"We pretty much knew we'd take one soon," catcher Ed Easley said. "So the key is to win the series. All we can do is play hard tomorrow."
Bulldog thoughts were turning quickly to the rubber game, and not just because taking the series suddenly was their priority. No matter how prepared they were for an inevitable loss, it still stung. And all the more so because this one definitely got away. "When we had a 6-3 lead I think they were counting the 19th win in their pocket," Coach Ron Polk said.
If so, the Tigers were able to pick it away at the end. The Bulldogs, who had trailed 3-1 after five innings, had put on their own extended surge to score twice in the sixth and seventh innings, then pad their margin in the top of the eighth. With two outs and a runner on second base via a double from first baseman Brian LaNinfa, LSU replaced starting pitcher Clay Dirks with righthander Darryl Shaffer. The reliever had a bad break as MSU third baseman Michael Rutledge' hard grounder took a wicked hop over the shortstop and Brad Jones, running for LaNinfa, scored on the base hit for the 6-3 lead.
But the Dogs also left a pair on base in the frame, the last of eight stranded Dogs, and failure to expand further would loom large soon. State had relieved starter Josh Johnson with one down in the seventh, righthander Mike Valentine taking over. He began the Tiger eighth by fielding his position on a popped-up bunt, but then gave up a single to J.T. Wise. On 0-1 cleanup batter Quinn Stewart saw a hanging slider and sailed high and deep to centerfield. Nothing had left the yard so far Saturday but catcher Easley knew this was different.
"I thought it had a good chance, he hit it well." Well enough to clear the wall for a two-run shot and 6-5 score. It was the first homer allowed by MSU pitching in seven games. "That was what really set the table," Polk said. Because the Tigers followed with sharp singles to put the tying and lead runners on bases, still with one out. Righthanded closer Brett Cleveland was called in to halt the surge, but Matt Liuzza met him with a line-drive too tall for second baseman Jeffrey Rea to snare.
The runners had been going on the pitch already and Michael Hollander scored from second. "That's a momentum-turner right there," Polk said, "if Jeffrey catches it it's a double-play." Cleveland got a strikeout, then on 0-2 to Will Harris the Tiger runners stole without a challenge. And Harris made it matter by driving a double beyond centerfielder Joseph Hunter's reach, scoring a pair for the margin of victory.
Righthander Chase Dardar retired the side in the top of the ninth to get his second save, while Shaffer (2-0) inherited the victory on 0.2 innings. The real winner though was lefty Dirks, a Mississippi native, who put in 7.1 tough innings with ten hits and six runs against him. He struck out eight Dogs and only walked one.
Valentine (0-1) took the loss on one full inning, with four hits and four runs charged to his account.
"Timely hitting won it for them today," Easley said. "We had a few good hits late in the game too that scored some key runs, but the last few innings it worked out perfectly for them."
The final score belied the fact that for the first four innings it was a shutout each way. MSU starter Josh Johnson was able to cruise through the first two frames, and Hunter save a run in the third with a great running snare of a short fly ball. Dirks also kept things scoreless through four though he had to strand four Dogs in that span, including Thomas Berkery after the shortstop extended his hitting streak to 16 games with a double in the second.
The Dogs finally broke scoring ice in their half of the fifth, as leftfielder Jeff Butts legged out a bunt-single with one out. LSU Coach Smoke Laval got ejected complaining about a check swing by Rea, before Dirks fanned him. But Butts stole into scoring position with two down and Easley got the first RBI with a double to leftfield.
No sooner had State's offense broken the scoring ice than the Tigers answered. Hollander singled through the middle, and took off on a 1-0 count. The run-and-hit worked even better than hoped as Steven Waguespack lined a double to the left-centerfield gap for the tying RBI. Liuzza sacrificed Waguespack on along to third base, and after a strikeout Harris bounced a double past Rutledge for the lead. Bruce Sprowl was able to exchange places with Harris by dropping his own two-bagger into rightfield for a 3-1 Tiger advantage.
Yet Dirks couldn't handle the prosperity. With one out he walked DH Joseph McCaskill and gave up a 2-2 single to LaNinfa. Rightfielder Matt Richardson was fooled on a curveball and flew it out foul to the right side, but the LSU first baseman made the catch running away from the diamond. And when McCaskill ran for third the throw was that way and late, allowing LaNinfa to sneak into scoring position as well. Rutledge made it hurt by driving his first pitch into the leftfield corner for a double, two RBI, and a 3-3 tie.
Johnson kept it even despite a one-out double by Stewart in the sixth, which also got Valentine up and warming. And when he returned for the bottom of the seventh he had a two-run margin to protect.
Rea opened the MSU seventh by blooping a single into centerfield, and Easley followed with a drive that ought to have been held to at most a double and pair of Dogs in scoring positions. Except the centerfielder failed to cut the bouncing ball off, letting it get through. Rea came all the way around from first base to score the go-ahead run and Easley made it into third base standing. That was close enough to jog home on a fly ball from Berkery for the 5-3 State lead.
Having put in yet another ‘quality' start Johnson was sent back out, only to be greeted by Liuzza with yet another Tiger two-bagger down the abused third base line. Johnson got Jordan Mayer to line-out to centerfield and that ended the stint. Valentine entered to get fly-outs from Harris and order-topper Sprowl, both to leftfield, to keep that cushion.
But in the end State's bullpen, a strength all season, couldn't seal the deal for the first time. "They came out to play and were ready to go the whole game," said Valentine, "from first guy to last guy."
"Give LSU credit, they put the ball in play," Polk said. The Tigers finished with 13 hits to State's 11, and of those Tiger hits six were good for two bases. Of course Stewart's was good for all four, while the Bulldogs never came close to knocking one out.
After weeks of following the company line, that the winning streak and perfect season weren't what mattered, the reality of losing both did show on State faces. Senior Berkery admitted it was tough to lose at last. "When we had a three-run lead," he added. "But that's baseball, and we'll have a rubber game tomorrow.
"We'll see what kind of team we are right here, tomorrow morning when we wake up with 18-1 on our record and not 19-0. We understand that's part of it and we'll be ready."
At least Polk doesn't have to spend pre-game focusing his team's attention on the situation at hand. "Now I have to convince the club if we win tomorrow we've had a good weekend."
State will send righthander John Lalor to the mound for Sunday's 1:30 game, while LSU is expected to start righthander Derik Olvey.