Rebels Lefties Shut Down Bulldogs For 5-1 Win

The first 25 Mayor's Trophy Games saw just about every sort of outcome imaginable, befitting a matchup of in-state rivals. But that quarter-century never produced a shutout victory for either participant.

M.T.G. #26 broke no such new ground either, but only because Mississippi State got a solo home run in the top of the ninth inning. And avoiding a blanking only delayed taking a loss as Mississippi whipped the Bulldogs 5-1 Tuesday evening before 5,402 at Jackson's Smith-Wills Stadium. The Rebels took their fourth-straight victory in the series which is now even at 13-13, the first tie count since the neutral-site event was inaugurated in 1980.

For the current season Mississippi improved to 20-5 while the Bulldogs dropped to 17-5. The game did not count in the SEC standings, but certainly stung State fans who once upon a time regarded the Trophy Game as another routine regular-season success. Now the Dogs have not won one since 2001, and Coach Ron Polk is 0-4 in the Game since his return to Starkville. Polk was not around to watch the end of this loss, though, having been ejected in the bottom of the eighth while protesting a balk call on reliever Jesse Carver. He missed most of the evening's fireworks, as after leaving the Rebels expanded their lead from 1-0 to 5-0, and his own team made things interesting by scoring their lone run—on a leadoff shot by Thomas Berkery—and loaded the bases with two outs. UM reliever Matt Maloney stopped things there with a called third strike on pinch-hitter Joseph McCaskill.

Maloney got his fourth save of the season with 1.1 finishing innings, but the star of the game was Rebel starter Eric Fowler. The lefthander (2-1) dominated the evening, working 7.2 innings with just three base hits and no walks marring his linescore. He struck out 11 and only twice had runners reach second base.

"He's pitched against us before," Polk said. "He's a great midweek guy, in fact if they didn't have such a great rotation he'd probably be in it. He's tough on lefthanders and I don't have that much mix-and-match to make too many moves."

Brooks Dunn got the start for State and put in a career-best stint by working two batters into the sixth inning. He scattered six hits and struck out four with a pair of walks, and was assessed with only one run. But it was enough to cost Dunn (3-1) his first losing decision of the year. Josh Johnson, Carver, and Jamie Gant combined for the final three frames and four Rebel runs. Mississippi out-hit the Bulldogs 11 to five.

"They dominated our lefthanded hitters," said Polk. "We just didn't generate much offense. I thought we pitched good enough to win the ball game."

Dunn opened both his first two turns with walks. The first didn't hurt, though a double down the leftfield line had a pair in scoring positions. Consecutive grounds balls halted that threat, producing a tag at home plate for one out and a 1-4-3 double-play for two more.

The second time around did cost State's starter a score. With Mark Wright on first and one out Alex Presley lined a drive over a leaping Jeffrey Rea and into the right-centerfield gap for a double and RBI as Wright was waved all the way around for a 1-0 Rebel lead. Yet another two-bagger, by Brian Pettway in the Rebel fourth, came to nought.

Meanwhile the Bulldogs got nothing done against Fowler, with only an infield hit by Berkery and a fly ball right to the centerfield wall by Brad Corley to show through six full frames. "If Corley's ball goes out that changes the whole complexion of the game," said Polk. In the fourth Corley took a fastball off his shoulder, made second on a ground ball, and watched Brad Jones strike out swinging.

Dunn's evening ended after Chris Coghlan singled and Stephen Head was plunked in the leg. Johnson made short work of the situation as he struck out Pettway and Berkery gunned Head down at first. A high fly-out from Wright ended the inning with the margin still the lone run.

Fowler had retired 11-staight going into the top of the eighth, when Ed Easley pounded the first pitch up the middle for a single. Brian LaNinfa followed with a base hit under the diving third baseman for a pair on and no outs. Michael Rutledge showed bunt for a pair of strikes and looked at a third, and Jeff Butts whiffed on 2-2. With the top of the order up Mississippi opted for the change, replacing Fowler with lefty Maloney. He got two quick strikes on Rea, who grounded out on 1-2 to end the threat.

The Rebels then padded the lead decisively. Craig Osteen singled and, after the pitching change, was sent to second on the balk that got Polk tossed. "Sometimes umpires like to show the crowd they're there," the coach mused later. It did not matter, stastistically, as after failing twice to bunt Coghlan lined a triple at the base of the rightfield fence, scoring Osteen. Head's fly went to the deepest part of the park for a sacrifice and 3-0 lead. State changed pitchers again so it was Jamie Gant who had a grounder booted at third base, then watched pinch-hitter Miles Franklin lift a fly ball over leftfield for a two-run homer.

Even after Berkery slugged his third longball of the season with a drive to leftfield, getting State on the board at last, UM had little to worry about. Then with one out Joseph Hunter lined a single into left, and Jones reached on a tough ground ball misplayed at second base. A wild pitch advanced both before Easley struck out, but LaNinfa took a ball off the elbow to load the bases. Righthander McCaskill was sent to the plate in place of Rutledge, only to watch a hard slider hit the inside corner on 1-2 to end the evening.

Hunter's last-chance saftey extending his hitting streak to 18 games. This game was the first official event held on the stadium's new artificial surface, which had been fully installed only two days earlier. The near-$900,000 ‘sprinturf' field played flawlessly in its debut.

The Bulldogs, who are at Tennessee for a weekend SEC series, will be back on that turf for a pair of games next week as they take on Samford and Birmingham Southern in a Tuesday/Wednesday set at Smith-Wills. Both are technically ‘away' games but the Jackson stadium is paying to have them played there, each at 6:30.

Polk said that shortstop Bunky Kateon, who sat out Tuesday's game to rest a sore back and arm suffered at Arkansas, will be able to play at Tennessee, and the rotation will again be Alan Johnson, Todd Doolittle, and Jon Crosby.

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