"Another night where somebody just got the job done for us," said shortstop Thomas Berkery. "We got enough runs to win. It wasn't pretty but we'll take it."
The Dog getting it done this night was Michael Rutledge. With State leading 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh, the third baseman was up in a two-out situation with runners in scoring position. A base hit would have probably gotten it done, but Rutledge made sure. His double to the left-centerfield gap plated the pair, doubled the lead, and effectively settled the issue.
"We can't seem to come up with the clutch hit in the early innings in games," Rutledge said. "We'd like to get it out of the way! But we're finding a way to get it done in the end."
A crowd of 1,617 braved the chill evening at Dudy Noble Field, watching their home team tune-up for the weekend and first SEC road trip of the season. Jacksonville State fell to 9-13, losing for the second time in eight days to State. A week ago the Bulldogs also had to turn things on late to secure a 7-4 win at Jacksonville, Ala.
"Last time we played these guys they had us no-hit into the fifth," Coach Ron Polk said. "Tonight we got our first break in the sixth, then Michael Rutledge got the key hit and we expanded."
And by stretching the lead out State was able to stick to the midweek pitching plan, which was to give several arms some innings. Righthander Jon Crosby got the starting call and put in five full innings. He allowed four base hits, three of them singles, and was charged with the lone JSU run in his first frame. Crosby struck out one and walked none.
It was the first of four relievers who benefited from the later outbreak. Jesse Carver began the bullpen ‘rotation' with a hitless, scoreless sixth inning, and by virtue of being ‘on the record' he received the decision and his first career victory. "I've never got the chance to do that, it was exciting," he said. "I went to do my rehab and guys told me I'd get the win. That feels good!"
Mike Valentine, Chad Crosswhite, and Brett Cleveland all put in scoreless, hitless innings of their own in turn. All three are part of the weekend travel roster and were tuning up. "We got a lot of pitchers an opportunity to work, that's what Tuesday-Wednesday games are all about," Polk said.
JSU head coach and former MSU assistant Jim Case used six pitchers in the loss. Ton Drinkard (0-3), the third man marched to the mound, took the loss on 1.2 innings with a lone run on one hit and three walks.
The Gamecocks did come out swinging, though, hitting Crosby for a couple of first-inning safeties around a wild pitch that advanced lead runner Nic Cleckler to third base. He scored on a single up the middle by Brian Piazza, and Crosby needed a swinging strikeout and grounder to shortstop to strand a pair. That was all the damage done, though it took a couple of nifty defensive plays to keep the Gamecocks from scoring again in their second turn. In the third a single, bunt, and errored grounder had runners on corners with two down before Crosby rolled a grounder to shortstop to strand both.
State got that first JSU run back quickly enough, in their first at-bat off starter Matt Darwin. With one out catcher Edward Easley and Berkery reached on singles. The JSU rightfielder couldn't quite get to a dropping drive by first baseman Brad Jones that filled the bases, setting up Easley to jog home on a fly ball by centerfielder Joseph Hunter for the tying score.
But the Bulldogs could not take a lead, stranding six through the next three innings. Finally in the sixth with Drinkard pitching, substitute rightfielder Matt Richardson walked his way on to lead off. He took second on a ground ball by Rutledge, then made third on a bouncer by leftfielder Jeff Butts. A walk of second baseman Jeffrey Rea had Dogs on corners, but only Richardson mattered.
The Gamecocks made another change, for righthander Clark Jinks. He got Easley to swing just a bit early, barely getting the end of his bat on the ball. It became a little nubber that the JSU first baseman charged, reached, and fell down fielding. Easley reached the bag while Richardson came home and State led for the first time, 2-1.
The slick surface bit Jinks himself as he fell coming in for a 15-foot grounder by Jones that looked like a line-drive single to lead off. Jones stole second but got hung up and tagged out on a Hunter ground ball to the mound…though the Bulldog made the JSU second baseman pay for blocking the bag. Hunter was able to steal second as well, and substitute DH Joseph McCaskill walked for two on and one out. This time Jinks got Richardson to dribble out along the sideline.
But on 1-0 Rutledge lined a double a stride ahead of the leftfielder. "It was a fastball inside, on 1-0 count I pretty much knew it was coming." Hunter and McCaskill had no worries running home for the 4-1 lead. Lefthander Josh Miller was called from the bullpen to end the inning.
But the Dogs weren't through just yet. Lee Drinkard got to pitch the MSU eighth, plunking new second baseman Bunky Kateon to start and wild-pitching him to second base. A grounder moved Kateon within one base of the plate and he got there, too, on another dirtball. Jones reached on a throwing error from third base, and came all the way around to score as sub Brian LaNinfa lined a double to the centerfield fence for the night's last RBI.
After Crosby had retired seven-straight to end his assigned stint State also went to the pen with Carver taking care of the top of the sixth. It was good timing, since the MSU offense manufactured the go-ahead run before Valentine came out for his scheduled inning.
State out-hit the Gamecocks nine to six with three doubles, two of them by Rutledge. But MSU also left twice as many men on bases, a dozen in all. It's a familiar problem but one that hasn't cost the Dogs a game yet. "We'd been struggling to get some hits, but we knew we were going to come through like all year," said Rutledge.
State did get another sort of scare though when second baseman Rea fouled a ball off his right foot in the sixth inning before walking. A couple of pitches later he waved to the dugout and left, with Kateon filling his place on the field. Polk said afterwards it did not seem serious. "It's on the flesh on the foot," the coach reported, "he was able to put weight on it, we'll take him for x-rays but the doctor doesn't think it's broken. It was probably the 38 degrees! He should be OK for the weekend."
State's weekend begins around 2:30 Thursday as they depart campus for Baton Rouge, with a stop in McComb for a dinner sponsored by MSU alumni. Friday evening starts the annual series with Louisiana State, with game-one at 6:30. The Bulldogs didn't actually admit they'd spent the day thinking about their first SEC road trip, but…
"Now our focus will be on LSU," Rutledge said. "It will be a fun series."