Birmingham Southern fell to 13-9.
The stat sheet reflected the final score, with State piling up 10 base hits—four of them doubles--to BSC's six safeties. And for a change the Bulldogs were more efficient with their baserunners, leaving only six stranded to nine Panthers unscored.
The real story though was how State was able to bunch the offense. All the scoring came in four multi-run innings, of two, two, two, and finally three more to put things out of reach. In that aspect the Wednesday game went as Coach Ron Polk anticipated. "I knew we would score some runs." Because, the Panthers have a key conference weekend of their own coming up and Coach Brian Shoop, a former Polk aid at MSU, had to protect his staff at the expense of matching up with Bulldog batters.
So once starter Mark Doll was knocked out after four frames, State essentially had it won. Five more Panthers went to the hill in all. "He pitched some guys who only had three or four innings," Polk said. "So I knew we would score some runs." Most of the damage was done to Doll (2-2), who gave up six of the runs on eight hits. It wasn't all his fault as the first two of those scores were unearned.
State went with regular Wednesday starter Matt Lea, who put in a six-plus inning stint as hoped. He was touched for all six Panther hits and both runs, one of them earned, while striking out four and walking four more. Lea got the decision and raised his freshman record to 4-0, but had to work.
"Matt threw well tonight," Polk said. "He was 3-1, 2-0, his command wasn't where it's going to be as he matures. And he's a pitch-count guy." Lea left after the 97th toss, allowing set-up man Mike Valentine to take care of six outs and Jesse Carver to throw the last frame. Neither was touched for a hit and they combined for three strikeouts with no walks.
The Bulldogs got on their scoreboard first, with lots of unintended assistance. Third baseman Edward Easley reached on an errored grounder at second base and a clean single by shortstop Thomas Berkery had two on with one out. Batting cleanup this game, rightfielder Mitch Moreland lined a hit into left-centerfield that became a double. Easley would have scored routinely, but the throw-in sailed into State's dugout and Berkery was ordered on home for a 2-0 lead.
It wasn't smooth sailing for Lea. The Panthers, who scored the first three runs of Tuesday's game, came out hacking again and got a couple of first inning singles around a hit batsman. None scored, and Lea picked the first runner off himself. He walked a man in the second to no ill effect. But in the top of the third BSC got two more hits and Brandon Hynick drove in Mark Goforth to cut the deficit in half.
State answered with dual scores in their next two turns, taking real control of the evening. Second baseman Jeffrey Rea led off the MSU third with a single and got all the way to third on an errant pickoff attempt. Berkery drove the runner in with a one-out single through the left side, Moreland moved Berkery along with a base hit, and a fly ball from centerfielder Joseph Hunter brought the lead runner home for a 4-1 count.
It was more of the same in State's fourth. After one was out DH Joseph McCaskill singled and stole second, where a double to right-centerfield from Jeff Butts easily scored him. A two-out single from Easley plated Butts from second.
The Panthers had a chance in their fourth tahnks to a leadoff single and catcher's interference call. Lea was able to leave the runners in scoring positions with a called strikeout. He left another on in his fifth and two more in the sixth. Finally in the seventh he issued a leadoff walk that brought Valentine from the bullpen. A stolen base and strikeout later the reliever rolled a grounder to third base, but Easley overthrew first baseman Brian LaNinfa for a run-scoring error. Valentine got the cleanup batter to line-out to Rea and ended the inning with a fly ball.
The Bulldogs were able to get that one back with interest, and off fourth BSC pitcher James Oliver. Berkery greeted him with a fly-ball double that missed home run status by two feet. Moreland and LaNinfa both walked on either side of a pop-foul-out by Hunter.
With the count full catcher Wyn Diggs went the other way, slicing a drive past the shortstop and between the left- and center-fielders for a double and two RBI. That was enough for Oliver, with righthander Ronny Woods taking over. McCaskill was able to sail a fly more than deep enough for LaNinfa to score on the sacrifice and give State the final margin of victory.
Polk was confident enough to clear much of the bench for the top of the ninth. Brooks Tinsley took over at shortstop, Bunky Kateon at second, Alex McIntosh at first, Brooks Lewis behind the plate, Jeff Flagg rightfield, Tyler Bratton centerfield, and Matt Richardson in leftfield. Easley was the lone starter still on the field for the last out.
Berkery had three of State's hits, one a double, and extended his hitting streak to 19 games. He also had his tenth multi-hit game of the season. Moreland was the only other Dog with as many as two safeties.
This bit of midweek business done, Bulldog attention was soon turned forward. "Now we get ready for the Tide," Polk said. The Western Division-leading Tide, that is. State may well be ranked first in one national poll and a consensus top-five elsewhere. But it is Alabama currently atop the West at 5-1 after sweeping Mississippi at home last weekend. The Bulldogs are 4-1 SEC, having had a home game with Tennessee rained out. Thus the Tide is on top by virtue of a .833 winning percentage in the league to State's .800. SEC standings are entirely on percentages, not games-back or –ahead as in professional ball.
So the stakes are high and obvious in Tuscaloosa this weekend. "Last week I said LSU would be a real road test for us," Polk said. "Well, this will definitely be a test. They pitch well, it's one of the better Alabama teams on the mound. Maybe not a great offensive team but they scored a lot of runs off Ole Miss last week."
The Bulldogs aren't entirely sure of some health situations as the prepare for the second-straight road trip. Regular third baseman Michael Rutledge, who had to leave early in Tuesday's game with illness, did not play at all Wednesday. "I put him in the lineup initially today but 20 minutes before the game the trainer said he was still weak," Polk reported. "He'll be alright."
Meanwhile first baseman Brad Jones, who has missed four-straight starts with a wrist problem, didn't play at all Wednesday. The senior has seen late-game duty the previous three contests for defense, but swinging the stick has been too painful to take a chance. Polk said Jones got a shot today and should be ready for the weekend, though in Jones' place LaNinfa has been quite productive at the plate.
The question mark is rightfielder Andy Rice. "He dove for a ball two weeks ago against Tennessee, and the doctor thinks he might have dislocated the (right) shoulder and popped it back in," Polk said. Rice started three games after that before having to sit. "I think it's fatigue more than anything else," said Polk. "He's day-to-day, I'll bring him on the trip."
If Rice can't start Friday Polk expects to go with Richardson in right since Alabama is projected to start lefthanded ace Wade LeBlanc. Mississippi State will stick with the same rotation of lefty Brooks Dunn and righthanders Josh Johnson and John Lalor. All will have to be on top of their games, Polk said, "because the ball jumps out of that park."