After brilliant starting performances in the first two wins, State got an excellent six Sunday innings out of Josh Johnson. The sophomore righthander scattered six hits in his stint and allowed a lone run in the third inning, with five strikeouts. Johnson only had to throw 70 pitches in his second outing of the season, and picked up his first decision in the process.
"I thought he had good command, better than the last time out," Coach Ron Polk said.
With a healthy 9-1 lead after five innings the MSU staff felt free to give some other arms weekend work in relief. Eric Ebers, Jon Crosby, and Brett Cleveland each got an inning, and veteran Cleveland had the best stint with two strikeouts and no hits in three fast outs.
Johnson had some early challenges, though, as Kansas touched him for a pair of singles in the first inning before catcher Ed Easley ended the threat by picking off the Jayhawk at first base. In the third turn a leadoff walk and consecutive singles produced Kansas' first run. Johnson came back with a strikeout, flyout, and called strikeout.
"I knew once I got out of that I'd probably be alright," said Johnson. And he was, because State's offense jumped on KU starter Kodiak Quick immediately and gave Johnson a lead to work with. Joseph Hunter led off with a single, Brad Corley walked with one out, and Brad Jones played Hunter with a hit through the right side. The KU leftfielder misplayed a fly ball by Brian LaNinfa into a run-scoring error, and Thomas Berkery made the score 3-0 with a sacrifice fly.
"We did a good job again in the first inning, putting the ball in play and making some things happen," Polk said.
The real damage to Quick came in the bottom of the third as Corley singled with one out and Jones took a pitch in the side. This time LaNinfa got a clean hit for a RBI, and with two outs Berkery sailed a drive over left-centerfield. His three-run blast expanded the lead to 7-1, and was State's first longball in 27 innings.
"I wasn't expecting to hit one," Berkery said, "I haven't really been swinging the bat well at all. I just tried to put a good swing on it."
Quick, a transfer from Stanford, stayed on the hill for the fifth inning and paid for it. With two outs LaNinfa and Bunky Kateon each doubled, scoring one run, and Berkery drove in his fifth RBI with a single. "Quick has had great outings," Polk said, "his numbers are good. But we did a good job." Quick went to 4-1 with his first loss of the year.
Don Czyz took care of the last three Bulldog at-bats with two hits and five strikeouts in relief. Crosby gave up the other Jayhawk run in the eighth, hitting a batter who moved on around by a wild pitch, single, and sacrifice fly.
Johnson, who lasted just three innings against Eastern Illinois a weekend before, said he wasn't throwing as hard this day but was throwing more effectively against a better opponent. "I was throwing a lot of location today, I didn't have the velocity I had the other day." Which was the right way to attack a Kansas order that did collect nine hits but failed to bunch them into big innings.
In a way, Johnson's day is a template for how Mississippi State plans to pitch this season…or at least how the starting arms are expected to work. It's a matter of location and timing and letting the defense do the job. "That's what Coach (Russ) McNickle has been stressing to us," Johnson said. "We're not going to be an overpowering pitching staff, we have to hit our spots and do what we can to win."
Polk was encouraged by Johnson's second weekend start. "It's just a matter of getting on the mound. Last year he was our midweek guy and I think the fact that he knows we're counting on him to be a potential SEC starter he's nervous. I think he'll be better."
For the first six games the Mississippi State pitching staff has shown good things. Though the game turned out a nailbiter after facing one batter too many, Friday starter Alan Johnson was outstanding into the seventh frame against Austin Peay. He finished with 7.2 frames and six hits, and if not for a wind-aided, two-run homer the senior Johnson would have picked up a second season win.
Instead reliever Mike Valentine was in the right place at the right time to get a decision, keeping the margin to one run until the offense came through in the last chance. It was the righthander's first relief win at MSU. Saturday evening saw an even more impressive outing as starter Todd Doolittle threw six hitless innings and came out in the seventh after a scratch single (later ruled an error). Doolittle, who missed the opening-weekend with a finger injury, showed no ill after-effects in blanking Kansas.
The weekend showed what State is thinking in terms of the early-season rotation, with A.Johnson, Doolittle, and J.Johnson mixing right/left/right over a weekend. Saturday's shutout also revealed how the bullpen stacks up at the moment. Veteran side-winder Saunders Ramsey finished the seventh, lefthander Brooks Dunn (who would have started if Doolittle was still hurt) tossed 1.2 innings to set up for Valentine as the closer.
Cleveland is still the top righthander for long-relief, with Dunn the southpaw pick from the pen. Other arms—Trent Hill, Justin Pigott, Ebers, and Jeremiah Boling—have made appearances as well. One Bulldog who has yet to take the hill, though, is rightfielder Corley, who still figures in the closing plans. The question is how soon can the junior find a situation to loosen up the right arm before SEC season arrives in two weeks.
Whoever throws, Polk is not counting on shut-down pitching performances. The Dog defense has played well since the first two at-bats of the year produced consecutive errors by redshirt infielders. There have been just three more gaffes charged in 54 innings, and freshmen shortstop Kateon and third baseman Michael Rutledge have 30 assists between them already.
But the defense has gotten a couple of scares, too. In Friday's game sophomore second baseman Jeffrey Rea pulled a hamstring in the late innings, and did not play the next two games. Polk thinks Rea might be able to play as early as Tuesday's home game with Louisiana Tech, but at the moment he doesn't plan on putting the infielder in the lineup that early.
"And if I don't play him Tuesday there's no need to play him Wednesday. That doesn't give enough at-bats to get ready for the weekend, but I don't want to take a chance with a hamstring." Sunday afternoon centerfielder Hunter limped after racing all the way to left for a fly ball and turning an ankle. Polk thinks Hunter will be fine. "I think he just rolled it, he should be OK Tuesday."
When Hunter went out leftfielder Jeff Butts moved to center and Ryan Fesmire stepped in. Senior Jon Mungle, who played an inning against Mississippi Valley State, is still not 100% after the opening-week knee injury of 2004. Rea's hamstring has moved Berkery, the veteran at catcher, to second base and made true frosh Easley the opening backstop. "That puts Ed in a tough spot having to catch every game," Berkery said, "but we'll survive."
Berkery has survived a slow start at the plate himself, and his five-RBI afternoon was a major boost. He also notched the club's first homer, something of concern to fans and even a few Dogs…but not their coach. "We're going to be asked that a lot. We're by far now the biggest park in the league and I don't want out guys to think they've got to over-swing to stay up with the other teams. If we played at Kentucky or other places we'd have probably six or seven home runs right now. So I don't worry about that."
Berkery sees more potential for punch in this batting order, though Bulldog righthanders have been frustrated by unfriendly breezes these first six games. "We've got some guys with some power, they're going to come eventually. It's just a matter of getting hot."
The hottest Dog so far is DH LaNinfa with a .412 average, though just two RBI. Butts and Berkery now lead that column with nine each, and it was Butts' tough 0-2 swing with two outs that tied up the Austin Peay game. Luck was also involved in the comeback, as a routine fly ball by Rutledge fell safely for a double to set up Butts, who stole his way into scoring position and came on on a Governor throwing error with the game-winner.
Kateon is getting the job done at the plate, too, with a .400 average…same as first baseman Brad Jones. Only Berkery and Rutledge are swinging below .300 after six games, though Polk is still hesitant about awarding this offense a good grade so far. "I still have to wait and see."
"We've got some talent," Berkery said, "we just have to get some experience under our belts. If we all get hot we're going to put some numbers up, that's exciting."
The intensity increases this weekend. The Bulldogs do have another pair of home games in the midweek, with an improved Tech team and Jackson State. Polk said Dunn will get the ball against Tech, which has a win over Arkansas this year; while John Lalor will see his first action of '05 with a start against the Tigers.
Then State takes off on the first road trip of the season, and what a journey it will be as the Bulldogs battle Arizona in a three-game series in Tucson. "I think they're ranked tenth," Josh Johnson said, "and that's going to be the first real test of how good we're going to be this year."
Polk agrees this will be a big test. "Arizona returns a lot of players from last year. It's going to be a tough road trip, but that's good. We need to be tested."