A Sunday crowd of 6,112 watched the game, bringing the turnstile total for Super Bulldog Weekend 2006 to 29,915. It is a new SEC attendance record for a three-game series, a mark already established several times by Mississippi State.
In that light, the lost series at home left the Diamond Dogs struggling to explain what happened both to the weekend and to their season. "We didn't get it done," said senior shortstop and team co-captain Thomas Berkery. "It's a terrible way to lose. It's like we didn't even attempt to get stuff done we needed."
Certainly coming up short in a second-consecutive SEC series was not what Mississippi State needed. After opening the campaign with 18 wins and there league triumphs, the Dogs have dropped six of their last 13 games and gone 3-5 in league action. State remains second in the Western Division, but lost ground to loop-leader Alabama (now 9-3) and are barely ahead of 6-6 Arkansas.
The weekend was just what Georgia needed, though, as after being swept at home by Mississippi the other Bulldogs moved up to fourth in the SEC East. "They felt they'd played under their potential up to this point and I have to agree," Coach Ron Polk said. "If they stay healthy with the pitching I saw this weekend they'll be a big factor with 18 games for everybody."
Pitching was Georgia's strong point both Saturday and Sunday. After taking a 15-5 shelling in game-one, the UG Dogs got a complete-game win on day-two from lefty Mickey Westphal. Sunday they came back with righthander Trevor Holder…and just as importantly a rested and ready bullpen tandem of lefthander Rip Warren and righty Joshua Fields.
"I knew we'd have to see them," Polk said, "they weren't getting back on the bus without using two outstanding SEC relief pitchers." Sunday played out perfectly to Georgia's plan. Holder gave four steady innings of starting work, keeping UG in the lead until he could hand the ball and game over to the relievers. Warren (4-2) took care of three middle innings to get the decision, and Fields closed things out with two scoreless frames and earned his sixth save.
It went exactly as UG hoped and Polk feared. "I think they felt they had an advantage if Holder could get four or five innings without too much damage. And we didn't."
Mississippi State managed nine base hits, seven of them singles, but never could string a stretch of safeties that would have produced the sort of big inning needed to change the game as had happened Friday. It looked too much like game-two, and for his part Berkery had no explanation. "I think it was the fact we had a challenge Friday against a high-draft pitcher and made good swings. Then I don't know, maybe we shut it down."
"I'm disappointed we weren't able to generate much," Polk said. "We got as many hits but they put them together again like yesterday, and that's what it is all about. We kind of spaced our hits out."
One of those hits, a single by Berkery in the fifth, gave him the Mississippi State season record for hits in consecutive games at 28. He broke the mark of 27 set by Ron Brown in the 1993 season. Unfortunately for the team there was not nearly enough combined hitting to offset Georgia's timely offense.
State righthander John Lalor was the victim of UG's careful efficiency. He lasted 3.2 innings, the shortest starting stint by a Bulldog this season, though he was only hit three times total. Lalor (2-1) struck out two but issued two damaging walks and was charged with three of UG's runs, two earned.
"I threw the breaking ball at times and fastball was OK, but the command wasn't there today," Lalor said. "It's a disappointing loss." Another reason Lalor's day ended so early was that State also had a well-stocked bullpen to use and the coaches were ready to pull the trigger early. Problem was, the MSU offense could never dig out of an early hole as Georgia put two runs on the board in their first turn at-bat.
It began with a one-out single by Jonathon Wyatt, and Bobby Felmy followed by one-hopping a grounder between the MSU third baseman and bag for a double that let Wyatt come all the way from first to home for Georgia's opening run. Lalor threw a pair of dirtballs that advanced Felmy both bases for a 2-0 lead after just one at-bat.
The starter was able to retire sides his next two innings, then lost control in the fourth by walking the first two Georgians on. "That came back to bite us," Lalor said. Catcher Edward Easley let a pitch get out of the mitt to advance lead runner Robbins to third, and the mistake mattered when Josh Morris lifted a little blooper that fell a yard-fair and just behind the first baseman. Robbins was thus able to score on the short single for a 3-0 tally.
"They got some hits that I wish I could have back," Lalor said. "But you have to credit them, they came up with some clutch hits in situations and it was enough to win the game."
A sacrifice bunt had two more UG runners in scoring positions with just one out, before State caught a break. Ryan Pesiel lined out to centerfield and the lead runner was inexplicably held. State also chose to make the pitching move now with righthander Chad Crosswhite taking over. He threw two strikes and got a comebacker for the inning-ending out.
State's Dogs did get some solid contact on Holder in the first third of the game with nothing to show for it. Easley and RF Mitch Moreland both singled in the first inning and were stranded, as was third baseman Michael Rutledge in the second. Berkery walked to open the third and aggressively took third base on a bloop single to leftfield by Moreland with two down. A ground-out left those Dogs on the corners.
Finally the fourth time around MSU was able to get on their own scoreboard, with some help from the high April sky. First baseman Brian LaNinfa lifted a routine can-o-corn to medium centerfield that Joey Side simply lost, letting fall beside him. LaNinfa slid into second with the fluke double. A grounder by DH Wyn Diggs advanced him to third base and Rutledge scored him on a ground ball to shortstop.
Lack of another baserunner hurt as with two outs leftfielder Jeff Butts drove another fly to deeper center that Side also lost in the sun, for another two-bag hit with the top of the order up. Second baseman Jeffrey Rea did his part, dropping a single into leftfield, and with two outs Butts was waved on around. Wyatt fielded it on one hop with momentum and fired a strike to the plate in time for the tag.
State was able to chip another run off the deficit in the fifth. Easley walked on four pitches and Berkery singled through the middle, for his recond-setting hit. Ironically it also produced Georgia's first change on the mound with lefty Warren. He got two strikes ahead of Moreland, who check-swung for a slow grounder to the left side. No double-play could be turned so Dogs were on corners. Centerfielder Joseph Hunter delivered the RBI with a single lined over the second baseman, scoring Easley.
But a grounder and strikeout left two MSU runners on the bases and kept Georgia in front 3-2. Crosswhite handled a sixth-inning threat well, giving up consecutive leadoff singles and a bunt to put both runners in positions to score. A strikeout and first-pitch fly ball ended that threat. The reliever wasn't as lucky in the top of the seventh though as a leadoff double bounced past first baseman LaNinfa set up Georgia's fourth score. Matthew Dunn took third on a fly ball to centerfield and after going down 0-2 Wyatt slung a base hit through the six-hole for a 4-2 score.
Lefty Justin Pigott had warmed hurriedly and was called in with one on and one out. He got quick help as Easley gunned down Wyatt on a steal attempt and on the next pitch Wyatt struck out. Pigott would put in 1.2 total innings before righthander Aaron Weatherford took care of the top of the ninth. But good relief pitching could not score runs on offense.
Warren kept it a two-run game by sitting the State side in the seventh, then with six outs to go Georgia gave Fields the ball to take on the bottom half of State's order. He got a quick pair of outs before pinch-DH Joseph McCaskill singled through the left side and Rutledge walked on four balls. Butts worked the count full before lifting a fly ball to center.
And there were no ninth-inning dramatics at all as Fields sat the top of State's order on a grounder and two strikeouts. Warren and Fields had allowed only a hit apiece with one walk and four strikeouts between them.
"Georgia pitched us well the last two days," Polk said. "I thought we pitched well enough." But the Dog downfall was obviously not on the mound. It was at the plate where State only had 15 hits in two losses, after piling up 22 in game-one alone. And as the coach noted another day, "You can't bank runs."
Berkery will deposit his record-setting baseball somewhere, he said, but after losing the game and the weekend it doesn't mean as much at the moment. He's more concerned about what has happened to a season that was going so smoothly only a couple of weeks ago. And, about how to get this team back on the fast track.
"I think we've just got to keep going," he said. "We have six more weekends left, win all those and you're back in the hunt. It's a matter of making the adjustments and being able to turn it around."
For his part Polk hauled out the well-worn but always-accurate summation. "That's baseball," the State skipper said, looking at the last two weekend and the schedule as a whole. "It's up-and-down and a dogfight all the way." Certainly his team now has to fight their back back up if they intend to achieve the big-picture goals of contending for a regular-season championship and securing a strong seeding for the post-season.
The schedule does slow down a bit this week, as after a busy stretch State has only one midweek game. It's an intense one, though, as the Bulldogs take on Mississippi in the annual Mayor's Trophy game Tuesday night in Jackson's Smith-Wills Stadium. The game does not count in the SEC standings but it matters greatly to MSU's fan base, particularly with the Rebels owning a four-year win streak in the series. Polk, who initiated the extra game with the arch-rivals a quarter-century ago, has not won one of them since he returned to State.
Which means the current Bulldog roster hasn't enjoyed any success in the game. "It's an honor to have the Trophy, and the fifth-year guys have never had it," said Berkery, one of those fifth-year seniors. "So maybe we can break the streak."
Polk said Matt Lea (5-0, 2.40 ERA) will start Tuesday. Asked if any changes are forthcoming for the weekend rotation, though, the coach was less certain. Weatherford and Lea both have performed well enough to challenge for a SEC starting role, he agreed. "But none of our (weekend) starters have done anything to lose their jobs," Polk added.
Still, there seems to be the chance of adjustments on the mound and in the field when State heads to next weekend's series at Auburn. Polk said senior first baseman Brad Jones was sat out on Sunday because of struggles at the plate due to a two-week-old wrist problem that has slowed his bat speed. He expects Jones to get back in the swing soon. He also said rightfielder Andy Rice has a slight tear to a shoulder muscle, caused by a diving catch in the Tennessee series. As it is not to his throwing shoulder Rice can play the field with no problems, but swinging is another matter.