Dogs Open Series, SEC Season With 8-2 Win

Sure, they grabbed a bit of history by tying for the best start in program annals. But what meant more to the Diamond Dogs was getting their conference campaign off to a winning start.

Mississippi State broke open a 2-2 tie by pushing five runs across in the sixth inning en route to an 8-2 victory over visiting Tennessee. With their 14th-straight win these still-unbeaten Bulldogs matched the mark set by the 1985 team. The Volunteers fell to 14-4.

Afterwards the Dogs put more emphasis on 1-0 SEC than 14-0 overall. "It's huge just to get that one under your belt," junior second baseman Jeffrey Rea said. "We've got a lot of veterans but still you have butterflies and you want to get that one out of the way."

"It's more important starting SEC play with a win," senior first baseman Brad Jones agreed. "Records are going to be broken eventually, we'd love to be the team to do it, but it doesn't mean anything if you're not playing well in the SEC."

The Bulldogs played well enough to win without playing especially well in any one area. And this might have been the most impressive aspect of the victory. Even the decisive big inning was hardly a classic outburst as Tennessee miscues factored into the five runs as much as MSU's efforts with the bat.

But then State was not playing for style points, just a series-opening W. Or as Jones put it, "Whatever it takes to win a game, that's what we're going to do."

State starter Brooks Dunn typified this approach. In his first regular-season SEC start, the senior lefthander had to scuffle around repeated challenges and was tagged for a pair of runs in the second inning. Still Dunn kept his head, and kept putting pitches where instructed. That was sufficient.

"Really and truly I didn't have the velocity," Dunn (4-0) admitted. "But my off-speed was working well." By changing velocities and taking advantage of low strike zones Dunn just outlasted the smart-swinging Vols for seven complete innings to get the win. He only allowed the two runs, one earned, on all six Vol hits with seven strikeouts and a pair of walks.

Chad Crosswhite worked two hitless, scoreless innings in relief with a strikeout. "And the thing I had," Dunn added, "the defense played incredible."

Tennessee lefthander James Adkins (4-2) took the decision after a grueling six full-frames of his own, taking 11 hits with seven runs, six strikeouts and four walks. The Vol southpaw deserved better as despite the stats he was hardly shelled. His downfall was failure to hit a few spots or the UT defense to make a couple of plays in the one crucial inning.

It was a 2-2 tie going into the MSU sixth, but only just as shortstop Thomas Berkery pulled off a remarkable double-play with a pair of Vols in positions to score go-ahead runs. Tennessee had missed an opportunity to take control; the Bulldogs did not waste their own ensuing chance. Rightfielder Andy Rice singled to lead off and third baseman Michael Rutledge walked his way on. The Vols figured State was playing the sacrifice game and were right.

But it didn't matter as Adkins slipped fielding a bunt by leftfielder Jeff Butts, loading the Bulldog bases with the top of the order coming up. "His cleats came out and that opened the door," said Polk. Rea didn't hesitate, whipping the first pitch-slider through shortstop for the go-ahead RBI. "If he'd thrown a fastball I was done," Rea said, "I was sitting on a slider." On 2-1 catcher Edward Easley dribbled a grounder that the UT first baseman took his eyes off of.

The ball got through his glove, Rutledge and Butts scored, State led 5-2, and there were still no outs. And Adkins was far from out of this inning. Berkery failed twice to bunt, only to have a chopper die on the third base line that worked even better than a sacrifice as it re-loaded the paths. Thus centerfielder Joseph Hunter and Jones were each able to drive in runs with routine grounders and expand State's margin to 7-2.

"That one inning things definitely went our way," Jones said. "We got some lucky bounces, the pitcher slipped a couple of times. In the newspaper it looks like we hit line-drive after line-drive!"

For the first half of the evening there was no way to tell which way the game would bounce. The Vols came out swinging and put a pair on bases in the first inning, to no effect. But after falling behind a run after one they did more damage the second time around. A hit and walk had two Vols on again and a pitch that got by Easley put them both in scoring positions. They did so without a hit, as Cody Brown grounded-in lead runner Brian Van Kirk, and Dunn's second wild pitch of the frame let Tony Delmonico come home for the 2-1 Tennessee lead.

"Of the four games I've pitched that's the best hitting team," Dunn said. "They don't try to do too much. I think they saw the wind and said keep the ball on the ground. I thought I was going to struggle a lot, but we started making plays."

For his part Adkins was a slow starter, too, and while a double-play erased a leadoff walk he gave up a single to Berkery and infield grounder off the end of Hunter's bat that two Vol infielders touched but could not stop. On 3-1 Jones punched his first base hit of the affair through the right side to score Berkery, before Adkins stranded two on a strikeout.

Adkins got the State-side in the second, only to find the bases loaded in the bottom of the third. It wasn't all his fault, as Easely reached with one out on a botched one-hopper (again ruled a hit), Berkery went the other way for a single, and Hunter's sky-high fly fell between three Vols in short rightfield. Jones again pulled the ball to the right side but this time right at the first baseman. Fortunately he bobbled the grounder just enough to have to settle for a force at the bag, allowing Easley to tie the score up 2-2.

"We wanted to take what he gives you, lay off his junk and sit on his fastball," Jones said. "And be patient. That's what we did for the most part and it paid off."

Dunn had one down in his half of the sixth before walking Van Kirk on a full count. Delmonico lined a drive that Rice dove for, letting it go off the glove, and Hunter bobbled the carom enough to put the runners in scoring positions. Cody Brown made great contact on the 1-1 offering, only to have Berkery snare the sinking liner and make a back-hand flip to third base for the twin-killing. And perhaps this remarkable play had something to do with the offensive outburst in the bottom of the frame.

"Then we were like we need to do it right now, we've got the fans behind us and momentum," Rea said.

The MSU sixth ended on Adkins' 121st pitch, and righthander Chase Hardin came out after the seventh-inning stretch to finish up the lost evening. He did not escape unscathed as with two down Butts doubled to rightfield and scored on an up-the-middle RBI single from Rea.

After 108 pitches and with a healthy margin Dunn was allowed to take his seat after five scoreless innings. "I don't know if the ball started moving more," he said, adding that the UT first base coach seemed to be reading his grips accurately. Regardless, "We started making plays and balls that had got through were caught." Crosswhite rolled a 1-6 double-play to end the UT eighth, and retired the side to end the evening.

Berkery and Butts had three of State's hits apiece, while Reak, Hunter, and Jones all had a pair of safeties. Rea's double was the only extra-base knock of the night while Jones drove in three. The Dogs also left ten on the bases.

Game-two is scheduled for 2:00 Saturday. Righthander Josh Johnson (3-0, 2.08ERA) is scheduled to start for State with Tennessee putting righthander Josh Lindblom, a true freshman and third-round draft pick last summer (4-0, 2.97) on the hill. Now that they've got one SEC win under their belts, the Bulldogs can play for that record-setting start.

"We joke about it," Rea said. "But we definitely want to keep winning. And we need to get the win tomorrow, we've heard about the rain Sunday. Tomorrow is huge."

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