"I had fun and I think everybody else had fun," said Doolittle, who added that there was more at stake Thursday than just a chance to play Saturday for a berth in the championship round. "We got a win and get Friday off; that was our motivation!"
The Bulldogs (38-20) do get to rest Friday while South Carolina (38-20) and Tennessee (40-18) play an elimination game at 1:30. The survivor meets State at 10:00 Saturday morning, and a MSU win sends them directly to Sunday's title game. And in case of a Bulldog loss there will be a 5:00 elimination contest, putting MSU in the best possible position after two days.
"We're in the winner's bracket and that's what it takes," said catcher Ed Easley.
Unlike the 9-2 Wednesday win where Bulldogs bat-tered Louisiana State, day-two hung on the strong right arm of Doolittle. For five Saturdays the senior from Meridian was the tough-luck guy in State's rotation. He last won on April 16 at Georgia, recording his only nine-inning effort of '05. Since then he'd endured four losses and a no-decision against LSU.
But this was Thursday in the Hoover-Met, and a very different story for State's second-day workhorse. "Todd was throwing great," said backstop Easley. "He was all around the plate all night and kept batters off-balance. He did what he had to do."
Did he ever. Shrugging off a walk of his first foe, Doolittle punched out the next Gamecock. And the next. When he fanned two more in the third to strand a pair of runners it was clear the slightly-built righty had the right stuff to keep State in the winner's bracket.
"Todd was the key today," Coach Ron Polk said. "We got the five-run lead and from that point he did what he had to do. I'm not sure Todd struck out that many the whole season!" Doolittle (now 5-7) didn't mind the jibe, though for the record he'd K'd 47 foes previously. Only, none had been USC Gamecocks since the teams didn't meet during this regular season, and Doolittle got an eyeful watching them whip Tennessee on Wednesday.
"I had no clue how I'd throw them today," the starter confessed. If so, he and Coach Rusty McNickle made some fast and correct guesses in warm-ups. "I felt real good in the bullpen, everything was working well and everything was down," Doolittle said. "When I got in the game my curveball was leading off and we did away with it, I was just throwing fastballs and changeups. And we had to go with some kind of breaking pitch so I went with my slider and got some strikeouts with that one."
But most Gamecock whiffs came on fastballs--"I'd say over 60%"—and not because Doolittle overpowered. He located, so effectively early that USC became almost desperate by the middle-innings. "A few times I saw they started chasing a few fastballs up. Coach would call for something down and I'd automatically go up and see if they'd swing at it. And they did."
Smart pitching was complimented by very well-timed batting as the Bulldogs crammed almost everything offensively into one decisive turn against Zac McCamie. The righthander wasn't bothered by a game-opening walk of Jeffrey Rea, but in the second inning with one out Brad Corley got things started with his first post-season hit, a bloop-single that fell in front of a cautious centerfielder. A low sun would cause more USC grief.
McCamie's pickoff attempt went wild and Corley got all the way to third base, and the pitcher plunked Joseph Hunter putting Dogs on both corners. Brian LaNinfa nearly cut McCamie down with a rip barely clearing the mound and bounding on through second base, scoring Corley for State's first run. A pep talk didn't help the hurler as Jeff Butts lined a drive that the rightfielder took a bad angle on. "It came off the bat and I wasn't sure," said Butts, "he took a step in and I think that cost him. I'm just glad!"
Because the liner tailed just past the outstretched glove and got to the track. Both runners scored and Butts ended up on third with a stand-up triple and 3-0 Bulldog lead. Nor was Butts left stranded. McCamie struck out #9 batter Michael Rutledge, but this only brought the top of the order back up and they kept swinging. Rea bounced a single that scored Butts and then stole his way to second, where Easley could drive him on around and in with a seeing-eye safety right up the middle.
A double-play ended the assault but Mississippi State was in front 5-0. And, to stay, with Doolittle making the most of the margin. "One run would be a cushion for me! But I couldn't ask for much more from the hitters."
He didn't need any more either, promptly putting an exclamation point on the top of the second by flying-out the side in the bottom. It was easier to work through a third-inning threat when USC got a single and double around two strikeouts and had the #3 batter up. Steve Pearce took a big hack but only popped it outside of third base to strand all hands.
From there Doolittle retired 12 of 15 Gamecocks faced. He struck out the USC side in the bottom of the fifth, ended the sixth with a called strikeout of DH Chris Brown, and got pinch-hitter Ryan Mahoney swinging to end the seventh. By then the pitcher had another run's worth of insurance as State finally knocked McCamie out. The starter had recovered from that second turn to retire 11-straight by the end of the sixth. "He settled down and mixed it up," Butts said.
Until that is the MSU leftfielder outdueled McCamie to drop another hit in center to open the seventh. Rutledge showed bunt, then played run-and-hit perfectly. Butts pulled the shortstop toward the bag by breaking early and Rutledge slapped a single through the vacated space. Now with two on and no outs the Gamecocks really looked for a sacrifice.
Instead Rea hammered the first pitch into center, scoring Butts. That finally forced USC to go to their bullpen, and righthander Connor Lalor got two quick outs with a force-grounder and strikeout. With runners still on corners the Gamecocks went with a left-on-left matchup, calling in Forrest Beverly to face Jones. On full-count the first baseman watched a called strike, but the lead was a run longer. "I was happy to get that," Polk said.
Polk also would have been happy for Doolittle to go the distance. He got strikeout #12 to open the ninth before a hit batter and wild pitch put Chris Brown in scoring position. Strikeout #13 followed, then pinch-hitter Jon Willard singled in USC's first run. That was it for the starter. "I didn't know I'd be able to go 8.2, towards the end I was running out of gas and he did a good job pulling me. Because I knew Mike (Valentine) was going to close it out for us."
He did, though not before the Gamecocks got one more score on a throwing error by Thomas Berkery. Valentine got a pop-out to end the evening. For a second day at Hoover the Dogs had double-digit hits, with 11 including Corley's double and Butts' triple. USC had just five safeties, four of them singletons and all off Doolittle who walked a pair.
But the only damage was to his stat-line, not the final outcome. Timely hitting and consistent hurling kept Mississippi State on a title-track…and allows the Dogs to watch while their opposition fights just to stay alive at the SEC Tourney. "It was just a big game," said Easley. "We came in knowing we had to win to have the day off tomorrow."