Thus no Dog sounded too terribly upset at losing this game and series. Just the opposite. "Everyone is so excited," said rightfielder Brad Corley. "All year you work for going to the Tournament. It wasn't the way we wanted to do it. But hey, we got in, so that's all that matters."
"We were talking about packing up our stuff after Friday's game," said pitcher Jon Crosby. "But now it's good not to have to turn in our stuff like last year." Instead the Bulldogs are loading up for the short trip over to Hoover and a first-round rematch, as #7-seeded State takes on Western Division co-champs LSU at 10:00 a.m. Wednesday in the very first contest of the tournament.
The Tigers (38-18, 18-12 SEC) left Dudy Noble Field after winning Sunday's rubber game and claiming a Division leader's automatic #1 bracket seeding at Hoover. The same results—Florida sweeping Vanderbilt and Alabama taking a series from Auburn—which secured a berth for the Bulldogs also gave LSU the tie-break edge on the Rebels despite UM sweeping Arkansas. These last-day twists even gave the Dogs something else to smile about in defeat. "The good thing about this game is Ole Miss didn't win the West" Corley quipped.
This sense of relieved levity began building by the later innings as it became clear from announced scores that at least two and probably all three other bid contenders were going down, taking some of the must-win pressure off Bulldog shoulders. It still had no bearing on Sunday effort, though, as nobody knew for sure until after the game-ending strikeout left the tying and winning runs on bases.
"We were still playing hard to the end," Crosby said. "I was in the shower when they started cheering in the locker room." The cheers were over news that Alabama had held on to edge Auburn and assure State (36-20, 13-16 SEC) would still be playing ball this week, while Auburn—and Vanderbilt it turns out—join Georgia and Kentucky in the finished four. Coach Ron Polk wasn't thrilled to sustain a season this way, but after missing the 2004 SEC Tourney State's skipper wasn't about to turn down the trip.
"Some kid doesn't get to go to Hoover because of some third tiebreaker," he said. "But I'm happy for our guys. You don't want to back in to something like this, and I don't think it's backing in. I think we had three contested games."
Sunday's rubber game was certainly that. LSU never trailed but also never managed more than a one-run margin, and twice saw go-ahead scores neutralized in the bottom of the same frame. It was a one-out, solo home run by Derek Hebert in the top of the sixth that provided the eventual margin of Tiger victory and meant that Crosby would head to the showers saddled with the decision.
The righthanded starter battled through his 5.1 tough innings, tagged with ten of LSU's 13 base hits and all three scores. Yet Crosby (5-3) kept thing competitive, issuing no walks and stranding seven base runners before retiring. "LSU has a tough lineup, up and down, the umpire had a real tight zone and the fans got on him. But I just had to throw strikes and let the defense do the work. It wasn't really my best stuff, my changeup wasn't working well and I hung a few sliders. Luckily most of the balls stayed in the park."
The same was true for balls hit off Bulldog bats, as only a drive by shortstop Michael Rutledge left the yard. The solo drive that cleared the leftfield fence by a stride came in the bottom of the fifth and briefly re-tied the game at 2-2. "I just put a good swing on it and got a good result," said the freshman, who also had a single in the third inning. Centerfielder Joseph Hunter and DH Joseph McCaskill matched Rutledge with a pair of base hits.
It wasn't enough though as Tiger lefties Greg Smith and Jason Determann never suffered a big inning and combined for nine strikeouts. The southpaws made hitting hard for some frustrated Dogs. "Smith was throwing mainly fastballs and changeups, and curveballs to lefthanders," Rutledge reported. "He had good velocity and movement. Determann was throwing curveballs, it had hard bite and was a tough pitch to hit."
Smith (10-2) got the win on 6.1 innings with eight hits, a walk and five strikeouts while Determann got his seventh save in 2.2 scoreless innings. He entered with one down in the State seventh and a pair on base after a McCaskill double and walk of leftfielder Brian LaNinfa. Determann made his job harder as, facing his first Bulldog batter, he bounced a pitch off the catcher's mask to move both runners into scoring positions.
McCaskill might have scored when leftfielder Ryan Patterson had to dive full-length and snare a one-out fly from Rutledge, but he was leading well off the bag. "I told him halfway," said Polk, "because I can't have him tagging up on third base and the ball drops." Instead of tying the game McCaskill was stranded 90 feet away on a strikeout of second baseman Jeffrey Rea.
Determann sat the side in the MSU eighth and began the ninth with a strikeout before Hunter and McCaskill hit their ways on. Polk put speed at first base in the form of runner Ben Grisham, before Determann fanned LaNinfa and Rutledge on breaking stuff to end the afternoon. "Determann is an ace, we'll probably see him again Wednesday," Polk said.
Crosby was in a fight from the start, needing to leave two Tigers on bases in the first inning and another at second base in the second. By the third inning the LSU was seeing Crosby a second time and both Bruce Sprowl and Ryan Patterson singled to lead off. LSU tried to sacrifice; instead Blake Gill's bunt got under Crosby's glove with nobody in support and the bases were full. The pitcher prevented a big early inning with a pair of fly balls, the second a drive by Clay Harris to sacrifice-in Sprowl, and a pop-out.
LSU's middle run came in the fifth frame as Sprowl and Nick Stavinoha reached on hits around two outs, and a more accurate throw after a great running grab by Rutledge would have ended the inning. Harris got his second Rbi with a sharp single into leftfield, the Crosby punched out Jordan Mayer for his lone strikeout. After Hebert's blast far over rightfield and a single Brett Cleveland replaced the starter and was able to hold the score to 3-2 the rest of the way.
Smith evaded trouble in his second inning as first baseman Brad Jones reached on an infield single and tried to go all the way to third when a blooper by Hunter fell in front of the charging rightfielder. "Brad was on his own," Polk said, "the rightfielder probably deked him a little because he stutter-stepped." Jones was thrown out easily. Hunter got in scoring position via a balk before Smith grounded out McCaskill.
The Dogs answered LSU's first score in the bottom of the third as LaNinfa and Rutledge reached on hits. LSU could not turn grounders by Rea or third baseman Ed Easley into twin-killings and LaNinfa scored on the second bouncer. And after falling behind 2-1 Rutledge delivered his shot, lifting a 1-2 offering very high and just long enough to clear the fence for his first homer of the season. He would gladly have done the same in the very last at-bat of the day and made his team the winner, but that wasn't how the ball bounced.
"We had three strikeouts (in the ninth) and I was one of them," Corley said. "But it was a good game, we fought hard." And regardless of the outcome the Bulldogs live to play again, he added, noting that during the course of the game Bulldogs were "cheering for teams we don't normally cheer for!
"We didn't win but we got in, so hey, it's great."
Mississippi State had chances not only to keep the game going but even win, yet Polk said the Tigers had the better of things at the plate this day. "We had opportunities but LSU had better production." As a result the Bengals produced a share of the Division title and a higher Hoover seeding…which by sheer chance means they will meet the Bulldogs on day-one. "It's not bad," Polk said, "because it saves us having to go back in the archives and remember what happened two months ago. We've got fresh scouting reports."
Fresh life, too. "We're in, that's all that matters," said Rutledge. "It doesn't matter if you're the eighth seed or the one seed, everybody has a chance to win it. That's the way we look at it."