The Crimson Tide improved to 34-15 and 14-9 in league play, while the Bulldogs are now 29-16 and 10-12. Combined with other scores from around the league this evening's outcome at Dudy Noble Field had noteworthy consequences at each end of the ongoing SEC Tournament. Alabama left the park again leading the Western Division, aided by a LSU loss, and tied for second in the overall league standings.
The consequences for State were more dire as with the loss, and wins by Auburn and Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs fell from seventh to tenth in the overall standings and two spots out of the eight-team field for the league tourney. That did not keep many homefield fans from cheering Auburn's success over Mississippi, even if it hurt their own team's cause. "I think they're confused," said Coach Ron Polk, "it's so close they don't know who to root for." Alabama folk in the press box had no trouble pulling for their rival to succeed and help their SEC case.
State's skipper was certainly clear on who to credit for the Crimson Tide triumph, even if he was not actually around to witness the last third of the evening. He had earned ejection in the top of the sixth for helping pitching coach Russ McNickle (also ejected) protest homeplate umpire Steve Dew's unpredictable strike zone.
But umpiring was a minor matter compared to LeBlanc's increasing effectiveness. Making his fourth start since returning from a post-win celebration shoulder injury, LeBlanc (4-3) looked as sharp as he had been most of his 2004 rookie campaign. "He's getting better every outing they say" said Polk. "He was their ace last year and I thought he pitched well."
Very well. The lefty was mostly able to scatter the seven Bulldog base hits he did allow, with lone runs against him in the bottom of the first and seventh innings. He would work a batter beyond the eighth turn with three official runs, three walks, and six strikeouts in his linescore. "He kept us off-balance with the changeup," said catcher Ed Easley, who did get a pair of base hits off LeBlanc. "He did well and pitched a great game."
Not until a leadoff walk in the bottom of the ninth did Alabama see need for a change, calling on David Robertson to preserve the victory. The righthanded reliever nearly let it get away though as Mississippi State managed to cut into a 5-2 deficit and put the tying runners in scoring positions with only one down. LeBlanc was lifted after a leadoff walk of leftfielder Brian LaNinfa but Robertson was greeted a bouncing single though the right side by pinch-hitter Mitch Moreland that had Dogs on corners.
A wild pitch meant both were in scoring position for second baseman Jeffrey Rea, who struck out swinging on a sharp 0-2 offering. Third baseman Thomas Berkery walked on four pitches to load all bases with rightfielder Brad Corley coming up and falling behind 0-2. But the third pitch missed the mitt, high, and LaNinfa scored. With Dogs again on the corners Corley, hitless on the weekend, missed a 2-2 fastball and first baseman Brad Jones watched a 1-2 strike go right down the pipe to end the evening.
"We were in it the whole time," Easley said. "We had a chance at the end to win and that's all that you ask for. We needed the big hits and it didn't happen tonight." Robertson got his sixth save of the season, the hard way.
State starter Todd Doolittle (4-6) took the loss after throwing six complete innings. The righthander was touched for eight base hits and charged with four runs, the first three of those earned. He struck out six and walked just as many. Brett Cleveland replaced the starter to open the seventh inning and got within an out of finishing up, with Justin Pigott taking care of that ninth-inning detail.
"Todd kept us in the game all night," Easley said. "He threw strikes, you can't worry about what the umpires do. You have to keep battling."
It was a battle indeed and Saturday's start was eerily similar to Friday night. Doolittle allowed a leadoff single that was erased on a failed steal try with Easley gunning down runner Emeel Salem. With two outs Gabe Scott earned a walk (the ball-four producing ire from State's dugout) and stayed put at first, which worked out just fine. Because after watching a close call on 2-2, Evan Bush crushed a drive that cleared just to the right of the centerfield wall for a two-run blast, his 14th longball of the year. "The walk was questionable," said Polk, "but anytime that happens it seems to come back to haunt you."
Another single and successful steal later Doolittle walked Zac Welch on full-count, bringing McNickle out for a talk…which went long enough that Dew had to come break up the conference and get an earful from the coach. This likely factored into the later fireworks; for that moment Kody Valverde lined a base hit into leftfield for one RBI but LaNinfa got the ball to shortstop Bunky Kateon for a relay and throw-out at the plate. Doolittle had thrown 23 pitches in falling behind 3-0 after a half-inning.
After State chopped a run off the deficit in the bottom of the first Alabama got it right back, with help. A leadoff walk, steal, and bunt had Rocky Scelfo on third base with one down. Doolittle struck out the top of UA's order, then coaxed a routine fly ball that should have ended the inning. Except LaNinfa let the ball glance off the glove for a run-scoring error. "I just took my eye off it," the leftfielder confessed. "I thought for sure I was going to catch it. I felt like the smallest guy on the field."
Doolittle walked Scott and hit Bush with the first pitch to load the bags before Corley caught the fly ball to rightfield to prevent further damage. "Doolittle did a great job to get out of the inning and he pitched a good game," said LaNinfa. And the senior did survive that early assault and battled his way through hits in the third, fourth, and fifth, with a great running, over-the-shoulder grab by centerfielder Joseph Hunter saving a likely run in that latter frame.
The sixth was a closer and much more controversial matter, all starting with one down and the top of Alabama's order up. Salem singled off Jones' glove and stole second on a 3-1 strike to Rice. When the next pitch was called a ball, walking Rice, first McNickle and then Polk were ejected for disputing balls-and-strikes. In fact the head coach had to be screened away from Dew by other umps. During the dispute assistant Wade Hedges had a talk with Doolittle, who got a fly-out of Scott on the first pitch and with the count full got a called strikeout of Bush. But the Bulldogs were still trailing 4-1 and not making up any ground anytime soon.
That initial run came in the first inning as with one out Berkery smacked a single into leftfield and a first-pitch to the screen put him in scoring position. He made home but not on a hit, taking third on Corley's line-out to rightfield and when a strong throw by Morrow Thomley went awry the runner scored unchallenged.
If the misplay bothered the UA pitcher it didn't show, because LeBlanc ended that inning on a grounder and proceeded to hang five scoreless frames on State's half of the scoreboard. With each turn he seemed to get stronger and in one stretch he retired 10 of 11 batters, a walk of Jones in the fourth not hurting his cause. With two down in the MSU fifth he hit #9 batter Kateon and took a one-hopper by Rea off his left leg, but got to the loose ball for an out-throw to maintain the 4-1 lead after five innings. Berkery opened State's sixth with a two-bagger that almost got out of the park in left-centerfield. It didn't matter because LeBlanc struck out Corley and grounded-out Jones and Joseph Hunter.
In the MSU seventh another ground-rule double, by McCaskill this time, had another Dog in scoring position with one down, and this one would indeed score. LeBlanc's dirtball got away from the catcher and Joseph McCaskill took third base, which was good because scoring on LaNinfa's bouncing single up the middle would have been tougher from a farther bag. With two down Rea smoked a single through the box to put the tying runs on the paths.
And still Alabama put no one in the pen. Berkery got to 2-2, fouled off four pitches, then watched LeBlanc nick the inside corner to end the inning with the score 4-2. There were two out in the bottom of the eighth when LeBlanc walked Hunter to finally send someone to warm up. Third baseman Bush made a great diving stop to save at least a double, holding Easley to one base and a pair on for McCaskill who popped out to the second baseman.
That failure loomed so much larger as Alabama got the allotted run back in their last at-bat, re-inflating the lead to three. With one down Scott singled, Bush bounced a ground-rule double over the leftfield fence, and Thomley was allowed to swing instead of being walked to set up forces. The rightfielder grounded up the middle for a run-scoring fielder's choice. Pigott was summoned to get the final out.
Alabama collected 11 base hits to State's eight. The win snapped a five-game losing streak to State that dated back to a May Sunday in 2003. More to today's point, it also set up a rubber game for this 2005 series.
Sunday success would be big indeed for the Bulldogs, who badly need to stand somewhere amongst the Hoover-eight before traveling to Florida next weekend. At the same time Easley noted that the team can't let the pressure of winning this game, or of hearing results from around the league, to impact their play. "We can't worry about other teams, all we can control is ourselves. We have to win, that's all we can control. We have to keep battling and try to come out with a big series win tomorrow."
"A lot of things happened around the league," Polk noted. "We've got to protect our turf tomorrow. We've got seven (SEC) games left and tomorrow is important."
"It will be a good game," said LaNinfa. "We're playing hard right now and we've got a lot of momentum back in the ninth inning. We'll come back tomorrow and keep doing what we're doing. Jon Crosby will pitch a great game and we're going to swing it." Righthander Crosby (5-2) will get State's start with lefty Brandon Belcher (4-0) getting his first start for Alabama since April 17 after recovering a strained muscle.