While State is currently ranked #6 by Baseball America, in the top-20 of the other three college baseball polls, and one of the two previously-active undefeated teams in the country, the Bulldogs put more stock in this success than any of the previous eight. "This helps us out," said catcher Ed Easley. "It lets people know we're for-real."
"The other teams were good, don't get me wrong," said winning pitcher Brooks Dunn. "But Arizona was going to be the first real test."
A good test, which made for a excellent college baseball game. In fact the Bulldogs compared it to a Friday night in the SEC, reflecting the intensity put into this matchup. They also said they had some payback in mind after losing two-of-three to the Wildcats last March in Tucson.
"It really was like a SEC weekend," said Dunn. "And last year left us with a little bit of a bad taste, it was like a rival, an Ole Miss game. We wanted to get these guys tonight."
Dunn did his part, working a career-long 7.2 innings with four hits and two walks against him. He was charged with both Wildcat runs, but made sure those scores came in separate innings and did not let any big noise develop. He also struck out five in scoring his third-straight Friday win of the season.
"At first Brooks wasn't really locating, he was trying to overthrow," battery-mate Easley said. "Later in the game he slowed down, tried to locate his pitches, and he had good movement. That's what took care of it for him."
Arizona lefthander Eric Berger (3-3) was just as good as State's starter and in some ways even better. He lasted 5.2 innings and struck out 11 of the 27 Dogs he faced while allowing five base hits. Fortunately three of those safeties came in the bottom of the second inning, when State scored the only multiple-run turn of the game, and Berger damaged his own cause at times.
"We just had to get the runs when we could," said Easley. "What hurt them was some walks. We got some runners on base and were able to capitalize."
With the respective offenses managing just six base hits each it was a moundsman's day, though Dunn did have some early issues. After retiring the first-inning side he hit a batter with one down in the second and walked another. T.J. Steele delivered the RBI-single for a 1-0 Wildcat lead before Dunn coaxed a force-out grounder to strand two more.
Arizona's other score came in their fifth turn as Steele hopped a drive right between the right and center fielders and to the fence for a leadoff triple. Hunter Pace promptly bunted the first chance down the right side for a sacrifice RBI and 2-2 tie, as Dunn drew fly-outs to keep it even at the midway point. He was able to set aside the early-game adrenalin and do his job in the middle innings.
"Coach (Russ) McNickle came out and said let your movement do it. As the game went on my changeup and slider were a lot better. But I really was relying on my defense, to tell you the truth." A defense that played error-free ball, too.
At first Berger looked capable of dominating the day, though Easley did get a one-out single in the opening inning. But in the second the Wildcat southpaw walked DH Joseph McCaskill, and centerfielder Joseph Hunter lined a single into centerfield for two on. Berger was able to get rightfielder Andy Rice swinging for his first out of the inning, then third baseman Michael Rutledge dropped a base hit into right-centerfield that loaded the bags.
Leftfielder Jeff Butts looked at a strike before lifting a fly ball that allowed McCaskill to tie the game up, with Hunter risking a dash for third that paid off. So second baseman Jeffrey Rea's one-hop single to leftfield brought Hunter home with the go-ahead score. Berger got a called strikeout to end the inning but he trailed 2-1.
Berger had struck out seven through four innings, and came back out with the 2-2 deadlock for his fifth frame. "His fastball was jumping, and he had a good hard bite on his curveball," Easley reported. But he also lost some sharpness here, walking Easley on full count and shortstop Thomas Berkery on 3-1.After a mound meeting he struck out two Dogs, then walked Hunter on 3-1 to fill the bases again.
This gave Rice, who'd fanned twice already, a third hack at Berger. He looked bad on a low breaking pitch but spanked the next offering hard and right at shortstop Jason Donald, who couldn't come up with the hot shot. All hands reached safely, in particular Easley with the go-ahead run and the final tally of the game by either order.
Berger stayed in to record the first out of MSU's sixth and finish his stint, with lefthander David Coulon called in to finish the frame and the game. He went 2.2 innings with a hit and three strikeouts on the account. Meanwhile the Bulldog bullpen had been active but Dunn only got more effective rolling through the sixth and seventh innings with no reaches and four strikeouts.
Berkery got Dunn off to a good start in the eighth by pulling down a line-drive on the first good contact made by a Wildcat batter in an hour, and Butts ran down a drive in the leftfield corner, though he also smacked the fence face-first. But with two down Colt Sedbrook snuck a single under Berkery's glove, and Dunn missed Easley's mitt on 2-1 for a wild pitch. With the tying runner on second base Dunn went full on Berger before missing inside.
Cleveland took over to face righthanded-hitter Donald, the cleanup Cat, and on 2-2 hit the outside corner to strand the pair.
State could have provided some cushion as Hunter singled and stole second in the bottom of the eighth, and the stranded runner soon loomed large. Cleveland struck out his first foe in the ninth only to give up consecutive singles to the six- and seven-batters. Arizona also put a pinch-runner on second in case of a base hit. It didn't matter as on 2-1 Cleveland got Steel to roll into a 6-4-3 double-play.
Hunter and Steele were the only participants with a pair of base hits, while 21 batters in all struck out. State left nine on bases, Arizona six, and the Wildcats committed the only error. In short, it was a game befitting the Classic title of the weekend series, and there are two more such matchups to be played.
"They're going to give us some battles," Easley said. "Hopefully we come out on top."