"What a huge win right there," the junior rightfielder said. "It shows a lot of heart for our team." Heart enough that State was able to shake off eight scoreless innings and scratch out the needed runs to tie, then win in a final turn at-bat. Meanwhile Wildcat hearts were broken just as too many times before this long season. Coach John Cohen's club was in position to take both their first Sunday win and series of SEC season, only to leave 20-19, 3-14 SEC.
The former Diamond Dog outfielder's team still visited the Left Field Lounge afterward for some ‘take out' for the long ride to Lexington. All the way home the Wildcats will be thinking of how a 2-0 shutout got away.
"Luck is definitely involved in baseball," said State catcher Thomas Berkery. By the same token the Bulldogs had to manufacture a lot of that last-inning luck to avoid losing the game and weekend. Kentucky pitching, provided by starter Andrew Albers and reliever Brock Baber, kept hanging zeroes on the bottom line of the scoreboard. In six of the first eight frames State had runners get to second base and no farther.
And for the ninth Cohen called in Scott Green to seal this deal, having saved the bullpen's best righthander all weekend for just such a closing situation. But with the bottom half of State's order up Green had trouble finding the plate. He walked leftfielder Brian LaNinfa on a full count, then gave up a slicing single to rightfield to shortstop Bunky Kateon.
Coach Ron Polk had had no luck all day playing the short game, but needing two runs to keep the game going he called for a sacrifice anyway. But the coach did bring Daniel Tackett off the bench to do it in place of rookie DH Mitch Moreland. "He's our best bunter," Polk said. Yet Tackett never had to put his bat on the ball, because after letting two pitches go by—a ball and a strike—Green came back outside and the fastball went off catcher JP Lowen's glove and to the backstop.
Both runners moved up on the gift and Tackett, who now had the green light, was patient enough to draw a bases-loading walk. Centerfielder Jeff Butts, who had struck out trying to bunt in the seventh inning, worked the count full before bravely watching a fastball that barely missed the outside corner. His walk plated LaNinfa for State's first run with the bases still full, the top of MSU's order coming up and still nobody out. Second baseman Jeffrey Rea made sure that this game would at least go another inning by bouncing a ground ball that the UK first baseman could only flip to Green. Kateon raced across the plate with the tying run.
Cohen played the percentages by intentionally walking Berkery to set up a force everywhere across the diamond. The downside was this let Corley, the Louisville, Ky., native, get another chance to beat his homestate school, and against a pitcher he knew would come with nothing but fastballs. "I wanted to hit so bad right there," said Corley. "He (Green) is from my hometown so I'd faced him in high school. I hit him well then, too."
Not that the Bulldog was looking for an epic blast, just something to give Tackett a chance to cover 90 feet. "I was thinking get a good pitch to hit, don't pop up, just put it on the ground." He did, the ball taking two medium-speed hops to clear second base. "As soon as I hit it I knew it was through, Coach (Tommy) Raffo was yelling at me to touch first base." Which he did as Tackett touched home plate. It was the fourth time in a week that Corley was credited with a game-winning RBI.
Green (2-3) took the loss while Bulldog reliever Justin Pigott (1-1) received a winning decision after throwing the last three innings in relief of Jon Crosby. The starter turned in easily the best opening-effort of the weekend by a MSU hurler, lasting six frames with two runs (one earned) on eight hits. He struck out four and walked two.
"The guys were saying if I went three innings I was like a stud!" Crosby quipped, referring to the short stints of State's Friday and Saturday starters. "It was a good bit of pressure on me today." He handled it very well, keeping Kentucky off the scoreboard for three innings before allowing lone runs in the fourth and sixth turns. It was a demanding job, too, with a lineup of Wildcat lefthanders at the dish and the wind still howling to rightfield. Plus, Crosby wasn't locating his slider as well as usual.
"I was primarily throwing fastballs," he said. "Kentucky was taking the ball, I had to throw strikes and pitch ahead in the count." He dodged early danger, including three first-inning singles, and stranded five Kats through three frames. That included Antone DeJesus after he drilled a one-out triple down the first base line in the second inning. A fanning of John Shelby ended that threat.
But a one-out walk in the fourth inning cost Crosby, as with Collin Cowgill taking off from first base JP Lowen lined a double into rightfield. The head-start allowed Cowgill to come all the way home and put Kentucky up 1-0. In the top of the sixth Crosby fielded a bunt by Shelby but overthrew first baseman Brad Jones for a two-base error. Shelby eventually scored from third base on a single by Cowgill, doubling Kentucky's lead.
A leadoff single from Wilkes ended Crosby's stint in the top of the seventh, with Pigott taking over and quickly picking the runner off first. A much more unusual putout came as Schmidt's fair pop-up was dropped by Easley and grabbed by Berkery who caught the runner rounding first too far. The outs loomed larger as DeJesus doubled over the rightfield fence and produced nothing, with Pigott rolling the inning-ending grounder.
Kentucky would curse losing that opportunity, and Pigott took no harm from the three hits he allowed. He had no walks or strikeouts, nor needed them. "If it wasn't for Crosby and Pigott pitching well, we lose," Polk said. "They kept them down to two runs." What the pitching staff needed was offensive support.
Southpaw Albers did give up seven hits but no runs in his 6.2 innings. The Bulldogs were repeatedly frustrated, leaving Corely on second base in the first inning; LaNinfa in the second; Jones in the third. In the sixth inning Corley led off with a single and got as far as third base before Albers grounded LaNinfa out.
Down 2-0 the Dogs had a great chance in the seventh as Kateon walked and Moreland singled up the middle. Butts kept trying to bunt, worked the count full, and then was told to bunt again. He fouled off strike three, and Rea fanned on 3-2. Cohen then sent in righthander Baber to throw at righty Berkery, and the matchup produced an inning-ending groundout. When leftfielder Lehmann robbed Corley of at least two bases with a superb running, leaping stab of a drive that by all rights should have cleared the glove the Dogs seemed doomed. Certainly a sizable portion of the small Sunday crowd (the entire weekend drew just 9,012 to Dudy Noble Field) thought so as they left, only to miss the best part of the game. Not that Crosby could blame them; he confessed to barely watching the last half-inning from the tunnel after his shower. Things were that tense in the Dog dugout.
Fortunately, the home team was ultimately able to celebrate just surviving another conference weekend with a nose still above water, or at least .500. "This win like every SEC win was very important," said Crosby. "The really tough part of the SEC is coming up and we definitely needed to win today."