Alabama left Dudy Noble Field 34-16 overall and 14-10 SEC, tied for first in the Western Division and third in the overall standings. There are two conference weekends left for all teams.
As far as the Diamond Dogs were concerned, though, this was the most important weekend on the slate. A loss would have left State in very perilous shape regarding a berth in the eight-team SEC Tournament. So when Rea's grounder bounded beyond the reach of Alabama's substitute second baseman, the tense MSU dugout underwent a near-instant adjustment of attitude.
"We had a lot of pep in our step," said third baseman Ed Easley, who saw the clutch safety from the on-deck circle and greeted scoring runners Joseph Hunter and Brian LaNinfa after they crossed the plate.
Until then this rubber-game seemed headed for extra innings, deadlocked at 3-3 since the top of the fourth. Bulldog reliever Mike Valentine had kept things even for over four grueling frames while the MSU offense struggled to get much done against Alabama's David Robertson, Saturday night's saver. Finally with one out in the bottom of the eighth centerfielder Hunter lined a single into leftfield and LaNinfa earned a walk on 3-1 with the runner moving.
Though Robertson was in his third full inning there was no move to the Tide bullpen and he got pinch-hitter Jeff Butts to ground out to the first baseman, who made a fine stop and better throw to the covering Robertson for a second out. But, this also meant both existing runners were in positions to score and the top of the order was up in Rea. The soph second sacker had sat out last Sunday's game and rested a cranky hamstring most of the midweek, so in his fifth dish-trip of the day he was still strong. He'd also faced Robertson twice for the weekend.
"I knew he was going to throw a lot of fastballs, busting me in. He has a little ‘cut' on his ball but I don't know if he'd lost a little bit of juice there at the end. He hung a slider, kind of down-and-in, and I just stayed on it and hit it right back up the middle."
Two innings earlier Robertson got Rea to ground out to the second baseman, but this time Greg Paiml was in the position and Rea's hopper was sharper and more up the middle, out of the sub's range, producing his first really clutch knock since the first SEC weekend. "It's been a while," Rea said. "It's been a while since I could run, I enjoyed the stolen base as much as I did the hit!" The theft and a two-out walk didn't matter as Robertson ended the rally on a strikeout, but the damage was done.
The two-run cushion was all Valentine could ask though he did make things interesting with a leadoff walk and falling behind 3-1 to Kody Valverde. The Tide catcher swung at the next pitch only to send a butter-soft liner to first baseman Brad Jones who doubled off Zac Welch for a most timely twin-killing. Thus a two-out double by pinch hitter Matt Grooms hurt nobody when Valentine drew a first-pitch fly ball from Emeel Salem.
"We got a little break there at the end," said Polk. "If it happens to roll over Brad's head it's a double and we probably end up losing the game." Instead Valentine (4-0) was the winner on 4.2 innings' effort with no runs, two hits, a walk and four strikeouts in the longest stint of his season. Yet he said he could easily have kept going into extra innings.
"I have a rubber arm so I can throw three days in a row or all day. I enjoyed it and the more I threw the better I was." Valentine had entered with one down and a pair on base in the top of the fifth, after starter Jon Crosby was touched for a double and single. Sidearmer Saunders Ramsey was also loose but State played a hunch.
"Crosby was pitching his butt off, it was hot and I didn't think he had great, great stuff, he was getting some bat on the ball," said Polk. "I felt we needed a change of pace and I'm glad we did." Valentine was a change for the better and prepared for the tense situation. "They tend to go to me with guys on base, I throw a sinking fastball and it tends to get a lot of ground balls. A lot of those guys are dangerous hitters but we pretty much had them figured out. We pitched around them well, let a lot of aggressive guys first-swing starting them off off-speed, and then used fastballs to get ground-outs and pop-ups."
Valentine was actually looking for a twin-killing grounder when he entered, but cleanup batter Evan Bush watched a beautifully-located strike three, surprising Valentine greatly. "I have no idea what I threw, I think it was a curveball!" Morrow Thomley chopped a rounder to the pitcher that maintained the tie.
Another ‘surprise' for Sunday was that nobody scored in the opening inning, particularly a Tide team that had slugged two-run homers to open the first two games. Crosby got through his first turn with no harm from a one-out walk and failed pickoff. But Thomley led off Alabama's second by doubling the first pitch down the third-base line, and Welch followed with a two-bagger into right-centerfield for the first RBI of the afternoon. Crosby got two outs but fell behind #9 batter Cale Iorg, who waited until full-count before dribbling a roller that somehow got under shortstop Bunky Kateon's glove. An error was ruled but earned or not the run counted and State trailed 2-0.
The Bulldogs got that back with interest in the bottom of the same frame. DH Joseph McCaskill slipped a hit past the second baseman and rightfielder Brad Corley, hitting in the sixth slot for a change, sliced a double into rightfield for a pair in scoring positions. Hunter got his team on the scoreboard with a fly ball to the centerfielder for the sacrifice-RBI.
LaNinfa waged a great battle with UA starter Bandon Belcher, fouling off four balls before walking. The pitcher got a second out on a pop-fly from Kateon, but Rea took his first pitch into centerfield and Corley came across to tie the score. Easley followed with a sharp single to rightfield and LaNinfa slid home ahead of the short throw for a 3-2 Bulldog lead. Belcher ended the outburst with a one-hopper back to the mound.
Crosby survived a leadoff double in the third inning thanks to a sparkling throw by Easley to end the turn, but in the fourth Thomley hit his second double of the day to open an inning. Valverde tied things up with his own two-batter, before Hunter made sure it stayed 3-3 by running down a deep drive from Iorg. Crosby would take seven hits with a walk and two strikeouts in his 4.1-inning stint.
Belcher lasted 4.2 innings himself, leaving with two down in the fifth and Dogs on corners. McCaskill singled and an infield hit by Corley was compounded by a throwing error. Robertson (6-3) came in to strike out Hunter. State also wasted a go-ahead chance in their sixth as LaNinfa got as far as third base and no farther. The real fun came in the top of the seventh as Salem was thrown out stealing second base and the umpires took offense at replays being shown by different cameras and ordered the Jumbotron shut down.
"The rule is you can show one close play replay, and we showed two," Polk tried to explain. "I'm sure I'll get a reprimand, another letter in my file." Play resumed after much meaningless fuss and the inning ended on one pitch, a fly-out to center. The events of the eighth and ninth innings will be replayed without objection elsewhere tonight.
The Bulldogs finished with a 11-9 edge in hits, though seven of the Tide safeties went for doubles and State had only one extra-base effort, by Corley. The rightfielder handled his order-demotion well with three hits in four turns, while Rea, Easley, McCaskill each had a pair of singles. Rea in particular enjoyed the day and not just for his most timely hit. "I think it was good for me to kind of sit and watch and take it all in. I think it's fired me up. It was a big hit but it's a team effort, Mike kept us in there with a 3-3 tie. You knew somebody was going to do it, you just didn't know who."
"We had a chance to win it there at the end and a two-out hit is what it takes," said Easley. "Jeffrey Rea stepped up and got a big hit and we were able to close them out in the ninth."
Certainly there was more passion evident from the Dogs than in a couple of lackluster weeks. Maybe it was the final-exam break that helped heal a few bodies and hearts, because State did not let the pressure of a must-win situation get to them this time. It's an encouraging sign even if the intensity remains for these upcoming series with Florida and LSU.
"I think we're playing good now, we're on a roll," Easley said. "We've got a couple of midweek games and we'll take advantage of them to play hard and carry it over into the Florida weekend." The Bulldogs continue a rare five-day run of games, playing Monday night in Jackson against Birmingham-Southern to make up an April 6 rainout; then at home Tuesday evening against Mississippi Valley State, replacing the washed-out February 27 date with Eastern Illinois.
As of now there are no plans to replace the lost date at Tennessee, though at one time there was talk of making the May 17 home game with Tennessee-Martin a twinbill. SEC games are not made up.