The righthanded hurler certainly made the most of his chance. Johnson put in eight complete, scoreless innings Saturday to earn a winning decision after Mississippi State's 4-3 victory over Tennessee. With their win the Bulldogs not only clinched their opening SEC series of the season, and maintained their perfect season-starting record. At 15-0 now they are off to the best beginning in program history, surpassing the 14-0 start of the 1985 squad.
The Volunteers fell to 14-5, 0-2 SEC.
Though the final margin was much closer than when he left the game with a 4-0 lead, the unexpectedly-sunny day belonged to the remarkably-efficient Johnson. He scattered seven Tennessee hits over those eight frames with two walks and four strikeouts. It was his 18th start as a collegian but the first time Johnson (4-0) was on the hill to open a conference contest. Still he looked like an old hand on the Dudy Noble Field hill.
"This was my first SEC start at Mississippi State and I fared pretty well," Johnson said. "The first few innings there a couple of fastballs I left up in the middle of the plate, but most of my stuff was on. There were two or three (Vol drives) that the wind held in. But I thought I pitched well enough to win."
The MSU pitcher had to fare very well as he spent most of his afternoon protecting a one-run lead. The Bulldogs scratched out a sole score in the bottom of the first and Johnson made it stand up until the offense padded the margin with a pair or runs in the seventh and one more in the eighth. Up 4-0, "I wanted to finish it out," Johnson said.
And when Tennessee manufactured three runs in their last chance off ace closer Brett Cleveland the decision to change arms became questionable. Fortunately Cleveland was able roll a game-ending ground ball and preserve Johnson's win.
By contrast the Volunteers put a very new hand, true freshman Josh Lindblom, on the mound for game-two. The righthanded rookie gave a creditable performance in his own SEC debut, working six full innings with eight hits and just one run recorded. He struck out six Dogs and walked one, and with a bit better defensive support Lindblom (4-1) could well have matched Johnson inning by scoreless inning.
It was a one-out walk that eventually led to Lindblom's lone run-allowed. In the bottom of the first he gave MSU catcher Edward Easley a free pass, which second baseman Thomas Berkery followed with a single. With two down centerfielder Joseph Hunter's hot hopper ate up the UT third baseman for a run-scoring single and 1-0 Bulldog lead.
From there Lindblom handled adversity admirably. He stranded two Dogs in the second inning on a swinging strikeout of Berkery, left Hunter at second base in the third, and worked around four base hits in the fourth with a double-play and line-out. By the time his stint was done the rookie had stranded no less than 11 runners, four of them on third base.
"He threw a little bit of a slider, and a changeup," Hunter said. "Basically he stuck with a lot of fastballs which was opposite what they did yesterday."
Johnson had his own early test as with two down and Michael Rivera on first base via a walk cleanup-Vol Kelly Edmundson spanked a drive inside the third-base bag. It took leftfielder Jeff Butts a moment to come up with the carom in the leftfield corner, while Rivera was waved on around. But Butts was able to hit Berkery, who in turn relayed a strike to Easley for a just-in-time tag at the plate.
"It changed the momentum, them getting thrown out and us scoring a run," Johnson said. "It helped. I was more relaxed than I thought I'd be."
Another challenge came in the top of the fourth as with one out Johnson walked Chris Kemp and Brian Van Kirk bunted his way on with no play possible. The Vols tried to advance both runners on another bunt, only to have Berkery snare Ryan Jones' attempt and flip for a force at third base. That was crucial because a two-out single by Cody Brown only left the bases full, instead of tying the score.
And Johnson fanned number-nine batter Tony Delmonico on thee pitches to strand all hands and preserve State's 1-0 lead. "I was doing t he best I could to keep us in the game," the pitcher said. In the top of the fifth the top of UT's order all made strong contact, with the inblowing wind keeping all drives short of the track for fly-outs.
In fact that was a theme of the day with plenty of drive caught by outfielders, Butts in particular. He would finish with six putouts of his own. " I was glad to pitch in and do my part," he said. Besides, "Josh might have thought I needed some, work!"
Still it was just a 1-0 deficit that Lindblom turned over to reliever Craig Cobb after the stretch. The UT righthander could not hold that line. He walked Jones on full-count, then with one out a grounder by leftfielder Andy Rice was butchered by the second baseman for two Dogs on. DH Mitch Moreland pulled a single past the diving first baseman and Polk took a chance by sending Jones home. It paid off as the senior somehow slid safely around Arencibia's tag attempt.
And Dogs were still on corners with just one out. So Rutledge's two-hop grounder to the third baseman would have likely scored Rice anyway, only the throw to first was a step late and it became a RBI-single. It took a nice running catch by shortstop Tony Delmonico of a fading blooper to leave two more Bulldogs unscored, but now the lead was a much more comfortable 3-0.
State was able to add some icing in the last at-bat as Easley reached to lead off and Berkery rattled a double into the rightfield corner for Dogs on third and second. Jones brought in Easley with a sacrifice-fly to centerfield for the fourth State run. And the game-winner, it turned out.
"In retrospect it proved to be a big deal," Hunter said.
Because after stranding one Vol in his seventh and sitting the side in the eighth Johnson was replaced by Cleveland, who had not given up a run in six appearances this season. He got pinch-hitter Jarred Frazier to ground to Rutledge, who didn't make a clean throw to first base. "I believe if he makes that throw Brett sails through the inning," Polk said. Instead Cleveland was tagged for singles by Ryan Jones and Cody Brown to fill the bases with no outs and bring the tying run to the plate.
Delmonico forced a run in on a ground-out to first base, with Jones' relay after the bag-tag not in time. Pinch-batter Chris Siewart's ground-out brought another Vol run home, and Michael Rivera's infield single to shortstop cut State's lead to the final margin. Second baseman Jeffrey Rea had to make a smart grab of an Arencibia grounder, with the runner from first crossing his path, and flip to first to end the afternoon.
"A lot of things fell well for us today," Johnson said. State finished with 11 base hits to Tennessee's 10, with Hunter batting three safeties and Rea, Berkery, and Rutledge two apiece. State left a season-high 14 men on the bases to UT's nine.
Locking up the series on Saturday was a more urgent matter than usual as Sunday's weather forecast is threatening at best. If game-three is washed out the Bulldogs will have scored their first SEC series ‘sweep' since a three-game blitz of Alabama at the end of the 2004 schedule. At the same time, State players are hoping that Sunday weather turns out as unexpectedly fair as it did Saturday, and they have a chance to complete the weekend.
And, extend their record-setting start. "It's nice to be a part of that," senior Hunter said. "But, the big thing was to get the win and get the series."
If there is a Sunday game, righthander John Lalor (2-0, 3.57ERA) is scheduled to start for State with lefthander Duente Heath (2-1, 7.36) tentatively booked for UT.
Also, MSU has already tentatively re-set the midweek pitching plans for two home games, with freshman Matt Lea to start Tuesday night against Alabama-Birmingham, and junior Jon Crosby on Wednesday against Jacksonville State.