Certainly it would be a good template for the rest of Mississippi State's campaign. The Bulldogs racked up 14 base hits, with early-inning home runs from Jones and shortstop Thomas Berkery, and got solid work from three pitchers in earning the year's first win. It was also the lidlifter for the visiting Red Foxes, and the start of a three-game weekend series at Dudy Noble Field.
State scored three times in the opening inning and led 7-0 before Marist ever got on the scoreboard, so there were not as many first-game jitters as might have been expected. "As we kept putting up runs the atmosphere was relaxed and everybody was having fun," said starting and winning pitcher Brooks Dunn. The win came so routinely that Coach Ron Polk had to remind everyone that this was not some standard first-foe pushover most major-conference clubs schedule.
"Marist is a nice ball club, they've been to five regionals since 1997," State's skipper said. "And I think they've won their conference three of the last four years."
The Foxes might still go on to claim a crown; they could even come back and take this weekend. But opening day belonged to the Bulldogs, who dominated in every aspect. "It was just a good night, everybody was locked-in," said Berkery, who was the most locked-in Dog in the dugout. He opened his senior season by collecting four base hits in five at-bats, and drove in a pair of runs.
Jones had a pair of safeties, as did #9 batter leftfielder Jeff Butts. In fact all nine State starters had at least one base knock, and Berkery, Jones, and DH Joseph McCaskill all drove in a pair of teammates. "I think it was a matter of contagious hitting and everybody getting hot," Berkery said.
The offensive support was all lefthander Dunn needed to get his senior season off to a good start. Making his first series-opening appearance Dunn put in six full innings, the first three of those hitless and scoreless, before getting touched for a solo homer in the fourth frame. He completed his stint with three runs on five hits, while striking out six Foxes and walking none.
Dunn credited the batters for making his job that much easier. "With three runs in the first inning a high school kid can pitch after that." Even when the Foxes got on the board with a solo homer in the fourth and added a pair of runs in the next inning Dunn was able to complete his scheduled stint. "I was happy. We had a great plan and they kept me attacking them. I like keeping it down in the zone and the guy behind the plate was giving it to me."
MU starter Jonthan Smith took the loss with seven runs, all earned, on seven hits in just two-plus innings.
Bulldog batsmen wasted no time registering their first runs of the campaign as second baseman Jeffrey Rea turned on the first offering from Smith and lined a double into leftfield. An out later he was standing on third base and able to score easily as Berkery bounced a RBI-single inside the shortstop's glove. Jones followed by taking Smith's 2-0 pitch all the way over rightfield for a two-run homer and 3-0 lead.
With one out in the second inning third baseman Michael Rutledge was plunked by Smith, and on the first chance to swing Butts lined a drive into the rightfield corner. The double was good for an RBI and Butts added a bonus base as the throw-in was dropped by Marist's second baseman. Smith avoided further damage in the second by fanning the top two in the MSU order. But in his third turn the southpaw couldn't escape serious harm. Berkery and Jones both singled, and centerfielder Joseph Hunter drew a full-count walk to load the bases.
"He was a crafty lefthander," said Jones of Smith, "his fastball wasn't hard but he had some arc in his breaking ball and a changeup. He was just trying to keep us off-balance, luckily we saw it and hit it." As did McCaskill by bouncing a first pitch right up the middle, scoring Berkery and Jones for a 6-0 lead. And when Smith walked rightfielder Andy Rice his day was done, with righthander Jacob Wiley taking over. He also inherited full-bases and no outs. Rutledge helped him out by grounding to shortstop and starting a double-play, though McCaskill was still able to score for a 7-0 tally after a trio of frames.
Any concerns about Dunn in a Friday setting were settled in the first inning as it took only nine pitches to retire the side. In fact his first very pitch was dribbled right back to the mound for an easy out, the first of eleven-straight. Dunn had a perfect game going until with two down in the fourth Adam Pernasilici broke it up, and most emphatically, by powering a drive over left-centerfield. "That ball had a trail on it," the pitcher said. Dunn slipped down trying to field a chopper in front of the plate for an infield single and balked the runner over before grounding out the Marist DH to keep it at 7-1.
Then Berkery got the run back by dropping a one-out shot just a few feet to the left of where Pernasilici had homered. The Foxes tried to get another rally going in the top of the fifth as with one down Bryan Towler and Brian Gibbs singled. Two were down before order-topper Travis Musolf dropped a drive where Hunter nor Rice could run it down. Two runners scored on the double, then Dunn got a line-out to leftfield to end the assault.
And the Bulldog responded with a run in the bottom of the inning, as with one down Rice lifted a high drive that the Fox centerfielder thought he'd caught. He hadn't and Rice got all the way to third. On 3-1 Rutledge lined a shot that got over the rightfielder, who'd been playing in anyway, and made second with a RBI-double. That finished Wiley after 2.1 innings with righty Tom Close taking over. He left Rutledge on the third bag with a groundout and the 9-3 score that held up at the end.
Dunn was allowed to sit after six, having just tossed 69 pitches, so redshirt righthander Chad Crosswhite could get his first college action. He even had the same introduction as Dunn, with a first-pitch grounder to the mound, then coasted through the eighth with a hitless stint. Soph Trent Hill took care of the ninth and ended the evening with a double-play grounder.
Berkery got his fourth hit on a one-out single in the eighth, though by then Polk was already getting new faces on the field. "I think I've got 13 position players that didn't start, I used five or six (it was actually four) but we were hoping to expand the lead." As it was catcher Wynn Diggs, pinch-runner Tyler Bratton, shortstop Brooks Tinsley, along with juco transfer Rice saw action in game-one, along with Crosswhite on the hill. More would have gotten in earlier if the game had become a rout, but there were still flaws in an impressive opening-day offense.
"We probably struck out too many times, and we left ten guys on base," Polk said.
A crowd of 1,804 watched the debut. Game-two in the series is scheduled for noon Saturday, though there is the threat of rain. Junior righthander Josh Johnson is scheduled to start the second game, with sophomore righty John Lalor lined up for the third game. If there is a Saturday rainout the teams will play a Sunday twinbill, both nine-inning games, starting at 1:30. Bobby Hastry, a junior righthander, is expected to throw Saturday for Marist.