Despite the sputtering start, the Diamond Dog dugout was remarkably un-worried about how this Friday night was going to turn out. "Four runs is nothing," said reliever and winning pitcher Jamie Gant. "I knew our offense was capable of coming back." They were and they did, posting four runs in the game-turning fourth inning and piling on six more in the seventh to seal the outcome.
Gant was the prime beneficiary of those combined outbursts. The junior took over from starter Alan Johnson two outs into just the second Kentucky inning and strung together four total innings, during which time the offense cranked out the go-ahead and runaway frames. Mike Valentine and Saunders Ramsey finished out the evening in later relief, as a Bulldog bullpen that hadn't gotten a whole lot of long-relief work lately combined to shut the Wildcats down and out for the last seven innings.
Meanwhile State stickmen picked two big innings to beat up on Wildcat pitching. And the clutch knock of the night came from a Bluegrass State native against an old comrade. With one out and the bases loaded in the fourth frame, rightfielder Brad Corley turned a two-run deficit into a lead the home team would not lose.
The Bulldogs had gotten on the board in their second inning, at the expense of UK starter Kalen Gibson, who walked Brian LaNinfa to open the frame and served up a fastball that third baseman Ed Easley lined into right-centerfield for a run-scoring double. The Wildcat righthander avoided further immediate harm to the scoreboard and himself, as a wicked one-hopper by DH Mitch Moreland caromed off Gibson. He stranded another Dog in the bottom of the third.
The fourth time around was a very different story as with one out Easley singled cleanly and Moreland got his first home-field hit, a one-hopper that just cleared the leaping first baseman's glove. With Dogs on the corners shortstop Bunky Kateon slid a double just inside the third-base bag, scoring Easley easily and putting the tying runs in positions for scoring.
It also brought a pitching change with southpaw Craig Snipp sent in to face the top of State's order, and a couple of lefthanded hitters. His sidearm-style fanned centerfielder Jeff Butts, while second baseman Jeffrey Rea worked the count full, foul-tipped, and finally walked to fill the paths and keep the inning alive. That was how righthander Corley got a chance to swing against Snipp, his former high school teammate. "He was one of my best friends," the MSU junior said. "I knew exactly what he had, a fastball and changeup."
Corley was twice-fortunate to have this opportunity. In the first inning on a full-count he stepped away from the plate for a few minutes with what Coach Ron Polk described as "heart palpitations" from excitement. "I was about five seconds from making a change," Polk said. Corley calmed down to draw a walk and in the third inning chipped an infield single, also off Gibson.
This time, on a 2-2 count, he got an inside fastball from Snipp. "I kind of inside-outed it, got my hands through it and hit it to right. Thankfully it fell for me." Barely a stride inside the rightfield line, that is, before rattling into the corner. "It was the turning point of the game," said Corley of his three-run, three-bagger for the three-hole hitter, as well as the game-winning RBI for a third-straight game.
The 5-4 lead also took Johnson off the hook, and put Gant in position for the decision. "I knew before the game I was in long-relief. And I sensed it because A.J. was struggling at the beginning and we had to keep it close to give ourselves a chance." For his part Gant was fresh, having tossed a couple of Saturday innings at Georgia and missing his scheduled midweek relief stint when Brooks Dunn went into the eighth inning Wednesday night.
"I hadn't been out there in a while and I was a little rusty," said Gant. "But I was pleased with my performance overall, a couple more outings and I'll be back to the old Jamie." The new one looked plenty good, firing fastballs and sliders with just enough command. He gave up only a one-out single in the third inning, and while he walked four Wildcats he also fanned four. More importantly Gant kept the one-run lead until his offense was ready to expand the advantage decisively.
"That's the best I've seen him look in two years," Corley said. "That's a huge confidence-booster for him and the staff." The win was Gant's first of the season.
Regular Friday starter Johnson had a most uncharacteristic outing in both style and length. In Kentucky's first inning he was tagged for a one-out single single before a wild pitch moved the runner to second and a slick bunt-single from Shaun Lehmann had Kats on the corners. A full-count walk of loaded the bases.
On a 1-1 count and with a righthanded batter up, Berkery tried to pick Antone DeJesus at third only to have a short throw one-hop off Easley's glove. Two Wildcats scored unchallenged on the throwing error. A single by John Shelby again had men on each corner so a grounder to the right side was good enough for a 3-0 lead before Johnson ended the frame on a strikeout.
J.P. Lowen greeted him with a double into left-centerfield and was bunted over nicely, bringing the top of the order back up. This time JB Schmidt hit safely, his single plating Lowen for a 4-0 margin. DeJesus chopped a grounder to shortstop and Kateon's throw couldn't be fielded cleanly, but with the runner trying to stretch his luck Brad Jones was able to gun DeJesus down at third base. It was a key out as Lehmann singled and nobody was in scoring position.
The base hit was the seventh and last off Johnson. Gant did begin with a base-loading walk, then rolled a grounder to strand all hands and keep State within four runs. Two innings later he was throwing with a lead, though a minimal one. "Kentucky's an offensive club," Polk said, "I didn't feel comfortable with the one-run lead."
But Gant had no such discomfort. He got a nice stab and better throw by Rea with the tying runner coming home from third in the UK fifth. He began the sixth with a walk, got two down on a sacrifice and called strikeout, then walked Lehmann. With the pair on State made use of the pen again, letting Valentine coax an inning-ending fly ball from cleanup Kat Bertram.
The Bulldogs hit a lot of balls well on the windy evening, and finally somebody took advantage of the breeze. In the bottom of the seventh, with Jones on first via the leadoff walk, Berkery crushed a drive high and deep. It probably would have cleared rightfield even without help; with the wind there was no doubt about the catcher's fourth homer of the season, a two-run shot. LaNinfa singled his way on and with one out Moreland walked.
Righthander Greg Dombrowski took the hill only to walk Kateon and Butts and load the bases with still a lone out. A grounder from Rea scored LaNinfa, while Corley and Jones each pounded ground balls that each turned into infield RBI-singles for a 11-4 lead. The final tally came off the bat of pinch-hitter Joseph McCaskill with a eighth-inning single to plate Ben Grisham from second base.
State finished with 14 total hits as Corley had three (for a third-straight game again) and Easley a trio of his own. Jones' infield single in his last trip to the plate extended his hitting streak to 14 games. Kentucky collected nine hits but only two of them came after the second inning. Snipp (2-3) took the loss.
A small crowd of 3,034 watched State open the weekend with a win. More should be on hand Saturday as the Bulldogs try to keep pace in a SEC West race that is now beyond tight. For that matter everyone knows what kind of pressure is on the home team to win this whole series. "It's so hard to sweep someone," Corley said. "But a sweep here is huge for us. We're a game out of first now and we're going to try to come out and win two more."
"It won't be easy for us," Polk noted. "I think Kentucky has won the last two Saturdays." For this Saturday the Bulldogs will send Todd Doolittle to the mound, while Kentucky is expected to throw lefthander Aaron Tennyson.
After the game Polk confirmed that outfielder Ryan Fesmire has left the team, so the senior can concentrate on completing some necessary coursework for his pre-dental major this year. "He's graduating this summer and can't get some courses this summer. It's nothing negative. Plus he's disappointed." Fesmire, who played in place of the injured Joseph Hunter at Georgia, has been supplanted in MSU plans by activated freshman outfielder/DH Moreland.