Sunday was the toughest win of the weekend, for that matter the season-to-date, as Mississippi State rallied from a 4-1count through three innings to score two runs in the bottom of both the sixth and eighth frames. "We really showed a lot perseverance today," said centerfielder Joseph Hunter, who tied the tally up in the bottom of the eighth by scoring on an errored grounder. "We didn't give up. We did what we were supposed to do, get on, get over, and get ‘em in."
"It's good to have the kids battle back and win a ball game against a very good club," Coach Ron Polk said. "I knew coming in it would be a tough series, to win three games is really a credit to our boys."
Polk wasn't able to observe the finish or much of the ‘second half' of play for that matter, having been ejected in the bottom of the fifth for arguing a strikeout call on shortstop Thomas Berkery. Still his mostly-veteran team was able to keep their cool and keep their record unblemished.
"We really don't talk about it too much," righthanded pitcher Aaron Weatherford said. "I think it's more an honor than anything, and a sense by the whole team that hey, we can keep this thing going. It's just a motivating force for us."
Weatherford, who threw the eighth inning as the third of four MSU hurlers used, got the decision and his first college victory. But it was righthander Brett Cleveland who took care of the finish, retiring the side in the ninth to get his third save.
The real dramatics had come in the prior half-inning, with Arizona trying to protect a 4-3 lead and escape Starkville with a split. And the Wildcats had their star reliever, righthander Mark Melancon, on the mound for the first time all weekend. He'd taken over from starter Brad Mills in the sixth inning with a pair of Dogs on the bases and two outs, only to give up a two-RBI triple to MSU leftfielder Jeff Butts that narrowed the lead to one run.
Still this was who Arizona wanted throwing the ball in the late going, and after State wasted a seventh-inning safety by shortstop Thomas Berkery in the seventh Melancon looked to be in his element taking a lead into the eighth. After all, he had not allowed an earned run in relief all season.
"So?" said Hunter, later. "It's just another pitcher." In fact, Hunter and other Dog veterans had faced Melancon a year ago when Arizona took two-of-three from State in Tucson. So they were prepared for this rematch. Besides, Hunter said, "We've got guys on our team who've been there and we had confidence we were going to get the job done." And senior Hunter got the job started in the eighth with a leadoff single up the middle.
Pinch-batter Mitch Moreland followed with a base hit through the right side. With no outs Arizona briefly played for a bunt but Rice wasn't sacrificing and on 3-2 watched a dirtball that loaded the bases. Lefthander Brian LaNinfa was pinch-hit for righty third baseman Michael Rutledge, and on 3-2 he protected the plate well. His medium-fast ground ball was just barely fair and botched by the Wildcat first baseman.
"I was just hoping it would do what it did, hit the bag and bounce over," said Hunter. Moreland stumbled coming around third though and was thrown out at the plate. But the score was tied, only one was down, and Rice on third base. Just in case, Tyler Bratton was sent to run for LaNinfa, but he didn't figure into the outcome. Because on 3-2 to number-nine batter Jeff Butts, Melancon threw a low, outside fastball a bit too low and outside for catcher Konrad Schmidt to stop. It was something the Dogs had been looking for all weekend.
"They were throwing a lot of balls in the dirt to get us to swing," Hunter said. "Out of so many times you're bound to have a passed ball sooner or later." And this one did pass on by with Rice racing home for State's first lead of the day. Cleveland was due to throw the top of the ninth anyway, but it was more fun to do so with an advantage. "Coach (Russ) McNickle said it was their 7-8-9, just go right at them." Cleveland produced a deep fly ball to center and two swinging strikeouts, the last of pinch-hitter Tyson Moll on three pitches.
It was a heartbreaker for an Arizona squad that had scored two runs in both the second and third innings and kept Bulldog bats in check most of the afternoon. Righthander Mills allowed just one run on three hits through his first five innings and was close to dominating at times. State starter John Lalor had it rougher, as the righthander was hit eight times in five full frames and charged with four runs and a pair of walks.
Lalor probably deserved better, though. In the second with one out Brad Glenn one-hopped a hit just a bit too high for Rutledge to snare and made second ahead of the throw. On 1-1 Jon Gaston lined a drive that fell a step inside the rightfield line and rattled on into the corner for a Wildcat triple and RBI. Schmidt scored Gaston by slicing a single just beyond Rea's reach into rightfield for the 2-0 lead.
State halved that deficit in the bottom of the frame as DH Joseph McCaskill singled into leftfield and scored first baseman Brad Jones, before Mills came back with a strikeout of Rice. McCaskill got thrown out on a hit-and-run when Rutledge failed to cover with a swing. So the Wildcats were still on top and able to expand the third time around, even after Lalor rolled a double-play.
Because a fly ball by Eric Berger, who'd missed Saturday's game with food sickness, fell between Rice and Hunter for a double. Glenn then got all the way around on his first pitch and deposited it 15 feet beyond the leftfield fence for a 4-1 lead. Lalor was able to hang a couple more of scoreless innings on the board, then after a leadoff single in the sixth was replaced by righthanded reliever Chad Crosswhite, who had to get a diving stop from Rutledge to strand a pair.
Mills lost most of that margin, and State the coach, in the bottom of the sixth. A one-out infield single by MSU catcher Ed Easley did put a reliever in the pen, and Mills went 3-2 on Berkery before throwing what looked like a fastball-up. Berkery was a step towards first base when homeplate umpire Larry Short made the belated strike/out call. The shortstop had a few words and Polk many more before his departure.
"I wasn't arguing balls and strikes," the coach said, "I was just trying to get his attention why it took so long on a 3-2 count with a runner at first base. Joseph Hunter almost got picked off because it took two seconds to raise his arm." Regardless, #1 was exiled while his team got the right kind of spark from the dispute. "That definitely motivated us," Weatherford said.
Mills ended the inning on a grounder to the mounder. His day was done two outs into the sixth after a walk of Rice and infield single from Rutledge. This was the opportunity Arizona had waited all weekend for, to put Melancon on the mound with a lead. But he bounced a 0-1 pitch in front of the confused catcher that moved both Dogs up a base. Then Butts lined the next chance into rightfield, sliding into third base with a two-RBI triple. As quickly as that the Dogs were within 4-3 with three innings left.
Weatherford took the hill to start the eighth and after a leadoff double the freshman righthander was able to leave the runner at third base on consecutive strikeouts. "That's not the way I wanted to start off to say the least. I knew after that it was now-or-never, I knew I could do it, just go after them."
"Weatherford was the key with those two strikeouts," said Polk. So was Cleveland. "I was hoping we'd get the lead," he said, "I knew I was going in. I just didn't want to go extra innings. Luckily we got the lead." And the closer made it stand up. Melancon went to 3-2 with his loss on two runs, four hits.
Arizona out-hit the Dogs nine to eight overall and five to two in extra-base knocks, and only Hunter had a pair of safeties for State. The difference was being able to take advantage of Arizona errors at crunch time and complete the sweep. A sweet one, to hear MSU veterans of 2005's trip to Tucson.
"We owed them from last year when they beat us two out of three last year," Cleveland said. "And we knew playing here would be a little different."
At 11-0, these Diamond Dogs now can claim the second-best start ever by a State squad, with only the legendary 1985 team's 14-0 debut a better mark. But how seriously do these 2006 players take such a streak? With a mix of pride, and practicality.
"You want to go out with the mindset you're going to win every game," Cleveland said. "Realistically in this league we're not, we know that, but we're going to take it like we're going to try."
And hey, why not try? Just because nobody has gone 56-0 doesn't mean conceding anything to anybody. Or as Hunter put it, "Our main goal is just to win every game."