Bulldogs Rally Past Vols, Earn Tourney Title Berth

Jeff Butts confessed: he cheated. No, not on his clutch at-bat in the bottom of the ninth inning, that was all fair and good. It was what the Mississippi State leftfielder did after making clean contact on a 2-1 fastball from Tennessee's Sean Watson and sending it down the third-base line that violated the Baseball Playbook.

"I kind of watched the ball a little," Butts grinned. "I cheated! But I saw it get by."

It did indeed, glancing off Volunteer Chase Headley's glove and on into leftfield for the most timely base hit of State's stay so-far at the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Butts' safety with one out scored pinch-runner Ben Grisham from second base and gave the Diamond Dogs a 3-2 victory over Tennessee at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. With the win MSU (39-20) advances to Sunday's 3:00 championship game, where they will face either Florida or Mississippi depending on further Saturday's results.

The Bulldogs didn't have to win the day's early game to make the finals, and going into the bottom of the last inning Tennessee was in position to force another contest. After trailing 1-0 the first frame the Vols scored a pair of runs in the top of the ninth, ironically matching the score by which State had lost a pair of seven-inning games at Knoxville back on April 3. "When we got behind I got to thinking it might as well be 2-1," Polk said. "Thankfully it ended up 3-2, in our favor."

The final score went State's way the Bulldogs were in no mood to play any sort of May twinbill. "We knew we could play with them, but we didn't want to play them again," said DH Brian LaNinfa. "We wanted to win this one."

They did, thanks to the sort of timely hitting that has been the team's surprise trademark at Hoover. In his fourth chance against UT starter Craig Cobb rightfielder Brad Corley delivered his first hit of the day, a grounder that hard-luck Headley bobbled just enough so Corley could outrun the throw for an infield single. "Leading off the inning I was basically wanting to put the ball in play. Luckily I got on base." This gave LaNinfa, also 0-for-3 against the Vol righthander, his own fourth opportunity, and the designated hitter went with a fastball on the outside corner. "I was just trying to get Corley over," he said.

He did better than that. "When it left the bat I just thought it was going to die," said Polk. "And it kept carrying." All the way into left-centerfield, helped by the fact that leftfielder Joey Andrews had been shaded away from the gap. Corley came all the way around from first to score the tying run while LaNinfa stopped at the middle base. "Most runners would get to third base on that but Brian was lucky to get to second," Polk said. "Don't tell him I said that!"

LaNinfa didn't mind the jest, nor Polk's sending Ben Grisham out to represent the winning run in scoring position. Tennessee also did some substituting, with Watson taking the hill in a no-out situation. The righthander got centerfielder Joseph Hunter to foul-tip a strikeout on 1-2, bringing up Butts. The junior said he wanted to redeem himself for three previous outs, and he suspected Watson might be too motivated to keep UT's tournament going. "There was a lot of adrenalin going so I knew he'd be pumped-up."

Watson threw two balls outside, then got a slider over. Butts still felt he had the advantage and when the fastball showed up he met it, pounding it the opposite-way and just inside third base. Headley made an all-or-nothing dive back towards the bag, and by just ticking it got nothing.

"I saw him dive and it kind of trickle into the outfield and Coach waved me around," said Grisham. "I heard the crowd start yelling and as soon as it got past him I took off running." Chalk up another Playbook violation as Bulldog baserunners are to check their coach, not crowd, before taking a turn. It didn't matter as Grisham was able to score the game-ender standing up.

"I'm glad we came back," said Butts. "Jon Crosby deserved it, he threw a great game. And I was just excited to keep it going."

State starter Crosby did toss an outstanding effort, more than making up for the turn he missed in that rain-shortened series at Knoxville. The righthander wasn't really asked to put in a full day but Crosby darn near did anyway, lasting 7.2 innings despite ten Volunteer base hits. "Jon pitched his heart out," said Polk. "He put the ball in play and didn't walk anybody and that was the key against Tennessee."

"I just wanted to throw strikes and let the defense make plays behind me," said Crosby, and as long as he was on the hill the Dogs did make all the plays including a pair of smart twin-killings and some nice rundowns by Hunter in centerfield. As for all those Tennessee safeties, none fazed the imperturbable sophomore. "I've done that a lot this year. I guess I bear down when I get runners on base. So it felt pretty good out there."

He even felt comfy with only one run's worth of lead. Second sacker Jeffrey Rea, the hottest hitter in the tourney to that point, opened the bottom of the first with a single. An out later he was on second as Cobb was called for a balk. Catcher Thomas Berkery bounced a base hit up the middle for the RBI and Crosby was pitching from ahead, albeit with a minimum one.

If giving up a first-inning tally bothered Cobb it didn't show over ensuing innings. He retired 12 of the next 15 batters, and after Rea scored no other Bulldog got as far as the second bag through 6.1 frames. That string was snapped by Hunter an out into the seventh with a double into the leftfield corner, which didn't hurt Cobb's cause thanks to a fly-out and ground-out.

"It seemed he didn't throw the same pitch twice to any hitter," Corley said. "He was going in-and-out and changing speeds a lot."

Crosby wasn't as fancy, just efficient, with his sucking in every ground ball in reach and making catchable throws to first baseman Brad Jones. Tennessee stung a couple of second-inning singles only to see Crosby catch Julio Borbon looking at strike-three, before Rea made a great snare-and-throw of a short chopper to end the threat. A two-out single in the third brought up cleanup Vol Headley, a left-side swinger with a breeze favoring that direction. Hunter hustled to prevent a rightgap-double and tied-up game.

A two-out single, steal, and wild pitch had the tying Tennessean on third base in the top of the fifth, before Rea again came to the rescue with a nifty running grab and flip. In the sixth consecutive singles activated the Bulldog bullpen. Crosby responded with a strikeout of Rob Fitzgerald and an easy grounder to, who else?, Rea for another double-dip.

Yet all this time State's offense was hamstrung by Cobb, barely pressuring the UT defense. "We didn't expect Cobb to throw like he did," said Real, "we knew he had good stuff but he threw a great game. He mixed it up, threw a lot of off-speed first pitches and had a changeup that was working well."

Crosby got two fast outs to open his eighth inning, before Headley lined his first pitch into rightfield for a double. With Mike Valentine good and loose Polk immediately strode to the hill so Crosby could hand over the ball and get an ovation from Bulldog fans. Valentine threw two pitches, the second lined by DH Kelly Edmundson to Hunter for another run-saving snare. But in the ninth Fitzgerald hit his way on, and Rivera dropped a sweet bunt in the first-base line dirt that somehow stayed fair.

Valentine turned the sacrifice into an error, overthrowing first base to put both Vols in scoring positions. Andrews came through with a single up the middle for the tying and leading RBI. Consecutive grounders got Valentine out of the inning and kept State within a run, setting up bottom-inning heroics. And that timely hitting also made Valentine (6-0) the winner while Cobb (6-4) took the defeat. The Vols had 13 hits, a dozen of them singles, to Stata's ten safeties.

"Tennessee swung the bat well," said Polk. "We made some good double-plays and some other plays on the infield, and that line-drive to Hunter…"

In fact there were far too many Tennessee contacts that could have turned the day another way, and forced the Bulldogs to play a twinbill. But State did just enough in all areas to earn a spot in the SEC Tournament finals for the ninth time since 1978, not including the ‘two-tourney's format of 1993. Four times Dog teams have captured the tourney crown, and another they shared it. All State awaits now is their opponent to be determined.

"We'll get a rest and hopefully Ole Miss and Florida play two nines," said Polk. "And maybe another ten extra innings and we watch them get tired."

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