Bulldog Batters Rise and Shine In 9-2 Victory

Thomas Berkery reported that he'd woken up at 4:45. Then, again at 5:45. "Anytime I've got to get up early I can't sleep," he said. Well, if the junior catcher or any Diamond Dog teammates were short on Z's their bats were certainly wide-awake as Mississippi State rose and shone in a 9-2 victory over Louisiana State in the opening game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

It was a contest that began at 10:05 a.m. and ended with MSU fans stretching lunch breaks to hear the final out registered on a strikeout by reliever Saunders Ramsey, at 1:08. "I can't remember ever playing a 10:00 ball game," said Coach Ron Polk, veteran of 23 SEC tourneys. "But the way we played today I hope we play a lot more."

Polk's players might not be as eager to arrive at the Hoover-Met for another morning contest, yet they wouldn't mind similar results. "It was just a good day," grinned Berkery. The #7-seeded Bulldogs (37-20) advance to a Thursday meeting with South Carolina after the Gamecocks routed Tennessee in the early-afternoon contest. The #2-seed and Western Division champion Tigers (38-19) and Volunteers will be in the 10:00 timeslot of the loser's bracket.

Mississippi State is in the winner's bracket for day-two thanks to be the most consistent offensive output of the 2005 campaign. An offense that was swinging at only a .277 clip in league play batted around in the first inning and finished with 17 base hits at the expense of Tiger hurlers. The Bulldogs pushed across four runs before LSU took a turn, sent starter Lane Mestepey to the showers before the first frame had ended, and were comfortably in control 9-0 midway of the seventh inning.

This was nothing like the batting order that had struggled through the SEC season. "It's kind of been frustrating, we've had ups and downs all year," said leftfielder Jeff Butts, one of the six Dogs with two or more hits. "Today we were able to put a lot of hits together, they weren't extra-base hits but we were able to string them together. A lot of guys swung the bat well today."

But for all their regular-season issues, State showed up at the park not only early but strangely confident. "I knew before the first inning we were going to have a good game," centerfielder Joseph Hunter said, "that we were going to win."

They certainly swung the sticks that way. And the most impressive aspect to the hitting was that everything came the most basic way. Of the 17 safeties all but one was a one-bagger. "I don't think we got a lot of well-hit balls but we seemed to find real estate," said Polk. Not until the top of the seventh, when Berkery dropped a double between the right- and centerfielders, did the Dogs hit anything for more than one station.

But State didn't need multi-base hits or big flies; stringing old-fasioned singles together was even better. "All year we've had problems scoring runners but we did a good job today," Polk said. A top-to-bottom job, too. Berkery had by far the best individual day, with four hits, a walk, and a hit-by-pitch to reach base in all six of his appearances. But every MSU starter but one had at least a single hit and if rightfielder Brad Corley couldn't bat his way on he did produce State's last RBI on a fly ball.

Foremost beneficiary of the offense was starting pitcher Alan Johnson, who was able to take the hill with a lead that he protected very well. The senior righthander didn't need to dominate, and he didn't try to against a LSU order he'd gauged only four days earlier. "I knew I had to go out and throw strikes. Friday night I did the same thing, they didn't really hit the ball that well. Today they didn't hit it too well and it's a big ballpark so I threw it down the middle, pumped strikes and let the defense play behind me. And we got runs."

Given four runs during warm-up Johnson (4-6) was able to toss six scoreless innings at the potent LSU order, and work two outs into the seventh before the Tigers got on the scoreboard. He was touched for seven hits and gave away five walks, but struck out seven and produced grounders and fly balls his fielders handled without error.

"I threw fastballs in the three-zone, pretty much away, and they were looking middle-in. They never got it. I know later in the game I noticed they were inching up on the plate and I was still on the outside part. They couldn't do anything with it." For a guy who generally throws his best in the twilight, Johnson was quite competent in the Hoover sunshine. "It wasn't much different, I felt comfortable throwing. You just go play baseball whether it's night or day."

It still took a bases-loaded situation to convince Polk to lift the starter and let Ramsey take care of the last 2.1 innings, with two hits and a couple of strikeouts. Their effectiveness in pitching from ahead also allowed State to save the bulk of the bullpen.

By contrast, lefthander Mestepey lasted only two outs and eight batters in giving up those first four scores, making him a short-stint Wednesday loser. Mestepey (6-8) was tagged for singles by the first four batters-up, and allowed two more safeties with an errored grounder before the early exit. The Bulldogs obviously remembered how to attack the starter after facing him Friday night in Starkville, as well as previous seasons.

"He's turned into a crafty lefthander since his arm surgery, we knew we had to stay back," Hunter said. "And we got a lot of singles off him." Beginning with a chink base hit past the second baseman by Jeffrey Rea to begin the morning assault. Ed Easley followed with a single of his own into centerfield, and Berkery delivered the first RBI of the morning with a hit over the third baseman, scoring Rea.

"It wasn't so much Mestepey pitching that bad," said Polk, "I just think we swung the bat good." In fact the LSU lefty consistently got ahead in counts but failed to finish off scrappy State swingers. Such as Brad Jones, who went down 0-2 only to fight off a fastball that fell behind second base and died, giving Easley plenty of time to come home for the 2-0 lead. Brad Corley grounded into a double-play, but Hunter followed with what might have been the key at-bat of the morning. Not only did his line-drive into centerfield drive in Jones but it kept the first frame going.

"It was more us going in the box, battling and putting the ball in play," Berkery said. "That's something you have to take pride in, not being an easy out with two strikes."

And State kept scoring as Hunter immediately stole his way to second, then made third as a high-hopper by Joseph McCaskill ate up the Tiger shortstop. After fouling off a 2-2 strike Butts slapped a bouncing single through the right side to plate Hunter and stake MSU to that 4-0 lead. Mestepey was finally relieved to take a seat and let drop-down righty Brandon Faircloth get a called third strike on #9 batter Michael Rutledge to end a 18-minute half-inning.

"They brought Faircloth in I'm sure to keep the game close, thinking they would score some runs," Polk said. "Thankfully Alan shut them down." He did, retiring the first five Tigers-up and getting help as Berkery caught a runner off first base for an inning-ending rundown.

"In the SEC that's a pretty comfortable lead," said Johnson, "and you've always got your bullpen to rely on. And with four runs in the first inning you pretty much know you're going to score some more." State did because Faircloth failed to keep the game close with State doubling the advantage over their next three frames. In the top of the third with one down Hunter was nicked on the thigh for a free base and McCaskill followed with a ground-ball single by the first baseman. A walk of Butts filled the sacks for Rutledge, but his one-hop grounder was snared by the pitcher for a force at the plate. It wasn't sharp enough for a twin-killing though, so Rea got to swing and dropped a single in leftfield for one RBI as McCaskill scored. Butts tried to only to be thrown out by a step.

In the fourth Berkery got another base hit as Faircloth deflected a grounder past his shortstop. Jones singled up the middle, and Corley avoided a double-play with a fly ball to rightfield that let Berkery take third. He scored easily on Hunter's single through shortstop for a 6-0 Mississippi State margin.

If there was any doubt this was a Dog day, the fifth inning settled the issue. A leadoff walk of Butts and legged-out single by Rutledge put a pair on, and Polk had #1 batter Rea bunt. The second baseman did it perfectly, forcing the third baseman to scoop a slow-roller and almost beating the throw to first base. As it was a pair were in scoring positions and LSU changed pitchers, calling in righthander Edgar Ramirez. It didn't matter as Easley plated Butts with a deep line-out to centerfield, and Berkery drove in Rutledge with a base hit to leftfield.

The Bulldogs made a run at forcing an early end as Easley opened the top of the seventh with a single and Berkery followed with his two-bagger. A strikeout later Corley flew a foul ball that stayed in-play and was caught by the rightfielder, allowing Easley to tag and score. A fly-out kept it down to 9-0 and meant playing another inning, though.

It also meant a tiring Johnson couldn't finish the day. He'd stranded a pair in the LSU third by lining out #3 batter Blake Gill, and left lone Tigers on bases in the fourth, fifth,and sixth. Johnson began his seventh with a fly-out before Derek Hebert and Matt Liuzza singled their way on and Bruce Sprowl walked to fill the sacks. With Ramsey trotting to the bullpen Johnson got Ryan Patterson to fly-out, too short for a sacrifice, before on 1-2 Gill bounced a two-run single through the box that finally ended the shutout.

A walk of Nick Stavinoha re-loaded the bases and brought Ramsey to the mound to roll a grounder. Rutledge's throw pulled Jones off the bag but he tagged Clay Harris in passing to maintain a 9-2 margin. Ramsey put a pair on in the eighth, stranding both, and with two more Tigers on bases in the ninth he fanned pinch-hitter Rhett Buteau.

Rea, Easley, Jones, Hunter, and Butts all had a pair of singles, while Berkery and Hunter each drove in two teammates. The first four spots in the State order were a combined 10-of-19 with five runs and five RBI. Polk noted again that the Dogs didn't exactly ‘shell' Mestepey or his mates. "Probably 11 of the hits were what you'd call hard-hit, but sometimes you don't have to hit the ball hard to be successful."

Nope. Sometimes it's enough just to be wide-awake and ready to make the most of morning opportunity.

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