And, what might normally have been a routine outcome of a typical SEC midweek matchup merited a note in college baseball history. With the sweep, Coach Ron Polk first tied for and then took sole possession of tenth place in career victories, with 1,268 in 26 seasons. His total surpassed legendary Miami mentor Ron Fraser, who Polk had assisted for four months in 1975 just prior to taking the MSU post.
Of more immediate interest to coach and team, this twinbill was an ideal opportunity for many MSU batters to take out some of their recent frustrations. Most took full advantage as there were 29 base hits registered in the 16 innings. Six of the safeties were doubles, and the Bulldogs even got to show a little punch at the plate with two home runs. Both came in the first game including a two-run shot by reserve Eli Dew in the eighth inning. It was not only Dew's first longball but his first collegiate base hit of any sort…which had Polk comparing the walk-on catcher to Rafael Palmeiro's first at-bat blast 22 years ago. In jest, of course.
More seriously, Polk appreciated the chance for his batsmen to warm up for the coming series with Louisiana State. "LSU is going to be a little better," the coach said. "UT-Martin scraps hard, that second pitcher wasn't too bad. But we scored a lot of runs and got a chance to play some guys."
A lot of guys, six of them pitching and limiting the Skyhawks to three runs in each contest. The Bulldogs also got through 18 defensive frames with only one error, that a throwing gaffe in the very last inning of the second game. Still it was the signs of stick-life that did the most good for the team's mentality. "It's great going into this weekend to get a lot of runs," said second baseman Jeffrey Rea, after going 3-of-7 and scoring three times.
"It was good for us, to get our confidence back up and carry it over to this weekend," said third baseman Ed Easley, who was 6-of-10 batting for the day with four RBI. "We've got a big series coming up and I feel these two games will help us out a lot. We came out and played hard and got the wins."
With school out Polk is giving his team a day off, sort of, with only weightlifting scheduled for Wednesday. The Bulldogs will practice Thursday and report back to the ballyard Friday to open a must-suceed series with the Tigers. At 12-14 in SEC play State must still play its way into the conference tournament, making up ground on at least one of the three clubs that are 13-14 for the eighth and last slot in the league tourney.
Even then the Diamond Dogs might need some outside help. "We have to get some wins this weekend and hope some other teams lose," said Easley. "But we can't control that, we just have to play hard and get some wins against LSU."
GAME ONE: MSU 17, UTM 3
The first game showed State had come to hit this Tuesday, with 17 safeties tallied by ten of the 16 Dogs who got to take the plate. A pair of the starters finished with four hits in the contest. Rightfielder Brad Corley collected four singles in six official turns, and third baseman Easley was even stronger with a solo home run, a double, and two more singles in a 4-of-5 effort.
Ironically the run-producing leader was shortstop Michael Rutledge, who had only one hit but drove in four teammates (three for RBI). With either a runner at third or the bases loaded he was hit by a pitch, grounded out to shortstop, walked, and had another hopper errored. Each time a Dog scored.
John Lalor got the game-one start and scored his fifth midweek win of a perfect-decision campaign. He worked six innings, matching his longest stint of the year, allowing all three Skyhawk runs on five hits with no walks and five strikeouts. He had no real troubles until the fifth and sixth innings when UTM got all their scores, and by that time was so far in front that only his stats were affected.
UTM starter Casey Estill (1-9) wasn't as effective, giving up the first seven Bulldog runs in just 2.1 official innings as he walked four and was hit four times. Derek Linn did not better with seven runs of his own in 2.2 innings on eight hits and five walks. Ryan Hill worked the final three innings taking three runs on five hits.
The Dogs wasted little time getting to Estill as Rea led off with a first-inning single. Two outs later Thomas Berkery bounced a double into rightfield for the RBI and 1-0 lead. Estill left Berkery at second to end the frame, and stranded a pair on the corners in the second inning.
But State's third turn blew the afternoon open with 13 at-bats producing seven runs. Easley opened the frame with his solo shot, a line-drive just over the leftfield fence. Estill got an out, then loaded the bases as Berkery walked, Corley singled, and Brian LaNinfa walked. Mitch Moreland watched ball-four to force Berkery across for a 3-0 lead, but the assault had barely begun.
Rutledge was plunked for a free RBI and a pitching change, with Link replacing Estill. He had no better luck, though, walking Jeff Butts to plate LaNinfa. Jeffrey Rea flew out but deep enough for Moreland to score, bringing up Easley again with two on. He roped a RBI-single for a 8-0 lead, and Link did well after a single and walk to get a ground-out and leave the bases packed. State had four hits in the big inning to go with five walks and a hit batsman.
In the fourth LaNinfa led off with a double, took third on a ground ball and scored on Rutledge's grounder. And after the Skyhawks finally got on the scoreboard in the top of the fifth the Bulldogs more than matched it. Easley doubled to open, Berkery walked with one out, and Corley flared a RBI-single in front of the diving leftfielder. Joseph McCaskill reached on an infield single to shortstop to fill the paths and with two outs Rutledge drew a RBI-walk for a 11-1 lead.
By the sixth inning State was substituting wholesale, which didn't slow the offense much. Daniel Tackett walked and Easley singled, his place on base taken by Bunky Kateon. Jones singled to load the bases yet again and Tackett scored on Berkery's ground ball. Another Corley single scored Kateon. With two outs Moreland walked before Rutledge's hard grounder ate up the Skyhawk shortstop and Jones came home. Ben Grisham's infield single scored Corley with the fourth RBI of the inning.
But not the last of the game, as against Hill in the eighth Corley banged out his fourth single of the afternoon. Dew made the most of his chance to swing, crushing a no-doubt drive dead to rightfield for two more runs. "That was awesome," said Rea. "He actually called his shot, he said if he got in he was hitting a shot. So we're proud for him. He was on cloud-nine."
As to the mound-men, Lalor set a tone by retiring the first dozen Skyhawks faced. Not until the top of the fifth did the visitors get anyone on a base with Nick Bruner ending the no-hitter on a single. With two down an infield single had runners on corners and Brett Spivey broke up the shutout with a ground ball that ricocheted off third base for an infield, RBI-single.
Lalor had an out in his sixth before giving up consecutive extra-base licks, a double to Blake Turner and perfectly-placed triple in the right-centerfield gap by Zach Dean. The lead runner scored on the three-bagger and Dean came home on fly ball to rightfield. But that was all the Skyhawk offense could accomplish as Hill and Boling sat down nine-straight to run out the afternoon.
GAME TWO: MSU 8, UTM 3
You've heard of ducks on the pond…but how about on the field?
A feathered fan literally dropped in to catch some of Tuesday's nightcap, perhaps meaning to offer the Skyhawks some moral support. And in fact immediately after the duck was flushed, having spent the bottom of the second pacing the rightfield turf, Tennessee-Martin did take a lead.
The advantage was brief, though, as Mississippi State ultimately gained control for a successful nightcap and 8-3 victory. The duck was not a witness to the ending, having long since retired to a nearby pond. "That was kind of funny," Easley said. "I've never seen that before."
"Was it the duck from the Sanderson pond?" asked Rea. "I thought somebody put it on the field."
Had the fowl hung around he would have enjoyed what, compared to game-one, was a pitching duel for four innings until the Bulldogs broke a 2-2 deadlock with three runs in the fifth and insurance scores in the seventh and eighth. UTM swing their own sticks much better in the nightcap but State still hit a bit better with 12 base knocks to 11.
That was more than enough to make a winner of starter Brooks Dunn (5-2). He put in five complete innings, allowing two runs on six hits with three walks and four strikeouts before stepping aside in a tied ball game. By the time his relief arrived the Bulldogs were in front so Dunn earned the decision. Josh Johnson and Jesse Carver each put in a pair of innings to seal the deal.
Jacob Smothers (1-4) took the loss, putting in 6.1 game innings and taking responsibility for six State runs on nine base hits with four strikeouts and two walks. Micky Dobson finished the seventh and Dustin Summers tossed the whole eighth, allowing two more Bulldog runs and still leaving the bags full.
Dunn wasn't at his sharpest, with a pair of walks and hit against him in the first two innings. He erased the latter free pass with a rundown. In the third Dunn ran into real trouble, starting with a one-out single by Hideaki Sato. A fly-out later Dunn walked Nick Brunner to keep the inning going, and cleanup-man Chris Rezabek made it sting with a RBI-single into leftfield for a 1-0 Martin lead.
The fourth wasn't any better with consecutive singles to open the inning. Dunn struck out the #8 and 9 batters and was a strike from escaping, only to wild-pitch in Zach Parham for a tying score. A ground-ball to shortstop kept things even at 2-2, and Dunn negated a leadoff single in his fifth with three quick outs to end his stint. And he was the pitcher of record as his offense took a lead in the bottom of the frame.
Johnson did his part to protect the advantage, striking out three around a sixth-inning single, but faced some problems in the seventh with a one-out double (actually a single that Turner turned into two bases by running hard) and two-out hit batsman had Skyhawks on the corners. Johnson threw three strikes by Bryan Harvey to strand both.
Carver was greeted by a Parham single and erased him with a 6-4-3 double play. He had one down in the ninth when top-of-the-order swinger Sato singled, stole second and took third on a throwing error. A wicked infield hit by Bruner got the RBI but only delayed State's victory.
Smothers was much stronger than UTM's game-one starter, evading harm on three hits through two turns with that one-run margin going into the third. That was when State got to him with help of Skyhawk mistakes. Butts reached on a fielding error at second base and was running when Rea grounded to the third baseman. The throw was high of first, putting Dogs on corners with no outs. Easley evened the tally with a first-pitch single through the right side, scoring Butts.
On a routine fly to centerfield Polk gambled that the throw would be to third base and had both runners tag. He guessed right so State had two in scoring position. Only one did as Berkery's ground ball to the shortstop brought Rea home but Easley got caught in a rundown. A strikeout ended the inning but the Bulldogs were in front 2-1.
They regained the lead for good in the fifth inning, as the top of the MSU order came after Smothers. Rea led off with a double into the leftfield corner and was awarded third base on a balk. Easley lifted a high fly ball that the rightfielder let drop right in front of him for a base hit, scoring Rea. But Easley kept chugging and the rightfielder's throw (no fowl play was involved) sailed wide of second, putting the MSU catcher on third base where he could easily score on a base hit by Jones.
A Berkery single and Corley fly-out had Dogs on the corners with just one down, which let LaNinfa cash in on an RBI opportunity with a fly ball to the centerfield warning track, staking State to a 5-2 lead.
Smothers battled on through the sixth and had one out in the seventh before a walk of Jones and single by Berkery. Southpaw Dobson was called in from the pen. He flew Corley out to rightfield but that put Jones on third base, setting up a fake steal by Berkery that drew a throw and let Jones dash home during a rundown.
Summers took the mound for the MSU eighth and promptly filled the sacks as LaNinfa singled, Moreland doubled, and Rutledge walked. An infield-fly rule pop-out of Butts later Rea took a full-count ball inside for a walk/RBI, and with two outs Jones lined a single into rightfield to plate Moreland for the final margin of victory.
Rea reached base four times, twice on hits, and scored two times with one RBI. Easley and Jones each had two hits and two RBI, and Moreland a pair of safeties. If not as lopsided as the first contest, game-two was still satisfying for the Bulldog batting order…who wondered if the unexpected guest had a part in the outburst.
"Maybe it was a Rally Duck," Rea suggested, before adding that their fine feathered friend was smart enough to leave the yard in a direction opposite the Left Field Lounge. "It would have been cooked duck then."