"The plan was to give almost every (reliever) who is going on the 25-man roster a chance," Coach Ron Polk said. "And to win. I think we had an opportunity yesterday and today to give all those pitchers a chance."
The staff made the most of their chances, particularly Eric Ebers and Josh Johnson. The lefty and righty combo, essentially booked as co-starters for this game, each turned in three steady innings. Ebers did indeed throw the first pitch but Johnson was designated for the decision.
As the score showed State's offense also put in a solid evening's work, with a season-best 20 base hits off four Samford staffmen. Three Dogs—Brad Corley, Joseph Hunter, and Thomas Berkery—tallied three safeties apiece, while Jeffrey Rea and Michael Rutledge each had a pair of hits. Only four balls went for more than a single base and nothing left the yard though first baseman Brad Jones did swat a triple for the second-consecutive game.
"Samford's pitching has been a tough part of their midweek game, but they're good enough to beat you," Polk said. "We expanded the lead in the middle and got some key hits."
Ebbers was seeing his first action since March 18. The southpaw did his part, taking care of the first three innings while allowing the lone Samford run in his last turn. He was assessed for only one base hit, an infield single with two outs in the second that did no harm, but did walk three Bulldogs. The latter two free passes came in a somewhat tense third inning, when SU made their only serious bid at keeping things competitive after falling behind 3-0.
An errored grounder to shortstop put a Samford runner on to lead off with the top of the order coming up. A sacrifice bunt moved Justin Worthington up a base, then after a walk he took off for third base. Catcher Berkery's throw was high and into leftfield for a run-scoring error. Another walk had the tying runs on the paths before Ebers steadied, struck out the cleanup batter and rolled an inning-ending grounder.
With the score still 3-1 Samford tried to make a little more joins in the top of the fifth, as with two outs Matt Alling and Garret Rice singled off Johnson. A stolen base again had tying runs in scoring positions, but Johnson got a strikeout of #4 hitter Bear Burnett.
Johnson earned his second victory of 2005 with no losses in eight appearances to-date. He had no trouble in his other two innings and finished with five strikeouts, no walks, and three hits. "They told me I was going to get a few innings today," said Johnson, "I was looking forward to it. I was a lot more comfortable out there tonight."
He was also a lot happier than the last time he faced Samford, recalling a 6-0 loss in 2004. He had started that game as a freshman; this time he was a reliever, though since he knew he was booked for middle-innings this time he could prepare as a starter. He certainly threw that way. "It was close at the time and luckily I had to throw three innings," he said.
When Johnson took his seat it was with State leading 5-1. By the time Jesse Carver took the hill the difference was 13-1, more than enough cushion for him, Justin Pigott, and Jamie Gant to put in an inning apiece. Each would have one baserunner aboard but not really be threatened. Nor would MSU's pitching plans for the night, or the weekend. "We've had three rainout games the last few weeks and that's caused some pitchers not to throw too much," Polk said.
Following last week's rout it was no surprise when Bulldog bats rang up three runs through their first two innings. With two outs in the bottom of the first rightfielder Corley doubled off SU starter Scott Fowler (0-4) and scored as centerfielder Hunter singled safely.
The bottom half of State's order did twice as well, off a different pitcher. Bill Whitehead took the rubber as scheduled for the second inning and had one out when Berkery reached on an infield single. A walk of DH Brian LaNinfa and passed ball put Dogs in scoring positions for third baseman Ed Easley, who stung a double to the rightfield corner for a pair of RBI and the 3-0 advantage.
Whitehead did manage to scramble through another couple of innings without Samford falling farther behind. The fifth innings was another matter as leftfielder Jeff Butts walked and Corely reached on a bloop single. With two down a wild pitch advanced both runners, and Whitehead threw carefully enough to walk first baseman Jones.
But Berkery ruined the tactic by pounding a hard grounder right through the middle for two runs and a 5-1 margin. Samford almost made a pitching change there but let Whitehead end the inning before trotting out Andrew Kerth for the Bulldog sixth. It was not a good swap as the righthander poured fuel on the fire that was soon beyond control. A single, walk, and single filled the sacks with no outs, and Butts used a fly ball to plate Easley on the sacrifice. Corley re-filled the bags with his sharp single to the rightfielder, but before Hunter could swing again a wild pitch moved everybody up with Rutledge coming home. Hunter promptly bounced a RBI-single past the shortstop for a 8-1 lead.
Jones had no trouble plating the other runners with a fly ball to the fence left-centerfield for a two-run triple. Berkery followed by one-hopping the rightfield wall for a ground-rule double that scored Jones. Not only was there still just one out but Kerth was still tossing, walking LaNinfa and giving up a single to pinch-hitter Daniel Tackett. Facing ten batters was enough and sidearmer Matthew Thomas was finally called in.
Rutledge greeted the righthander with a single through the right side, scoring Berkery and LaNinfa. It took a pop-foul and called strikeout to mercifully end the frame, the Bulldogs having expanded—exploded, really—the margin to 13-1. Fourteen Dogs had taken the plate in the inning with eight runs on eight hits.
Coming a night after a 9-3 whipping of Birimgham-Southern dominated by extra-base hits, the offensive showing was further encouragement to State's batting order after some slow recent weekends. "We're really starting to come around and hit the ball," said Hunter. "Coach was telling us we were low stat-wise but were getting wins, but at the same time I think we're really starting to mesh and knowing what our job is at-bat. Look at Brad Corley, he came on towards the end of the year last year. Brad Jones, Thomas Berkery, they're starting to hit the ball now." This is a very good time for the Dogs to heat up, too, as they now return to the SEC road for a weekend series at Georgia. The other Bulldogs are just 3-9 SEC compared to State's 6-5 conference tally, and lost a chance to warm up for the weekend as their Wednesday contest with Georgia Tech was washed out.
By any measure this series is an opportunity for the MSU Bulldogs to gain some ground in the league standings. "I think we need to come out with at least two wins," said Hunter. "Georgia is struggling and we need to take advantage of that, hopefully they don't come out it. But they're a SEC team and you never know what is going to happen on these weekends."