While the Bulldogs have had their share of SEC frustrations lately, this one was unique. Because this time it was State not only taking a couple of early leads, but doing it with power. Second baseman Jeffrey Rea led off the entire evening with a home run, and shorstop Thomas Berkery followed with a pair of longballs as State led 3-0 and 4-3.
The Tigers didn't hit anything out of their own park. They didn't have to, slapping 14 singles out of their 15 base hits and more importantly stringing most of the hitting together to score three, four, and two runs in bottom-innings. That was more than enough to offset State's punch.
"That was weird," said Berkery. "We put up the three spot, they came back and got the runs. You have to give them credit for swinging a good bat tonight, they got 15 hits off two of our better pitchers."
Those two were starter Brooks Dunn and reliever Brett Cleveland. Dunn was able to scuffle into the fourth inning but ended up credited with just 3.0 official frames, the shortest stint of any State starter this season. He absorbed nine hits for seven of those runs, six earned, with a pair of strikeouts and one walk.
"I didn't pitch well," Dunn (6-2) said. "I'm not going to lie. Brett came in and pitched great, I pitched terrible. The guys got me runs and I should have kept it going and didn't, it was my bad." Cleveland, normally State's closer, ended up putting in five complete innings with six hits two runs against two strikeouts in a longer role than usual.
"We hadn't given Brett very much work so we decided he'd be our long reliever tonight," Coach Ron Polk said."
Tiger reliever Paul Burnside turned out to be the winner by tossing just over half the game, and by taking over at the right point. He entered in the top of the fifth with one out and a pair of Bulldogs on base, got his team out of trouble, and finished out the evening. His 4.2 innings gave Burnside (2-0) the decision as he only gave up two hits and a walk with four strikeouts. And he left State batters baffled by exactly how.
Berkery said the righthander had nothing all that special. "He was a fastball pitcher. It was frustrating, his stuff was really not that great. I think it was us trying to do too much."
Maybe they had good reason, because at first the top of State's order was able to do a lot. After weeks of leaving baserunners stranded in scoring positions Bulldog batters tried a different approach to offense: score runners from a different position. Such as, home plate. Rea, normally a line-drive hitter to the left side, lifted a fly ball to his pull side. And not a routine can ‘o corn, either, but a high drive that cleared the wall in the right-power alley. It was his first homer of the season.
Catcher Edward Easley reached safely on an infield single before Berkery stepped up and hammered a blast that cleared the 30-foot-tall ‘monster' wall in leftfield for his third homer of the season. Auburn starter Brett Butts had tossed just 14 pitches and trailed 3-0 already.
"We got the three-spot early and you're thinking things are going to be easy," Polk said, "Auburn had been struggling in their Friday ball games."
Not this Friday, though. And they didn't need any big noise to match MSU's outburst. Auburn had one on via a hit and one out when on a full-count Tiger runner Jeff Boutwell took off and drew a balk-call. With two down Josh Donaldson walked, and on the first pitch Andy Bennett rapped a base hit through shortstop scoring Boutwell. Still it would have stayed at 3-1 if Easley, who caught the trailing runner leading off first too far, put his pick-throw on the target.
Instead it skipped past first baseman Brad Jones and both runners advanced into scoring positions. Luke Greinke took advantage with a wicked one-hopper through Dunn and on up the middle for a single, two RBI, and a tied game after one inning.
"They singled us to death," said Dunn. "We had a good plan, they were just sitting on stuff and hit a lot of good pitches."
Berkery saw another good pitch his second time-up, with two outs in the third inning, and this time he cleared the scoreboard in left-centerfield with an even longer drive. The Bulldogs were back in front 4-3 and Dunn kept it there going into the bottom of the fourth. The crucial frame began with a modest single by Luke Greinke on the first pitch, and on 0-2 Russell Dixon slipped a single just by Berkery's glove for runners on corners. Justin Bristow blooped a single behind second base for the tying RBI.
"That's kind of our style, getting a lot of singles," Berkery said. "But they kept getting singles and getting the runner in."
With two runners still on and no outs State expected Auburn to bunt and Jonathan Rasberry did, but so perfectly that third baseman Michael Rutledge had no play at all. The bases were loaded, the top of the Tiger order coming up, and State chose to make a fast change with Cleveland being handed a near-impossible jam.
But Tyler Johnstone cashed in on the gilded opportunity, getting around on the ball and one-skipping it over third base and on into the leftfield corner for a double. Only two Tigers scored on the hit as Bristow was held up, but it didn't matter as with one out Mike Bianucci drove a solid fly ball to rightfield for the sacrifice, RBI, and 7-4 Auburn lead.
"They suddenly got some contagious hitting going and found some holes," Polk said.
By contrast the Bulldogs, presented a similar opportunity to respond immediately, failed to produce with the bases loaded. Yet again. With one out Rea doubled into the leftfield corner and Easley took a pitch on the shoulder. Berkery was coming up for a third time so Auburn also showed a quick Friday hook, giving the ball to Burnside. He promptly wild-pitched both runners up a base so Auburn made use of the unintentionally open base by walking Berkery on 3-2.
It was the right call, as DH Mitch Moreland popped out behind first base and centerfielder Joseph Hunter grounded right to the shortstop.
In the seventh Rea again reached on a one-out double and was left unscored at third as Easley couldn't quite outrun a grounder to the right side and Berkery struck out on 2-2. Burnside was able to go the rest of the way essentially unchallenged, with pinch-hitter Brian LaNinfa getting a two-out single in the ninth. "Burnside did a good job of pumping the strike zone," Polk said. "The problem is we hit too many routine fly balls and easy ground balls."
Auburn was able to pad the margin in the seventh, with some help. A couple of singles had two on and no outs and the Tigers again played the short game. They probably didn't plan on State mis-playing the ball, but Cleveland tried to get the lead runner and threw wide of third base. Lead runner Boutwell scored on the error and Bianucci got to third where he was able to trot home on a fly ball to rightfield.
Berkery's first home run extended his season hitting-streak to 30 games, leaving him alone in fifth place on the SEC season-streak chart. The senior wasn't as worried about his own streak as Saturday's chance to snap State's four-game losing string, three of them SEC defeats. The only consolation on the night for MSU was that Alabama gained no ground atop the Western Division with a loss at LSU, while both Mississippi and Arkansas also lost and remain a half-game behind the second-place Bulldogs.
"We have to come back and get hot," Berkery said. "We have to get the entire lineup rolling and we've got it in us."
"We're still fine," said Dunn. "If we win the series we'll be just as happy, we're done trying to think about sweeps. Now we're thinking about winning series."
For Saturday's 4:00 game the Bulldogs will start righthander Josh Johnson, while Auburn is expected to start a lefty, Evan Crawford.