"It's one of those games we hit a lot of balls on the nose," Coach Ron Polk said. "This is a hitter's ballpark and we always hit a lot of home runs here."
Diamond Dog batters certainly made themselves at home-away-from-home Friday night. They came in tied for last in the SEC in home runs hit this season; they left with four more longballs in the 2006 account, matching the four hit at Alabama-Birmingham on March 14. Put another way, over half the homers State has tallied this season have been away from home, and in just two games.
"You can't help but notice how the ball jumps on the road," said leftfielder Jeff Butts, who mashed one of the four shots. More specifically, he accounted for the third homer in the second-inning trifecta when the Bulldogs took control of this evening. "It's pretty exciting," said DH Matt Richardson, who triggered that assault with a two-run smash for a lead State never lost. "It got the momentum in our favor and we just took it from there."
Certainly pitcher Brooks Dunn took that show of support all the way into the eighth inning. The senior lefthander posted his fifth-straight Friday victory in as many starts, putting in 7.1 frames. Dunn scattered five base hits, allowed the one Tiger run, and matched four strikeouts with four walks to get the win. And while he welcomed all that bunched-punch from his offense, the barrage also meant Dunn had to be on his toes all evening to prevent the home team from following suit.
"They told me all day the wind's blowing in, it'll keep it in the park," Dunn said. "Then we hit back-to-back-to-back and I looked at Coach (Russ) McNickle and was like "small park, huh?!" Fortunately Dunn was big enough to keep most balls around the ground where the Dog defense played flawlessly and helped prevent any serious problems.
In fact the closest Dunn came to real trouble was in the bottom of the sixth when with one out a streaker, not Tiger bats, briefly broke the spell. The naked fan ran all the way around the outfield, left-to-right, and back where he was caught by a swarm of game management. "I said that's the craziest thing I've seen on a baseball field," Dunn reported. "LSU, what can I say?"
Actually it was the Bulldog batters doing the talking, or at least wearing their hitting clothes while undressing LSU starter Daniel Forrer (1-1) with eight hits and six runs through 6.1 innings. Forrer struck out three and walked two.
It took an inning for State to really get after the southpaw starter, though second baseman Jeffrey Rea did greet him with a first-inning single. A double-play erased that hit, then in the second with two Dogs on Forrer rolled another twin-killing for a force at third base and throw to the other corner. It left first baseman Brad Jones on the middle-bag with two down, and Richardson coming up in his first SEC start.
"First at-bat, first pitch," he added. "I was sitting fastball, it was a curveball and I kind of connected with it." Did he ever, bouncing Forrer's first offering off the scoreboard in right-centerfield for a 2-0 lead. Then third baseman Michael Rutledge went to the other side, sailing a solo shot over leftfield. This brought up number-nine batter Butts. "No pressure, was it?!" he joked later. "Those guys hit missiles and I'm stepping in and just put it in play! I got a pitch I could hit and barreled-it up."
And blasted it out, striking the scoreboard maybe a yard higher than Richardson's mark, and staking State to the 4-0 lead. "That was a pretty special moment," Butts said. "If it's one or two maybe you can come back from that, but if a team gets that momentum rolling it's tough."
"You could really hear the air go out of them after that one big inning," said Dunn. "It was easier to pitch tonight, and the guys played great defense." Easier, but not necessarily easy as Dunn had to learn to work with ump A.J. Lostaglio's zone which made him hit the black to get an outside strike. In fact after Dunn walked a pair in his second turn, stranding them in scoring positions on a fly ball, Polk detoured by the plate to express some concerns.
He needn't have worried as Dunn adjusted and his infielders, Rutledge in particular, made all the plays. The third baseman made a great diving stop and better flip to the middle-bag to end the third, after LSU got its first hit. Dunn sat the side in the fourth and fifth with Rutledge making another sparking play to end the latter inning. And even after the unidentified streaker halted play in the sixth, and LSU put two on via singles, Rutledge came through again by cutting off another hot hopper for a force at second to keep the Tigers shut out a bit longer.
Meanwhile the Bulldogs added a run in their fourth inning as with two down Richardson walked and stole second on what looked like a missed hit-and-run call. It worked out well anyway as after Rutledge walked Butts dropped a single into rightfield. Tiger Quinn Stewart's throw to the plate was in time but Richardson somehow slid around Matt Liuzza's tag for a 5-0 margin.
It stayed there into the seventh when Rea singled with one down and Forrer was allowed to leave. Righthander Nolan Cain got a quick out, then with Rea running shortstop Thomas Berkery hit his way on. On 0-2 centerfielder Joseph Hunter, trying to protect the plate, simply reached out and blooped a broken-back liner over the third baseman that fell a step fair. It became a two-run double and 7-0 State lead.
Dunn took his shutout into the bottom of the seventh, working with two-seam fastballs and lots of movement. Finally the Tigers were able to get on their own scoreboard as Liuzza outran a ground ball and Steve Broschofsky walked. A grounder advanced both, then pinch-hitter Will Harris bounced into a fielder's choice that scored Liuzza for LSU's only run.
Dunn came back out for a fly-ball to begin his eighth, then after a single Polk came to get the starter. "I kind of wanted a shutout for the staff," Dunn said, "we've been so close. But we got the win and Aaron (Weatherford) did a great job." The freshman righthander did that, striking out a pair to end the eighth and sitting the side in the ninth.
But not until State had hung another four runs on the board in the last turn. With one out Hunter singled and lefthanded DH Brian LaNinfa was given a chance to swing. He did. "Coach told us the pitcher threw a lot of fastballs, so I was looking up there." Cain did, and LaNinfa crushed it over the double-sign in rightfield for a two-run homer. Outfielders Mitch Moreland and Andy Rice followed with singles to chase Cain for righty Chris Cahill, but he gave up a single to relief catcher Wynn Diggs to load the bags. Butts drew a walk for one RBI, and sub-second sacker Bunky Kateon singled to center for the last MSU run.
Eleven Dogs in all had base hits, with three by Hunter and two each for Rea, Berkery, Rice, Rutledge, and Butts. In the process Berkery kept his hitting streak going at 15 games, though catcher Ed Easley's 12-game streak was ended. It wasn't that LSU pitched all that badly, either, Butts said. "We honestly were able to take advantage of a few mistakes they made and capitalize." This was the first game State had hit three consecutive home runs since a March 2002 rout of Jacksonville State. The 11 runs were the most LSU had allowed at home since a win by Mississippi State that same year. "I wish we could bank some for tomorrow," Polk said. "It's not going to be easy, LSU has their backs against the wall and South Carolina coming in next weekend."
State will start righthander Josh Johnson (4-0, 1.42) on Saturday, and LSU announced Mississippi native and lefty Clay Dirks will get the ball for game-two. With a southpaw starting, Polk figures to keep the same order and give Richardson his second SEC start at DH. It's a welcome assignment, the redshirt junior said.
"You can't really complain," he said about having to wait turns in a packed DH roster. "We're winning so no one can say a word!"