Pup Moreland Drives In Game-Winner Against Eagles

So what if he delivered the clutch hit to score the tie-breaking run? Mitch Moreland is still a rookie, so hero or not… "I had to do my bullpen duty of course, tarp the mound and stuff" the Bulldog designated hitter reported. "Then come up here and do this." He also had to ask how to get to the press box for post-game interviews, which explained the shortness of breath.

It was worth the trouble, though, after Moreland drove home Mississippi State's margin of victory in a 5-4 win over Southern Mississippi at Dudy Noble Field. The true freshman's single to rightfield with two outs in the bottom of the eighth plated Brian LaNinfa, breaking the deadlock and giving the Bulldogs their fifth win in the last six games.

State improved to 28-11 with the non-conference victory while the Eagles fell to 28-12. The game was the 99th in the series and State now leads 69-30. It was also another occasion in 2005 for Southern Mississippi to bemoan a lost lead, as the visitors had been in front 4-1 midway of the contest.

And it was a pup doing the most damage as Moreland accounted for both the tying and lead runners batted in. Or runner, as by coincidence each timely hit scored leftfielder LaNinfa, the guy with whom Moreland alternates in the lineup.

Of course it was their second combined effort that knocked the breath from the Eagles. After Cole Basinger retired the first two Dogs in the eighth, he saw his second baseman let a hard grounder by LaNinfa get through for an error. When Basinger fell behind shortstop Bunky Kateon 2-0 he was replaced by Daniel Best, who walked the MSU shortstop to put LaNinfa in scoring position.

It was Moreland's turn and he knew what was coming. "I was sitting first-pitch fastball, they gave it to me all night. When he threw it I just tried to put the bat on it." It became a clean drive into short centerfield and LaNinfa was able to slide home well ahead of the throw.

Mike Valentine, the second State hurler of the night, earned the winning decision by working the final three full frames in relief of starter John Lalor. Valentine issued a one-out walk to pinch-hitter Jacob Fowler in the top of the ninth and had a pop-foul dropped that would have ended the evening. He settled for fanning pinch-hitter Drew Carson on a high fastball.

Valentine got his third win of the year with no losses, with just a two-out single in the USM eighth and pair of walks against him and five strikeouts. Lalor had gone a season-long six complete innings, with eight hits and all four runs charged but no walks and four strikeouts. Basinger (3-2) had to take the loss on 2.1 innings.

Matt Caire, the usual Eagle Friday-night starter, opened the Tuesday game and lasted 5.1 innings. Through the first five he gave up only one Bulldog run, walking and wild-pitching third baseman Ed Easley into position for LaNinfa to get his own RBI on a double. Otherwise Caire was able to dodge damage, stranding rightfielder Brad Corley at third base in the fourth inning.

The Eagle offense evened the score in the top of the third as with two down number-nine hitter Jody Blount ran hard and was ruled safe at first with an infield single. The call hurt because top-of-the-order batter Trey Sutton dropped a fly ball in centerfield for a double that let Blount come all the way around and home. Lalor held the tie through the fourth, but the next time around the bottom of USM's order again got to the righthander.

Kevin Coker and Blount singled consecutively and while Sutton didn't bunt his ground-out to the second baseman served the same sacrificial purpose. Lalor struck out Matesich, then had a 1-2 count on Maddox and wasted a pair of pitches outside…to far to tempt the righthanded hitter, who waited for a high slider right in his wheelhouse. Butts only took a couple of strides before watching the three-run blast clear the fence for a 4-1 score.

But that was all the Eagle scoring as Lalor retired the sixth-side and handed the ball to Valentine. Meanwhile the Bulldogs chipped one run off the deficit in their fifth inning as Butts tripled to rightfield and scored on a double by catcher Thomas Berkery that barely cleared the third baseman's glove.

In the bottom of the sixth State came after Caire as Jones led off with a signle and Easley reached on an infield hit to the shortstop. LaNinfa nearly matched that but Matesich was able to stop his hard hopper and flip to second base for a force of Easley. At that point USM opted to go to the bullpen with Tyler Perrett, who was tossing warmup pitches when the lights all across campus went out.

Play resumed after 18 minutes with Kateon slapping a one-hopper off the first baseman's glove to score Jones. Moreland jumped on Perrett's first pitch—a fastball—and LaNinfa came home with the tying score. Perrett only threw three pitches before Basinger came in to roll a double-play.

The power delay also affected Valentine, though not as immediately. "I got aggravated at first, right after I come back to the dugout the lights go out so I had to go back to the bullpen and ended up throwing a lot more pitches than I wanted to. But everything worked out."

The hard way, starting with a walk of Blount who ended up on third base on a grounder by Sutton. Rea tried to force the lead runner and threw the ball into leftfield for Eagles on the corners. Then Valentine almost accidentally picked Sutton off for the first out of the frame. "I was just throwing it to keep him close and he took a jab-step and I got him out. I hadn't picked off a baserunner since ninth grade, that was a surprise for me!"

It was a huge play as Valentine whiffed Matesich on 3-2 and got slugger Maddox to ground out to Rea, preserving the deadlock and setting the reliever up to be a winner and Moreland the hero. It was his seventh hit in 20 college at-bats since being activated exactly a week ago.

And by driving in the game-winner the rookie snapped a streak by rightfielder Brad Corley, who had knocked in the winners in State's preceeding four victories. Not that the rookie was bragging. "That could have been anybody tonight, we've had so many players step up."

It was a good time to step up as State scored what Coach Ron Polk called an "R.P.I. game" key to both teams in post-season terms. The Bulldogs appreciated that fact and what the victory meant. "Southern Miss is a great team," Valentine said, "they're only four spots behind us in the R.P.I. and playing really well. But we're playing well."

"Southern Miss had a great chance to win the game," said Polk. "I think Corkey (Palmer, USM head coach) did a good job putting his pitching together for us. He wants to beat us so he's going to throw the best he's got."

For Wednesday's game Polk intends to start Brooks Dunn, though he hopes to save a few innings for possible weekend use. Southern is expected to start righthander Barry Bowden.

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