"The road's tough playing a good ball club," shrugged Bulldog Coach Ron Polk. Tough enough that the last thing Mississippi State needed to do was help the home team out with easy and even unearned scores. In that sense the game went entirely against the trends these Bulldogs had set through the first 21 games, of not giving away cheap scores and taking advantage of their own opportunities. It was such an uncharacteristic evening that some Dogs found the outcome hard to handle.
Others tried to keep a big-picture outlook. "We're going to make mistakes," catcher Edward Easley said. "We just have to battle back the next day and don't let it happen again."
Brooks Dunn would gladly not have a similar outing the rest of the schedule. The starting pitcher had earned winning decisions in his previous five Fridays but #6 didn't have a happy ending, and Dunn tried to all the blame upon himself. "I didn't execute," the senior lefthander said. "I didn't keep us in the game." The senior southpaw still worked seven complete innings with five runs charged, four earned, allowing eight Alabama hits.
Dunn struck out four but he also walked a trio of batters and hit another, and twice was called for balks—the second scoring Alabama's go-ahead run in the crucial fifth inning. "I felt fine, I had all my pitches and good stuff," Dunn (5-1) said. "I'm a Friday night guy, that's my bad. These guys battled their butts off, I just didn't do it for them tonight."
The same could be said for State's offense, which matched Alabama with eight base hits and slugged the only two home runs of the evening. The first, a solo shot by third baseman Michael Rutledge, briefly put the Bulldogs on top in the fifth. The other was a two-run blast by Easley in the top of the eighth after MSU had fallen behind 5-1. The problem was that all of State's scoring came on those two big hits, with the rest of the safeties spread out too much for effect.
"We didn't get the hits when we needed them and they did," Easley said. "You have to get hits one after another and get it going together." In fact State left a season-low four men on bases.
Plating a couple more of those would have made for a different evening. Or perhaps not, with Alabama starter Wade LeBlanc never letting things get out of control. The lefthander put in a complete nine innings, battling around State's eight hits and shaking off the two longballs. Polk was not at all surprised LeBlanc (6-0) went the distance, tossing 132 pitches to do it with seven strikeouts and no walks issued.
"He's 20 hits under innings pitched which is unusual for aluminum bats. We knew we had to do a better job offensively. He's a lefthander, sneaky-fast and pitches in-and-out. We got a couple of home runs but we just didn't get many guys on base."
The game and series began 47 minutes late due to afternoon rains. And when play did start neither offense seemed to have gotten the word as the starting pitchers combined for four scoreless innings. State had two on bases in the first turn when Easley was plunked and shortstop Thomas Berkery hit his way on. A slow roller from centerfielder Joseph Hunter resulted in a force at second, and Berkery was ruled to have slid too far and high at the bag so a double-play was ruled.
In the second DH Joseph McCaskill reached on a blooper falling behind first base that became an excuse-me double, only to be stranded by a strikeout and groundout. LeBlanc sat the side in his third, and stranded Moreland after a two-out single in the fourth.
But with one down in the fifth he hung one where Rutledge could get a good look and better cut. The drive cleared left-centerfield, breaking up the shutout.
Except State was unable to maintain the lead through the bottom of the frame. With one out Dunn walked .244 batter Ryan Rhoden. It didn't look like much but this was the start of MSU's downfall, as on 1-2 Spencer Pennington singled through the right side for runners on corners. Brandon Belcher squared for a bunt, only to see Dunn's hard inside pitch go off Easley's mitt for a passed ball and game-tying free run.
That also let Pennington move up to second. "It just snowballed from there and I didn't make good pitches," Dunn said. Pennington took third on a dribbler by Belcher that became an infield hit, and scored as on 0-2 to the number-nine batter Dunn was called for a second balk of the night. It gave Alabama the go-ahead score, before Greg Paiml dropped a RBI-triple into the left-centerfield corner for a 3-1 lead. "That was kind of a strange inning," said Polk, and Dunn needed a strikeout and pop-out to end the outburst.
LeBlanc had a two-run cushion to work with. "He didn't really have a strikeout pitch for us," Easley said. "But he had three good pitches, fastball, changeup, and curveball." And an inning later he had another run's advantage. Evan Bush led off with a drive that Hunter misread and let get over for a double. A deep fly-out moved the runner to third base, before Alex Avila looped a single just a bit too short for leftfielder Jeff Butts to get the glove under for the RBI. Avila tried to stretch his luck and was tagged between the bags and Butts made a sparkling diving grab of a deeper drive, but the damage had been done.
Dunn began his seventh with a pop-out, then Belcher lined a triple into right-centerfield and scored as Paiml ripped a work-burner that got through Rutledge for an officially unearned run and 5-1 tally.
LeBlanc reached 100 pitches in his half of the seventh, with second baseman Jeffrey Rea base-hitting that one-out offering. LeBlanc thought he'd struck Easley out on 0-2, but ended up feeding the MSU catcher a fastball down in the zone on full count. "I hit it pretty good," Easley said. He did, cranking it over the trees in leftfield for a two-run homer and 5-3 difference.
That was as much of a comeback as MSU could muster. LeBlanc came back with two tough outs to preserve that margin, then erased a leadoff single by Moreland with a fly-ball and double-play grounder.
Righthander Trent Hill threw the bottom of the eighth for State, with no hits and one walk. Belcher had three of Alabama's hits while Rea and Berkery had two apiece. Berkery was able to extend his hitting streak to 20 games with a first-inning single.
Much like last weekend when State finally had its perfect record spoiled with a loss at LSU, the Bulldogs found themselves dealing with another new-for-2006 experience—opening a series unsuccessfully. Sure, they knew it probably had to happen sometime. "If anybody thought I was going to go 13-0 they were out of their mind," Dunn said. "But I don't like losing on Friday night, that's my job to win and I didn't do it."
Now Polk hopes his team will respond to this loss as they did the previous one. "Our kids will bounce back. They're disappointed but at the same time we've got a long way to go."