly ball, and scored on a Kateon grounder.
"It was a good win early in the season for our kids," Polk said. "We've got a tough task the next two days with Kansas, who has played 18 games already." The Jayhawks are 12-6 after the loss to Austin Peay, and will face State on Saturday at 4:30 and Sunday at noon. They also will have their best guns going on the hill, Polk said.
"Kansas saved their two aces for us, the guy pitching Sunday transferred from Stanford. But it will be fun to come back out tomorrow after winning a one-run game."
State will start Todd Doolittle in the Saturday game, and Polk said either Josh Johnson or Brooks Dunn will get the ball first Sunday. But the Bulldogs might be without starting second baseman Jeffrey Rea, who hurt a hamstring in the seventh inning and was replaced by starting catcher Thomas Berkery.