Diamond Dogs Shut Down, Out By Rebel Lefty

Mississippi State expected to take one loss Saturday. A second setback, though, was two too much.

Lefthander Matt Maloney made the first SEC victory of his career all the more memorable by chunking a two-hit shutout as Mississippi blanked the Bulldogs 5-0 at Swayze Field in the second game of the weekend SEC series. Technically it was the second game of the afternoon, as earlier the teams finished the final four outs of Friday's weather-interrupted contest with the Rebels winning 11-4.

Combined with their game-two win the home team improved to 11-9 SEC, 31-13 overall, and clinched a series win over MSU for the second-straight year. It was the first time since 1982 that a Rebel team had swept consecutive series from State.

The Bulldogs left the field 28-14 and under break-even in SEC play at 9-10, having suffered their first shutout at Rebels hands since 1995. And it was the superb left hand of Maloney doing the shutting-down. "He pitched a great game," said leftfielder Brian LaNinfa, one of the two Dogs who did touch Maloney with an infield single in the fifth inning. Pinch-hitter Michael Rutledge notched the other, in the ninth.

It would have taken more than a single single in the final frame to chase the junior, who stranded that last runner on one of far too many generic fly-balls coaxed from baffled Bulldog bats. Maloney officially tossed 100 pitches in a game that lasted just 2:04, and only once did a Rebel reliever even bother to loosen up. The lanky lefty was that good. "He had everything working, he had a good cutter and a good fastball and a good changeup to righties," said LaNinfa. "You have to give him credit."

"He pitched very well," Coach Ron Polk said. "We got about 11 or 12 ‘I-got-it' fly balls, he didn't walk anybody. He's probably their best pitcher right now, in the Saturday slot, and we had about five lefthanded hitters which makes it tough."

It was a correspondingly tough day for State starter Todd Doolittle, who did all he could to keep his team in contention and a bit more. The righthander put in six strong innings and another harder one, allowing three runs on just four hits with a couple of walks and four strikeouts. "Doolittle gave us a chance to win," Polk said, and the starter did give a potent Mississippi lineup a real challenge.

"I got ahead and threw strikes," said Doolittle (4-5). "That's all you can do, just try to go out there and keep us in the game hoping we'd get a big hit."

It never came. Maloney handcuffed Bulldog batsmen for four hitless innings, with only a two-out plunking of rightfielder Brad Corley against him in the first inning. That might have amounted to something if UM first baseman Stephen Head hadn't stabbed a rocket by Jones headed for rightfield.

Maloney sat the MSU side for the next three frames, challenged only by a warning-track fly from Kateon that ended the second inning. He retired 11-straight into the MSU fifth before a slow roller to first base became an infield hit for LaNinfa. "I just had a check-swing and got lucky, I guess," the leftfielder said. And double-play from Kateon negated the safety anyway. "He had everybody off-balance," noted LaNinfa.

Doolittle used fly balls and a strikeout of cleanup man Brian Pettway to strand a runner in his first inning, then went two outs into the second before facing Barry Gunther. On 3-1 the UM catcher crushed a drive over right-centerfield for a 1-0 lead. "That was actually a B.P. fastball," the pitcher related. "I got behind him and had to groove a fastball."

That solo shot actually seemed to settle Doolittle down as he got the next nine out with surprising ease. With an out in his fifth inning he hit Gunther (unintentionally), and after a routine fly-out Corley saved a score with his running, diving snare of a drive from Alex Pressley. But a leadoff walk of the top of the UM order in the sixth brought a visit. An out later State was trying to hold the runner only to see Cooper Osteen take second anyway on a delayed steal.

Doolittle got a ground-out to first base and had two strikes on Pettway, who punched a ground ball maybe six inches beyond Kateon's glove…though whether the shortstop could have gotten back up and made an out-throw to first looked doubtful anyway.

There was no doubt about Justin Henry's leadoff triple in the bottom of the seventh, though, nor the first-pitch single through the right side by Gunther for a 3-0 lead. Doolittle was able to finish out the inning and ended his stint with a double-play. "I couldn't do anything else about it," Doolittle said. "I thought I'd kept us in the game good enough."

Justin Pigott got to toss the eighth inning, only to issue a leadoff walk and wild pitch. Osteen took third on his own with a straight steal. A walk of Chris Coghlan put a pair on the corners before Pigott fanned both Head and Pettway. He walked the bases full for pinch-hitter C.J. Ketchum, who slid a single through the right side for a pair of RBI and the final score.

"We walked five guys and three of them scored," noted Polk. One would have been enough as of the three Dogs that reached base safely none got as far as second base. After Rutledge's one-out single in the ninth Jeffrey Rea struck out and Berkery flew out.

Holding the UM order to just five hits was an achievement for State's staff. "They swing the bat very well," Doolittle said, "at times they're aggressive and looking for first-pitch fastball. And if they get it they hit it." Just the opposite is holding for Bulldog bats which continue to struggle through another long SEC weekend. "You have cycles like this when you're facing SEC pitchers," Polk said, "where you get three or four games where you just don't swing the bat. Hitting is contagious, we just need a couple of well-hit balls and then maybe things will come around. It's just a matter of they've got to build up some confidence."

That may be easier said than done at the moment. "Everbody's real frustrated with themselves, not just as a team," Doolittle said. "I think the coaches are frustrated with us."

Besides the frustration there might be some unstated fright as State sits eighth in the post-Saturday SEC standings, a loss ahead of both Auburn and Arkansas who each dropped game-twos to stay behind the Bulldogs. Yet the amazing other fact is that the West lead is held by 12-8 Alabama with LSU and Mississippi both 11-9. So State is not that far from a prime position the Division pack.

"We're still within scratching distance," Polk said. "We've still got ten more (SEC) ball games. But tomorrow is a very important ball game." All the more important because no Diamond Dog wants to return home having been broomed by the rivals.

"It's tough to lose to them," LaNinfa said. "But that's the way it goes sometimes, I guess. We have to come back and get a victory tomorrow. We have to show these guys we can compete."

State will start Jon Crosby in the Sunday game, with Eric Fowler--who beat the Bulldogs in the Mayor's Trophy back in March--opening for UM.

GAME ONE -- Nine minutes were needed to complete Friday's game on Saturday, with a pop-out on one pitch concluding the bottom of the eighth. While State got a couple on bases in the top of the ninth the score didn't change. UM starter Mark Holliman (5-1) got the win with Tommy Baumgardner taking care of two innings' relief. Alan Johnson (2-5) was the loser, having been charged with 9 runs on 13 hits in 6.1 innings of Friday night work. Jesse Carver threw the last 1.2 turns. All 11 Rebel runs were earned.

Berkery had two of State's seven hits with a solo home run (his fifth longball) in the second, while Brian LaNinfa had his second homer of the year with a two-run shot in the fourth.

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