Johnson Fans Devils In 3-2 Bulldog Win

He didn't get to finish. But Josh Johnson did make sure Mississippi State got off to a good start in a 3-2 victory over visiting Mississippi Valley State.

Johnson put in almost seven strong innings and recorded 11 strikeouts while keeping the Delta Devils under control long enough for the MSU offense to make him, and his team, winners. With the win Mississippi State improved to 32-16, and remained perfect in 13 meetings with Valley dating back to 1994.

The Devils fell to 19-28. Tuesday's unscheduled makeup game drew 723 to Dudy Noble Field, and the slender crowd was rewarded with a well-pitched and mostly well-played contest. Valley State actually out-hit the hosts eight to six, and the tying runner was on second base when reliever Brett Cleveland got the game-ending strikeout.

"They're the best team I think in the SWAC," Coach Ron Polk said, "them and Southern who beat LSU. It was a good win for us."

And a very good night for Johnson. Over his 6.2 official innings the sophomore was mostly able to scatter seven hits and three walks, save for the second frame when Valley bunched some things to manufacture their lone run. "I wanted to stay out there," said Johnson. "It's been a couple of week since I've thrown and I was happy to stay out there as long as I did."

It was the 11 strikeouts meriting most attention, as Johnson not only notched a career-high for Ks but fanned the most foes of any MSU hurler this season, as well as the most since teammate Alan Johnson whiffed 11 in 2003. Eight of the outs were on called third strikes as he froze Devils with a nicely-placed heater.

"To be honest I didn't have much working but my fastball, I had good life on that and was able to hit my spots. That's what they were striking out on, I wasn't trying to strike out guys. If I got two strikes I'd reach back and try to punch a guy out but I pretty much stuck to the plan."

Polk said there was no set plan to get so many innings from Johnson. "We were just going to see what happened, there were some guys we wanted to get work." Eric Ebers took over to get the last out of the seventh, stranding a pair of Devils, and the first out of the eighth before Brett Cleveland entered to finish up and earn his third save.

Valley starter Rudy Casias (3-2) took the loss after 6.1 innings of his own. He was charged with a pair of runs on four hits, walking three and striking out four. And with a break here or there he could easily have been a winner and become the first Devil to beat the Dogs.

Coach Doug Shank's squad went down in the first, then loaded the bases in the top of the second with no outs as Johnson was touched for a single and walk. Cory Littleton dragged a perfect bunt past the mound and made first without a throw, filling the sacks. A fly ball from Derick Weeks allowed John Morgan to barely slide under Corley's strong throw with the evening's first score, and Johnson re-loaded the paths by nicking Ian Corona.

"I got in a little trouble," Johnson admitted. "I got worried." But he steadied to strike out the #9 and order-topping batters and get out of the frame trailing just 1-0. Consecutive singles with two outs in the Valley third inning didn't hurt as Johnson fanned Littleton, and in the fourth he pulled a 1-4-3 double-play.

"I got out of that jam and kind of cruised," Johnson said.

With the Bulldogs finally leading after five innings the Devils took another swing at Johnson, who put Morgan on via a leadoff walk. A fly ball deep to leftfield let the runner take second, then with two down a single put men on the corners as Butts got to the one-hopper quickly enough to prevent a run. Johnson responded with an inning-ending strikeout to preserve the 2-1 advantage.

The starter's stint ended in the top of the seventh with two out and a pair on, as Zach Penprase singled and reached second base on a balk call. A walk put Rod Williams on first and brought Eric Ebers from the bullpen to face MVSU's cleanup batter. "I didn't want to come out, I wanted to see if I could get out of the seventh," Johnson confessed. But the lefthander got Morgan to swing and miss on 2-2 so State still led.

For his part Casias wasn't overpowering but he was effective enough to go unscathed through four frames. He got a double-play to escape a two-on situation in the second, erased a one-out walk in the third with consecutive strikeouts, and left Thomas Berkery on second base (single, wild pitch) with two fly balls and another strikeout.

Finally in the bottom of the fifth the Bulldogs scratched something together, with Joseph Hunter leading off on a single. He waited for a 2-1 offering then took off for second on a run-and-hit. Jeff Butts took care of his end of the play perfectly, driving a triple into the right-centerfield gap that scored Hunter all the way from first without a throw. Michael Rutledge promptly broke the brief deadlock with a grounder deep enough to the right side for Butts to dash home and put Mississippi State in front at last.

Ebers got the first out of the eighth inning, yielding to Cleveland so the righthander could sit the next two devils. When he returned his cushion was doubled to 3-1. Noah Trujillo was trotted out to pitch the MSU eighth, but lasted only long enough for Easley to line a double off the centerfield wall. Righty Ryan Roberson took over, saw Berkey fly out to right and Easley take third, and turned the ball over to southpaw Steve Harrington. He gave up a bloop single in front of the centerfielder by Brad Jones, scoring Easley.

Righty Andrew Cunha got to be the fourth Valley arm in the inning and wrap it up on a grounder and fly ball, standing Jones at third base. Fortunately there was no need for him to score, though a strikeout/wild pitch put the leadoff Devil on in their last chance. Pinch-hitter Kyle Latiolais struck out but another pinch-batter, Joel Gould, bunted his way on and Easley did not risk a forced throw to first.

A grounder to second by Penprase should have ended the evening and the force was made at second, but the relay was sailed into the dugout by substitute shortstop Bunky Kateon. "He rushed the throw against their quickest runner and couldn't get a grip," Polk said. That scored runner Tim Biles and had the tying run on second, before Cleveland hit the outside corner for a called strikeout of Williams.

"They're a scrappy team and they showed us tonight they could play with us," said Johnson. "Their starter hit a lot of spots, he was a crafty guy and threw a lot of off-speeds that kept us off-balance. We had to fight to win this one, in the past game weren't so close but tonight it was competitive." Easley was the lone Dog with two hits. A total of 16 Devils struck out against the three MSU hurlers, a staff-best night.

The Bulldogs, winners of four of their last five games, take a day off before traveling Thursday to Gainesville for the weekend series with Florida. Gametimes (CT) are 5:30, 3:00, and noon between the Dogs and Gators. Also, State has added a second game to next Wednesday's date with Tennessee-Martin. Gametimes now are 3:00 and 6:30. "That gives us the full 56 games," said Polk.

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