"A typical low-scoring Friday ball game," leftfielder Jeff Butts deadpanned afterwards. "They say hitting is contagious and we kind of got it going. Every guy was just trying to get it to the next guy and put up some runs."
That the Dogs did, in eye-opening quantities. "I'd like to bank ‘em," Coach Ron Polk said. "Yet among the blizzard of post-game numbers the most remarkable fact was not on the stat sheet. "It's a miracle this game got played," said Polk just as the first wave of showers began falling on the now-covered field.
Friday's show went on because a serious storm front supposed to hit Starkville around 6:00 kept sliding just to the north. The two coaches, and umpiring crew, agreed to delay starting time first to 7:00 and then 7:15 just in case the front moved south. It never did, though all through the game lightning flickered on the north horizon.
"That storm kept teasing us," Polk said. "(UG Coach) Dave Perno and I didn't want to burn two pitchers so we agreed to wait to see if that line would go north. I think we made a good decision."
Certainly it turned out good for State. Yet initially thing were looking stormy for the home team as Georgia, which collected 13 hits of their own, actually led 3-0 after the top of the third inning and were still tied 4-4 midway of the fifth. Any semblance to a typical SEC Friday ended there, though, as State pushed three runs across in the bottom of the frame and followed with seven more in the sixth to settle the issue.
"It started off slow," said rightfielder Mitch Moreland. "They had a good pitcher on the mound and give him credit, he was tough. The bats work up, as y'all could see, and it was a fun game. A fun game."
Moreland definitely had fun, as he smashed his first college grand-slam home with a game-breaking blast in the sixth inning. And so did Butts, who accounted for almost a quarter of State's hit by going 5-of-5 for the first time in his MSU career. "I might have done it in high school, but I don't remember. I usually get to the fifth at-bat and mess it up!"
Shortstop Thomas Berkery's night wasn't as impressive as he was 1-of-3 officially with an infield single and three walks, but that hit did extend the senior's hitting streak to 26 games and puts him a Saturday high shy of tying the program season-record. The win also was Polk's 1,300th and ties State's skipper for ninth on the NCAA all-time career list with Bob Bennett of Fresno State. Though, as the SEC's all-time wins leader noted, "I've also got the most losses of anyone in SEC history."
There was some respectable pitching amidst all the offense. State starter Brooks Dunn was able to last six complete innings and earn the decision despite ten hits and four Georgia runs. He struck out five and walked a pair, and more importantly was able to leave eight runners on bases. Dunn (6-1) also bounced back from his first setback of the season last Friday.
It was Georgia starter Brooks Brown who ran afoul of Bulldog bats first, though the righthander did keep his team in contention for four of his 4.2 innings' work. "Brooks Brown is a great pitcher and we were very fortunate," said Polk. "He's going to be a high-round pick so I thought we did a pretty good job." Brown battled two outs into the fifth, throwing 117 pitches until things finally got out of control. He struck out nine Bulldogs, but also was tagged for nine base hits with a walk. Six of his seven runs were earned.
Dunn had his own challenges in the early innings, stranding three in the first two turns. But in the third inning singles by Joey Side and Jonathan Wyatt had Georgians on corners with nobody out.
Dunn fanned Bobby Felmy, only to have cleanup batter Josh Morris pull a 2-1 fastball just inside the third base bag and into leftfield for a RBI-double. Side scored and Wyatt stopped on third, where he was able to score from on a Jason Jacobs ground ball to shortstop for a two-run lead. A walk later Gordon Beckham went down two strikes only to chop a two-hop single through the left side. Dunn had to strike out Ryan Peisel to get back into the dugout with the deficit only 3-0.
The home Dogs were able to come right back with a triplet of their own off Brown, who'd allowed one hit in two turns. Third baseman Michael Rutledge pounded a seeing-eye single through the middle, and Butts slid a soft liner barely over the second baseman's glove for two on. Brown then loaded all bags by hitting second baseman Jeffrey Rea on the shoulder on the first pitch, earning a conversation on the hill.
Brown got a high strike call to start Easley but the MSU catcher popped the second pitch far enough that both the rightfielder and second baseman were a stride short of getting there. Moreover they let the single get through them, so both Rutledge and Butts were able to score without a challenge. Rea made second for Dogs on corners. Berkery struck out on a full count, before Moreland ripped a one-hop single through the UG shortstop for the tying RBI. A steal of second meant Brown needed to strike out first baseman Brad Jones to keep the score even after three-full.
The teams already had a dozen base hits between them, and State kept adding to the total in the bottom of the fourth as with one out Rutledge duplicated his up-the-middle single of the previous frame. He took off for second on a run-and-hit and Butts did his part perfectly by slicing a clean single for runners on corners. Rea didn't hesitate going for his favorite base hit, an opposite-field single lined through the left side. Rutledge scored to put State in front for the first time.
It could have been much worse as Brown had to whiff Moreland on 2-2 and leave three stranded runners, something State has done with great frequency and greater frustration this season. And the missed chances loomed larger immediately. Dunn had two quick outs when Jacobs reached on a hot-hop infield single off the MSU third baseman. And on his first pitch to Matt Robbins, Dunn was called for a balk—his third in the last two Fridays.
So Jacobs was put in a scoring position and Robbins made it matter with a line-drive single into centerfield for a 4-4 tie at the halfway point. That deadlock didn't last long though, and State did not need any help going back in front. Luck, maybe, as centerfielder Joseph Hunter led off with a dribbler off the end of his bat and had to outrun the UG first baseman to the bag for an infield single.
Hunter advanced safely to second as a Jones grounder to the first baseman worked as well as a bunt. And on Brown's 101st pitch, DH Brian LaNinfa lined a drive that without the strong right-to-left wind might have hit the fence on the fly. Instead it one-hopped, ironically hitting the Georgia emblem on the banner. The DH made second easily and Hunter came home for the lead. LaNinfa was able to take third on a ground-out by Rutledge, and Butts expanded State's margin by bouncing a single past the diving second baseman. Nor were the Bulldogs weren't through yet, though Brown soon was. Butts was able to steal second before Rea reached on a shortstop fielding error that put State runners on corners, and on 1-2 catcher Edward Easley singled through the right hole to plate LaNinfa.
That finally resulted in the change of moundmen with righthander Adam McDaniel inheriting runners on first and second. He made a full threesome by walking Berkery before Moreland grounded out.
But an inning later State was at it again. Hunter led off with a line-drive that landed square and fair on the rightfield line for a double. With one out LaNinfa went the other way, bouncing his own two-bagger down the leftfield stripe for the RBI. A grounder put LaNinfa on third base where he could score as UG second-sacker Dunn was able to dive and stop but not toss in time to stop the infield single by Butts that had MSU in front 9-4.
And that wasn't all. Rea singled and Easley walked to load the bases for Berkery, trying to keep his hitting streak going. He did it, though not with a clean shot; instead he hit a high-hop grounder that the third baseman caught but didn't deliver to any bag for an infield single and RBI. Still the sacks were full, or at least they were until Moreland came up for the third time with bases loaded. "I let my team down the first two times," he said.
Not this time as he made complete contact on a fat offering in his wheelhouse and hit it straightaway to centerfield. "I was praying for the wind to blow," he said. "I knew I hit it well but I wasn't sure." Nobody else in the house had any doubts it was gone, and the blast cleared with plenty to spare. "When I stepped on first it was going over the wall," Moreland said.
The grand slam meant State wasn't just in front, they were in control 14-4. It also brought Hunter back up a second time in the inning and his base hit produced a second pitching change with lefthander Jason Fellows called in to get a fly-ball out. It came only after State had doubled their scoring total with seven runs on seven hits.
"Those two innings broke it open," Butts said. "It felt like it was going to be a battle, we got some contagious hitting going and were able to put up the big innings."
As if it was needed, the Dogs added one more run to the tally in the bottom of the eighth as with two on and two outs Jones one-hopped the fence for a ground-rule double. This was charged to righthander Ben Jeffers, the fourth and final UG hurler of the long evening.
Dunn reached the 100-pitch point himself in the top of the sixth and did it with two on via a leadoff single and errored throw, along with one out. He struck out Wyatt on his 101st pitch and fanned Felmy to end the threat.
Lefty Justin Pigott took over for the seventh and got through with a hit and strikeout. Fellow southpaw Jesse Carver was given the ball for the last two Georgia turns, and while he was tagged by Morris for a home run in the final frame there was no chance of any MSU meltdown or Georgia comeback.
Rea's opening single meant the junior has hit safely in all of State's SEC games this season. More positively for the team, the Bulldogs loaded bases five times and twice got hits, by Easley in the third inning and Moreland's slam in the sixth. State is still just 15-of-79 this season batting with bases full, but there was promising progress all the same.
"It's a lot of fun," Butts said. "Guys have been struggling and this kind of rejuvenates everybody to get some offense back." Of course he was talking about an offense that has scored double-digit runs in their last four games.
"We need to keep it up," Moreland said. "We're playing well." Certainly State played well enough to storm by Georgia in a game that might just as easily been blown away had the weather front turned slightly the wrong direction. "It could have," said Moreland. "I'm glad it wasn't!"
Saturday's game-two begins at 2:00, with righthander Josh Johnson (4-1, 2.79 ERA) scheduled to throw for State and lefty Mickey Westphal (2-0, 5.84) on the hill for Georgia.