The Bulldogs improved to 20-1 by taking the first game of a two-day set with the Panthers (13-9). Mississippi State also maintained its perfect homefield record so far this season, having won all 16 games played at DNF.
But this one might have been the toughest yet. The Panthers, coached by former MSU assistant Brian Shoop, struck for a couple of runs in their first inning and one more in the second, and still led 4-2 going into the decisive seventh. Not only did Birmingham Southern out-hit the home team 14 safeties to six, but they out-slugged State as well.
Yet once again the Bulldogs did what had to be done to come away winners. "We took advantage of the breaks," said Easley.
State also had to make some of their own breaks, and not just at the plate. In the top of the sixth the Panthers were in position to take complete control, scoring their fourth run before loading the bases and chasing MSU starter Jon Crosby. The righthander had scuffled through five full innings with seven hits already on the ledger, before giving up a one-out double, RBI single, and another single. That was when State called in freshman Aaron Weatherford to stop the bleeding.
The rookie righthander not only inherited a jam but immediately made it worse with a single. Fortunately rightfielder Matt Richardson got to the ball quickly enough to hold all hands, leaving the sacks full. With the top of the BSC order coming up Weatherford responded like a veteran, striking out Mark Goforth and Scott Billak to hold the deficit to 4-2.
Panther lefty Paul Jones, who had entered for the MSU fifth, retired the first six Dogs faced and got a fly ball to open the seventh. Then substitute catcher Wyn Diggs, who replaced Easley behind the dish when the starting catcher had to move to third base, singled to the right side. Leftfielder Jeff Butts reached on a ground ball that was thrown away at second base for a pair on, and second baseman Jeffrey Butts loaded the bases with a sharp single to centerfield.
With Easley up BSC's Jones cracked first, wild-pitching Diggs home with a free run that cut the Dog deficit to 4-3 and advancing the other runners into scoring positions. Easley, who already had one hit but had struck out looking against Jones in the fifth, knew what to do. "One out and guys in scoring position, all I was looking to do was tie the game." But he got all the way around on a changeup and lined it softly past the Panther third baseman. "It ended up getting down the line and scoring them both," Easley said.
The Bulldogs would leave the bases full as another BSC lefthander, Will Stroup, came in to keep the difference at one run. But it was enough for Weatherford. He had Panthers on the corners in the eighth and stranded both by striking out Goforth again. He had one down in the ninth before a single resulted in one more call to the Bulldog bullpen, with closer Brett Cleveland sealing this deal on a fly ball and strikeout of the four- and five-hitters in BSC's order.
Cleveland got his fifth save of the season while Weatherford earned his second winning decision. Jones (0-1) took the loss.
"Aaron threw well," said Easley. "He threw strikes, he competed with two strikes, and he had a good out pitch with his slider." Weatherford finished with seven strikeouts in three-plus innings, four hits and no walks.
Early on though it looked as if the visiting team was going to take the evening. Crosby had two quick outs before walking Bill Froelich, then a double and single scored a pair of Panthers. And BSC first baseman Brandon Hynich opened the second with a solo shot to leftfield for the 3-0 lead.
"Birmingham Southern came out and hit the ball well, scored some runs," Easley said. "We just had to hang in there and keep battling like we know we can. And it worked out well for us."
Things were able to work out well largely because the Bulldogs responded with a pair of runs in their second inning, thanks to three consecutive walks from BSC starter Blake Martin. The lefthander struck out two Dogs before hitting Butts for a free RBI, pushing centerfielder Joseph Hunter across the dish. State got another charity score as a Martin pitch skipped by his backstop to score DH Joseph McCaskill.
BSC shortstop Matt Barber had four hits in four trips, but scored no runs nor drove any in. Easley and Diggs had two hits each, while Rea and shortstop Thomas Berkery both had a single apiece. This did allow Berkery to extend his hitting streak to 18 games.
The teams meet again Wednesday with a 4:00 gametime at DNF.