LSU Defeats MSU in Series Opener, 7-5

STARKVILLE - The unexpected happened at Dudy Noble Field Friday night as Mississippi State and LSU opened a crucial three-game series.

The Bulldogs received a quality showing from their starting pitcher. Mississippi State finally got the game-changing, two-out hits with runners in scoring position.

But the Bulldogs' defense and bullpen did not answer the call. All but two of LSU's runs were unearned. And before Friday's setback, the Bulldogs were 29-0 when leading after seven innings.

Mississippi State fell to 35-19 overall and 12-15 in the SEC, and enter the final two games in must-win situations concerning a possible berth to Hoover, Ala., and the SEC Tournament.

LSU won its fourth straight and moved to 37-17 and 17-11, still atop the Western Division.

"It could have gone either way," said Mississippi State head coach Ron Polk. "We got two-out hits but (LSU) had even bigger two-out hits. And much like last Saturday's game at Florida, we gave them unearned runs that were the difference. (Saturday) is another day so we will see. We haven't lost a weekend series in the league and are the only team to do so. But our backs our against the wall now."

After Brad Corley's RBI sacrifice fly gave State a 5-4 lead in the seventh, LSU went to work on the Bulldogs' bullpen.

Mississippi State reliever Brett Cleveland gave way to Mike Valentine in the top of the eighth with Tigers at first and second with no outs.

Following an LSU sacrifice bunt and strikeout, Valentine looked as if he would continue his steady relief work. But LSU's ninth-place hitter Derek Herbert came up big, lining a two-out, two-run single to center to give LSU a 6-5 advantage. LSU would add insurance in the frame as centerfielder Bruce Sprowl's RBI single plated Herbert for a 7-5 lead.

Cleveland, 2-1, took the loss for State, giving up two runs on two hits in one inning of work.

While State's relievers struggled, LSU left-hander Jason Determann kept the Bulldog bats quiet in the late innings to collect the win. Determann, 4-0, tossed three and 1/3 inning, allowing no runs and five hits with two strikeouts and one walk.

Starting pitchers Alan Johnson of MSU and Lane Mestepey of LSU were both out of the game in the seventh inning, leaving the final outcome to the bullpens.

Johnson left in the seventh with a 4-3 lead and a possible shot at a rare SEC win. However, a passed ball by Bulldog catcher Thomas Berkery with two outs allowed LSU to tie the contest.

Working with a 3-0 lead, Mestepey kept the Bulldogs hitless until centefielder Joseph Hunter led off the bottom of the fifth with a single up the middle and jumpstarted State's first scoring threat of the game.

Designated hitter Joseph McCaskill followed Hunter's hit with a base knock of his own. Leftfielder Brian LaNinfa then drew Mestepey's only walk of the game to load the bases with no outs.

Rutledge grounded into a double play that scored Hunter and cut the LSU lead to 3-1. The twin killing had Bulldog fans recalling all the missed opportunities last weekend at Florida.

But on the ensuing pitch from Mestepey, second baseman Jeffrey Rea did manage a clutch, two-out single to plate McCaskill and draw Mississippi State within one run, 3-2.

And the clutch hitting carried over into the sixth inning for Mississippi State, so much as to give the Bulldogs their first lead of the evening.

In the frame, Brad Jones had a one-out, ground-rule double and later moved to third on Corley's groundout. Hunter and McCaskill delivered the crucial hits this time around. Hunter drove in Jones with a bullet to left field and also stole second to get into scoring position. Hunter's swipe turned out to be key when McCaskill followed with an opposite-field single to right to give the Bulldogs a 4-3 lead.

McCaskill paced State's 11-hit attack with a trio of singles. Hunter and Jones added two hits each.

Getting those clutch two-out hits is the focus this weekend of the Bulldogs batters, and to their credit, they were successful in the opener.

"I thought we hit the ball well tonight so it was frustrating," said Hunter. "LSU is a great hitting team and we made some errors that hurt us a little bit. But we just have to win the next two.

"We did a great job of two-out hitting, which is something we haven't done this year, and moving the runners over. We are shortening up our strokes and taking that approach now. LSU is going to score runs so we have to score a lot of runs. We have to get runners on, mvoe them over and play small ball."

McCaskill's hit also chased Mestepey out of the contest as LSU head coach Smoke Laval decided to dip into his bullpen. Determann did surrender a single to his initial batter - LaNinfa - but wiggled out of the frame with the Tigers trailing by just one run.

Mestepey lasted five and 2/3 innings, allowing four earned runs on six hits with one walk and one strikeout.

Johnson's stint on the mound was almost over before even recording a single out. LSU loaded the bases with no outs after collecting a pair of singles and a walk. The early jam Cleveland to quickly get loose in the bullpen.

However, Johnson enticed LSU clean-up hitter Nick Stavinoha into a home-to-first double play and struck out Clay Harris to somehow escape the all-but-impossible situation.

"I was just trying to get out of the inning," said Johnson of the first frame. "They had a chance to score but we came through the inning without giving up any runs. I was hoping it would pump up the crowd and give us momentum to score in the first. But it didn't happen and that's how it goes sometimes."

And that would be the last serious threat for either team until LSU took advantage of two walks and a two-out throwing error in the top of the fifth. Johnson walked LSU catcher Matt Liuzza and Hebert to open the frame. After a sacrifice bunt and strikeout, Johnson seemed poised to escape trouble again with two outs and runners at second and third.

Rutledge fielded Ryan Patterson's grounder cleanly but threw wild to first, allowing LSU to take a 2-0 advantage.

LSU's Stavinoha made the error hurt even worse with a RBI single for a 3-0 Tiger advantage.

"That was really frustrating," said Johnson of the error. "I made the pitch I needed to make and I was saying ‘all right, we can get out of this inning without any runs again. But we threw it away and that seems to be my luck this year. It seems like when we get a good break, we don't make things happen. It was unfortunate that we lost but we have to come out tomorrow. If we don't, our season is done."

When Johnson actually did exit the game in favor of Cleveland, the Pleasant Grove, Ala., native should have left with a shutout in tack. After Hebert led off the seventh with a bloop single, Polk made the move to his bullpen as Johnson headed to the dugout with a standing ovation from the maroon and white faithful.

But he would have much rather left with a zero on the board for LSU.

"It was nice," said Johnson of the ovation. "I was sure they would give me one, being a senior and I'm sure they will give one to Todd (Doolittle) tomorrow. It would have been better to come out with no runs but that's the way it is."

In his final start at Dudy Noble Field, Johnson did not allow an earned run (four unearned runs) and scattered seven hits. Johnson had four walks and five strikeouts.

The Bulldogs will try to even the series Saturday as senior right-hander Todd Doolittle (4-7, 4.23 ERA) takes to the hill. LSU will counter with sophomore lefty and Hernando native Clay Dirks (10-2, 3.12 ERA).

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