If this bothered the home crowd at all, they could take plenty of consolation from scoring their first three-game sweeping of Mississippi State since 1978. That was long before any of these Diamond Dogs were whelped. All that kept the weekend from being a total write-off for MSU were road losses by Arkansas and Auburn, keeping those competitors at 9-12 and a half-step behind the Bulldogs both in the Division and the overall SEC standings.
Thus Mississippi State goes into a three-weekend SEC stretch barely clinging to the eighth and final slot for the conference tournament. What sort of mindset the Dogs carry into May is another matter, after having suffered near-complete domination from a foe they have traditionally owned.
Not this time. "It just seemed we couldn't get anything going," Coach Ron Polk said. "The momentum kept building for the Rebels throughout the weekend." That momentum peaked Sunday afternoon as State was outplayed in all aspects of the game. Mississippi pitched, hit, and fielded the ball better, beyond any disputing.
"We didn't get the job done today," said catcher Ed Easley, whose fifth-inning home run provided the only State score. "But we tip our hats to them."
Sunday didn't see the same sort of pitching duel as game-two, as the much warmer conditions seemed to put some heat back in the bats. Mostly, the home team's. Mississippi collected a dozen base hits in eight turns, including home runs by swingers in the lower half of the order. Shortstop Zach Cowart slugged a two-run shot in the sixth inning and pinch-hitter Justin Henry smashed a three-run blow in the seventh, turning a still-competitive contest into a Rebel romp. Mississippi also knocked out three doubles.
The Bulldogs managed six hits, three times as many as Saturday but obviously not enough to salvage a weekend split. Besides Easley's one-run longball State had doubles from second baseman Thomas Berkery and new DH Joseph McCaskill. Of the six safeties five came off right-side bats as Polk shuffled his Sunday lineup, sitting OF Jeff Butts and 2B Jeffrey Rea and inserting Michael Rutledge at third base with Ben Grisham getting a centerfield start.
But it wasn't meant to punish anyone. Polk's tactic seemed sound as UM was starting Eric Fowler, a southpaw who won the Mayor's Trophy meeting of the teams one month back. "We played that guy in Jackson and he was shoving it down our throats, the leftys weren't hitting the ball well," McCaskill said. "So he tried to throw something different in there." And if this meant giving McCaskill his first SEC start…
"I actually got told about it this morning at pregame meal. I was like well, damn, it's about time I guess! I've been waiting for this for three years!" McCaskill was the only Dog with two hits this day.
Still strategy wasn't sufficient to overcome a sharp performance from Fowler (3-2) who lasted six complete innings with three hits, two walks, and Easley's home run against him. The lefty fanned seven Dogs regardless of which side they swung from. First baseman Stephen Head got to work the last three frames and was credited with a third save, scattering three hits with a strikeout.
Righty Jon Crosby started for State and put in six full frames of his own in a losing cause. He was tagged for nine hits and five runs, four earned, with two strikeouts and a walk. "I thought Crosby had a chance to keep us in the ball game," Polk said.
Crosby faced a threat his second frame as Brian Pettway lined a double left of centerfield, though Grishman's one-hop snare kept it to just a pair of bags and the throw-in was surprisingly strong. Mark Wright followed with a single straight to leftfield for Rebels on the corners and no outs. Crosby responded with three popped-up balls; to first, third, and shortstop, standing all hands.
But he was tagged for another double to open the third inning as #9 batter Miles Franklin slipped a bouncer just over the third base bag and into the leftfield corner. Cooper Osteen worked for a walk and after showing bunt Chris Coghlan popped out on an infield-fly call. With the one out and a 0-1 count to Head the Rebels executed the double-steal on a swinging strike. Freed to hit, Head dropped a drive into short rightfield that fell just in front of a hesitant Brad Corley. Franklin scored and Osteen advanced a base.
Pettway lifted a 1-2 fly midway between second and center, just deep enough for Osteen to slide in ahead of Grisham's throw. Another pop-up ended the inning but with State down 2-0.
An inning later it was 3-0. Two outs into the fourth Cozart just missed one home run, wide of the leftfield pole, and settled for an infield single up the middle. Crosby's pickoff attempt got over Jones for a two-base error, and the Rebels took advantage of a shaken Dog defense as Franklin dragged a bunt to the left side. Rutledge made a game effort but his throw pulled Jones' foot off first and Cozart scored on the slick base hit.
And there was nothing small-ball about the Rebel answer to State's one run. In the bottom of the sixth with one out Jon-Jon Hancock bounced a two-bagger down the third-base line. Crosby rolled a second out, then served up a fast first pitch to Cozart that cleared left-centerfield and padded the margin to 5-1.
State also opted to change mound-men in the seventh with Brett Cleveland replacing Crosy. It wasn't a change for the better, though Cleveland did have two down with Head on first base via the fielder's choice. Pettway and Wright followed with singles, the latter for one RBI, then pinch-hitter unloaded the bases with a mash well beyond rightfield for the final margin of victory. "That broke our backs," said Polk.
For his part Fowler didn't have a lot of trouble getting through his first four turns. A leadoff walk of LaNinfa in the second was erased as with two down the runner got a terrible jump on a hot grounder by Easley. The UM shortstop was able to dive, going away from the bag, and still make a strong throw to second for an easy force. Berkery's leadoff double in the third meant nothing as Fowler struck out the next three Dogs and retired seven-straight.
It took the one-out blast by Easley, clearing leftfield with plenty air to spare, to break up the shutout and stop a string of 15 scoreless Bulldog innings. He also dragged State within 3-1. And when Berkery doubled with one down in the sixth Corley came to the plate representing the tying run. He tried to knot it up with a huge hack on 2-1, and settled for a full-count walk that continued a hitless weekend.
After a mound conference UM opted to stay with a left-on-left matchup for the next two at-bats. A bobbled ball let Berkery take third before LaNinfa fanned at Fowler's offering that probably caught the inside corner anyway. Brad Jones saw three balls, watched one strike and fouled away another, and lined sharply but straightly to the rightfielder to end State's last best chance.
Head replaced Fowler to open the seventh inning, having loosened on the side a few times. Kateon chipped an infield single to greet the stint and after an out the shortstop had to dodge McCaskill's cleaner hit through the four-hole. A called strikeout of Rutledge and flyout by Grisham negated both safeties.
The post-series stats reflected how thoroughly the Dogs were dominated in losing 11-4, 5-0, and 9-1. State hit just .163 in 27 innings and MSU batters were 1-of-12 with teammates in scoring position. Pitching was equally imbalanced as Rebel arms posted a 1.67 ERA to State's 7.50.
"All weekend long they pitched us good, we weren't swinging real well," said Easley. "Give credit to them, they played better than us this weekend and we tip our hats to them."
And when tipping their hats, a lot of Dogs are also scratching their heads about the ongoing struggles. Polk put his best positive spin on the situation by noting State was still only 2-1/2 games out of first in the West; but that was before Alabama came back, making the real margin 3-1/2. And the standing State really must be concerned about is in overall SEC terms, as only eight teams get to play in the league tournament and right now the Diamond Dogs have a very tenuous grip on the last rung.
"We're still in it," Easley said, "the West is real close with teams losing. We just have to keep battling." State has a full week to prepare for their next battle, a home series with Division-leading Alabama this weekend. Some of the days will be devoted to finishing up spring exams, and some of the hours to just resting.
"Hopefully this week off will help," Kateon said. "We've just got to come out and play hard against Alabama."