Johnson's excitement was completely understandable. The senior righthander came in just 1-3 overall, his last victory back on February 25—the season's Opening Day. Since then he had started five more games without a winning decision, and taken two SEC setbacks. But with a home crowd of 4,582 and the Dog dugout cheering him on, Johnson got the conference win he'd been working for.
"He's done a great job the last couple of weekends," first baseman Brad Jones said, "we just haven't been able to put up runs for him. Today was different, he pitched great and I'm glad we were able to get him the win."
Johnson scattered five hits over his eight complete innings and allowed the lone Tiger run, that on a leadoff homer by cleanup batter and team hitting-leader Karl Amonite in the fourth inning. Otherwise he gave up just five hits, all singletons, and struck out six against one walk. And he needed just 102 pitches to get through those eight frames.
"I felt like everything was working tonight," Johnson said. "I felt I threw everything well, I located and got rollers and fly balls. I may have had a little bit better changeup."
He also had a little bit more offensive support. The Bulldogs only equalled Auburn's eight total hits, but they made more with the safeties. State also used timely non-hits to score runs, with a pair of perfectly executed sacrifice bunts and two run-producing ground balls. One came off the bat of Jones, who was credited with the winning RBI on his ground-out in the sixth inning.
"Small ball," said Jones, who had another base hit. "That's what wins games. We got the job done today, we got some hits and bunted guys over and got the ground balls to get the runs in. It pays off." State also shook off several recent failures in bunting that cost them in league losses.
"We manufactured some runs," Coach Ron Polk said, "we got some guys to third base and got them in."
And did it the hard way, as none of State's four runs came on a base hit. The tone was set in the bottom of the second as Jones led off with a single and reached the other corner of the diamond on a single down the first-base line by Ed Easley. The third baseman was thrown out trying to stretch his base hit into a double, but Jones was able to make it home on a groundout by DH Brian LaNinfa.
With the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the sixth, thanks to Amonite's solo shot in the Auburn fourth, small ball came up even bigger. Catcher Thomas Berkery laced a double into leftfield and Brad Corley walked on four balls from Tiger starter Arnold Hughey. Auburn pulled the cornermen in tight but Joseph Hunter's bunt was dropped perfectly towards first base to sacrifice both runners into scoring positions.
Jones grounded a 1-2 pitch deep to the four-hole, scoring Berkery and putting AU second baseman Tyler Johnstone on his knees to field the roller. His throw reached first base at the same time as Jones but 1B umpire Donald Gilmore called it an out, outraging normally-stoic MSU aide Tommy Raffo. "I thought I was safe, but when Coach Raffo gets worked up like that you know something's wrong!" Jones said.
Protests did not change anything but the play ultimately did not affect play as the third runner scored anyway. Third baseman Josh Donaldson charged to field a slow grounder from Easley, then threw high of first base for an error and 3-1 Bulldog advantage.
Johnson had stranded two Tigers in his third turn and shrugged off the homer in the fourth. But with the two-run margin Auburn immediately got in position to answer in their seventh inning with leadoff singles by Josh Bell and Russell Dixon. They, too, advanced on a bunt, which got State's bullpen active. Johnson was not going to let hard luck strike again, though, as he got Donaldson to miss a 2-2 breaking ball on the outer half and rolled an inning-ending grounder to shortstop.
This time he waited until the third out to run off the hill. "It was a momentum-shifter in our favor," he said. And just to make sure, the offense tacked on the fourth score as shortstop Bunky Kateon dropped a double into right-centerfield. Leftfielder Jeff Butts tried to bunt and was walked, so top-of-the-order man Jeffrey Rea did the sacrifice honors with a slick bump to the left side.
That ended Hughey's evening as bullpen ace John Madden was called in. Berkery greeted him with a deep drive to rightfield for the sacrifice-fly and RBI. At that Johnson knew he was in control. "When we scored that fourth run I was kind of relieved, I knew I was going back out and that was a little extra cushion. It's been a while since I pitched with a lead."
He kept the lead at 4-1 through eight frames, too, before Brett Cleveland finished out the affair. He had to strand a pair of Tigers to do it, as with runners at first and second the righthander grounded out lefthanded pinch-hitter Joey Huskins for his second save of the season.
Hughey (3-3) took the loss with seven hits and three walks against two strikeouts in his 6.1 innings of work. "He was good," said Jones, who grew up hitting against the Tiger starter in Orlando, Fla. "We just saw it and hit it tonight." Or bunted it, even, when necessary. "Tonight every facet of the game came through," said Johnson. "We hit the ball when we needed hits."
"AJ did what he had to do," said Polk, "he got some strikeouts and ground balls we made all the plays."
The Bulldogs get another chance to make pitches and plays as the teams play game-two Saturday at 3:00. Righthander Todd Doolittle will get the start for State, while Auburn is expected to send righty Josh Sullivan to the mound.