"The floodgates did open today," said second baseman Jeffrey Rea, who went four-for-four at the plate himself. "Twice!"
As in, a 56-minute delay when a sudden, short, but sharp rainstorm blew through during the seventh-inning stretch. Both the offense and weather outbursts meant the 2:00 game didn't end until 6:07, when State not only finished the game but sealed a series triumph over the visiting Wildcats. MSU also remained unbeaten at 10-0. Arizona fell to 10-6.
Friday's 3-2 decision was definitely dominated by pitchers, starters and relievers alike, with six hits by both offenses. That was good enough, the Bulldogs agreed, but… "We just picked away last night," said Rea. "But we had a little chip on our shoulder and wanted to come out and score a few runs today."
That they did, shaking off a 2-1 Wildcat lead through three innings by pushing three runs across in the fourth inning and then taking advantage of shaky Arizona relief work for five insurance scores in the eighth.
"I was concerned after the first few innings," State starting pitcher Josh Johnson said. "Then we got in a groove and started hitting the ball."
The junior righthander benefited most from the hitting, as Johnson put in five complete innings to raise his record to 3-0 in as many starts. It wasn't a masterpiece by any means, but one wasn't needed this day and Johnson survived six hits and a pair of earned runs. He walked two and struck out one.
"I kind of struggled the first few innings with my stuff, I realized in the bullpen I was going to have to pitch and compete today. Fortunately I did a good enough job getting through five innings." State also got near-flawless relief work with lefthander Justin Pigott taking care of two full innings, with two meaningless hits against him; and righthander Mike Valentine earning his first save of the season with two side-retiring late innings.
Wildcat starter Preston Guilmet wasn't as successful. The righthanded freshman lasted 3.1 innings, and while he struck out five Dogs he also walked three and was hit five more times. Guilmet (1-2) took the decision by allowing three MSU runs, and a pair of relievers were touched for eight more hits and five runs with four walks between them.
Guilmet was only one of several rookie Wildcats on the field this day, with four true freshmen in starting jobs. Arizona was also shorthanded as Friday shortstop Jason Donald and DH Eric Berger were both out with food-related sickness. "Arizona was handicapped today with Donald and Berger, they had ‘pepperoni problems' or something," Coach Ron Polk said. He also confirmed that the eatery where the suspect pasta came from was owned by a member of the MSU Dugout Club.
Still the Wildcats were feisty early, scoring a run in the first and third innings for a 2-0 lead. Johnson was working in and out of big trouble from the start, and did reasonably well to limit the damage. In the first turn he had one on and two out, and caught the runner in a one-way lead. But the relay throw from first baseman was low, slow, and dropped, putting Colt Sedbrook on second. On the next pitch DH David Plante singled through shortstop for the RBI. Konrad Schmidt followed with a double down the third base line putting a pair of Cats in scoring positions.
Johnson left them both stranded with a sharp line-out to centerfield. He got in another jam the second time out as with one on and one out he fielded a Wildcat bunt and unwisely threw to second, late. Both were safe and soon were joined by a third on a bases-loading walk. Johnson escaped as Brad Glenn's fly ball was caught on the leftfield warning track.
Johnson said he was never worried about a slugfest. "I watched them last night and they didn't pound it," he said. But Arizona could manufacture, as in the top of the third when a couple of singles put runners on corners around one out. T.J. Steele pounded a grounder that third baseman Michael Rutledge went high to snare and throw for a force at second, as Plante scored on the fielder's choice. Johnson settled himself and had better results the next two turns, leaving Wildcats on second base each time. That finished his stint, too, with lefty Pigott taking over for the top of the sixth.
The Bulldogs didn't make use of their early chances. They filled the paths in the first inning on a Rea single and walks of shortstop Thomas Berkery and first baseman Brad Jones with one out. Guilmet evaded harm with consecutive strikeouts of centerfielder Joseph Hunter and rightfielder Andy Rice. And in the second State went down in order.
Finally in their half of the third, with the order coming around a second time, State got on their own scoreboard. Rea singled and with one out Berkery walked. Guilmet nicked the inside corner on full-count to strike out Jones, but with the count again full Hunter swung. His hot shot one-hopped through the third baseman and Rea came around for the first Bulldog run. A passed ball but two Dogs in scoring positions and Rice worked the count full one more time before grounding out to first and leaving the Wildcats ahead at 2-1. Just not for much longer.
Because starting DH Mitch Moreland nearly took Guilmet's hat off with a line-drive into centerfield to open State's fourth, and a dirtball put the runner on second. Moreland took third on a nubber to the right side by Rutledge, and leftfielder Jeff Butts powered the first pitch deep to right. The long drive would have plated Moreland anyway, but the sun had just come back out and rightfielder lost track. Butts was able to get all the way ‘round for a RBI-triple on Guilmet's 80th pitch.
And last, as righthander Mike Colla was ordered in from the pen to face the top of State's order. Rea watched two pitches before lining-out the other way, with Butts told to tag and head home. He made it easily as the throw-in was well-off the line, and Mississippi State had its first lead.
It was quickly a two-run margin. Catcher Ed Easley walked his way on, and Berkery's high-hopper to third base bounded too high and deep for anything but an infield single. Jones, hitless on the weekend to now, went the opposite way with a single to leftfield that scored Easley. Colla plunked Hunter on the left arm, loading the bases for Rice with two outs and getting the bullpen busy again. It took a nifty snare and step by the shortstop of Rice's grounder to keep the score 4-2.
State should have expanded the lead in the sixth with the top of the order again up and Rea leading off with a single. Arizona changed arms for lefty Daniel Schlereth who coaxed consecutive grounders to force outs, one at home plate. Schlereth had few ill-effects from the extended seventh-inning stretch, though he did hit Rutledge and wild-pitch him to second before a swinging strikeout to strand.
State had already decided on a pitching change before the delay with Valentine ready to throw. "I'd just gotten warmed up and was running in when it started," he said. "I went to the Grisham Tunnel and started throwing, and looked over and their pitcher was there. He about kicked me in the knee one time!" Valentine certainly kicked his three Wildcats matchups aside with two strikeouts and a grounder in the eighth, and by the time he returned to close things out he had a much greater margin to work with.
Rea, leading off an inning for the third time, reached on yet another infield single to the left side. Easley showed bunt twice before striking out swinging as Rea stole his way into scoring position. Schlereth pitched carefully and walked Berkery, leaving a double-play situation, but blew it on 2-0 to Jones by throwing a pitch off the mitt to advance both runners. Jones was essentially walked to first then, loading the bases for Hunter.
But Schlereth threw four more balls to Hunter, forcing in the free run (Rea). And with the count full he had to pitch to Rice, who tightened up his stroke and lined a gapper to the left-centerfield fence that scored the three teammates ahead of him. McCaskill, who'd taken over as DH the previous turn, took the first pitch up the middle for a RBI-single and 9-2 Bulldog lead.
"That kind of put it away," Rea said. Obviously, as Arizona effectively conceded the day by leaving the bullpen vacant. Valentine and the defense retired the Wildcat side to make it an official evening.
"We pounded the strike zone, that was the key to success," Polk said. "We dropped the ball in the first inning, so we really only gave up one run. We spaced our hits well, they struck out a lot of us but they walked a lot of us." And for the record, all nine MSU runs were earned, though a dozen Dogs were also left on bases.
As the Bulldogs were told, at 10-0 they have tied for the second-best start in program history, matching the 1995 team. Of course that squad did make use of the fast opening and did not make NCAA play. The program standard was set in 1985 with a 14-0 debut.
"I just hope we keep playing like we do," Rea said. "We've got great momentum, I think it's the second-best start in school history. Coach Polk made a comment this morning we'd like to go 56-0 but we're going to lose some time or another…but we hope not!"
For his part Polk was already looking to Sunday when his team puts that perfect start on the line. Not to mention on the mound, with righthander John Lalor (2-0, 2.13 ERA) opening for State against Arizona lefthander Brad Mills (2-0, 3.68). The Wildcats also have all-star reliever Mark Melancon still awaiting his first action of the weekend. The righthander hasn't given up an earned run out of the pen this season, so the Bulldogs can only try to repeat their first two efforts and not let the visitors get into a late-game save situation.
Which means hitting the ball and scoring runs, again. "Tomorrow is going to be a bear," Polk said. "We'll have to swing even better tomorrow to come out with a win."