Game-two at lasted a marathon-ish 3:48 , and most of the 2,629 who had been enjoying the afternoon sunshine had left by dark at Plainsman Park. But it wasn't the gathering dusk emptying the grandstands, it was the eight runs Mississippi State muscled across the plate in the decisive eighth inning.
Half of them came off LaNinfa's bat. After Tiger reliever Johnny Thompson walked in the go-ahead run on a full-count pitch to rightfielder Mitch Moreland, the first baseman wasted no time cleaning the bases. "I was sitting on a fastball," he said, "I didn't think I was going to get it but I saw it and swung hard." About as hard as he could, and as soon as the lefthanded junior made contact everyone in the park knew it was going to clear the rightfield wall by a bunch.
The blast was followed by a solo home run from leftfielder Jeff Butts as State added three more runs in the frame to finally and fully take control. Friday night the Bulldogs had knocked three homers out in the early innings for four runs, only to end up losing the lead and game 9-4. Saturday produced just two longballs but these came with things very much in the balance.
Coach Ron Polk was not able to see LaNinfa's grand slam, having been tossed in the bottom of the fourth over an hour earlier. In fact State's skipper missed most of Auburn's big inning, a seven-run outburst in that fourth frame, and all sorts of drama and trauma that followed. Though, as he noted, "It's the second time I've been thrown out and we've won both games." The other was in MSU's SEC-opening series with Tennessee.
What Polk would have enjoyed as much as any offensive fireworks was the stout relief work of freshman Aaron Weatherford. The rookie righthander was brought in with two outs in the bottom of the fourth, with the score tied 6-6 after Auburn got their own grand slam from Jeff Boutwell, and a couple more Tigers on corners. He had no idea he was about to start a 5.1-inning stint. "I sure didn't," Weatherford said. "It just worked out that way. I was excited about getting to do it, though."
Weatherford was able to, mostly, work around nine Tiger hits and only be charged with two Tiger runs. He only struck out one batter, but much more importantly he also walked just one. And on a night when homeplate ump Donald Gilmore was giving pitchers and coaches alike fits and issuing 14 combined bases-on-balls, that was nothing short of superb.
"I just knew I needed to keep my team in position to win, that's all I was out there for," Weatherford (4-0) said. "And as I kept on getting innings I wanted to conserve our bullpen for tomorrow and take the heat."
For their part the Tigers had to go to the bullpen five times in relief of lefthanded starter Evan Crawford. He lasted four innings while giving up State's first six runs on six of the 14 Bulldog hits. After that Auburn kept looking for someone, anyone, to preserve the 9-6 lead they'd taken after four innings. None could, and it was righthander Clarence Nicely, the third AU hurler used, to absorbed the defeat. Nicely (1-1) worked 1.2 innings and was on the hill when the go-ahead Dogs reached in the top of the eighth with the score tied 9-9 and without having to hit their way on.
It was a wild inning by any measure, starting with Nicely plunking centerfielder Joseph Hunter to lead off. Hunter stole second base before second baseman Jeffrey Rea walked, producing the change. Righthander Johnny Thompson faced MSU third baseman Edward Easley, who laid down a nice sacrifice bunt to advance both runners into scoring positions. With one out Auburn played it by the book and walked shortstop Thomas Berkery to fill the bases and set up the double-play.
But on a full count rightfielder Mitch Moreland foiled the strategy by taking a close one inside for ball-four. It put State in front for the first time since the fourth, but a one-run lead meant nothing this game. A five-run lead? That was another matter, as LaNinfa deposited that first fastball beyond the wall.
"I asked him when he came back did you get all of it?" Polk said. "He said he got all of it. He had a great night, but we needed that after giving up the seven-spot in the fourth." The slam-shot also was needed to salve State's bruised confidence, as up to then Bulldog batters had been just 6-of-32 with bases loaded in SEC games.
"We're kind of pressing about it because everybody thinks they've got to get the job done," LaNinfa acknowledged. "They just told us relax, take a deep breath before we got up there, we could do it."
State wasn't through in the eighth, though, as with one out Butts whaled his solo shot over rightfield also. A walk of catcher Wyn Diggs brought Bryan Woodall from the AU bullpen, and it wasn't his fault that a grounder by Hunter was errored twice by Tiger third baseman Josh Stapleton to put a pair in scoring positions. An infield single by Rea scored Diggs and Easley drove in Hunter for a 17-9 lead.
The only blot on the big inning was that Berkery got two chances in the eighth to extend his school-record season hitting streak. He walked the first time and lined out to end the inning, stopping his string at 30. He was 0-of-3 officially with two walks.
When the game began at 4:00 the signs were bad for all involved as the first inning took a half-hour to play. MSU starter Josh Johnson gave up a run in Auburn's first by loading the bases and missing on a full-count to Luke Greinke. It required a lunging grab and LaNinfa somehow keeping a toe on the bag snaring Rea's wide throw from the four-hole to end the inning and leave the sacks full. Johnson threw 34 pitches in his first turn.
Still State looked in good shape by scoring in the next three innings off Crawford. An errored grounder from Moreland's bat and singles by LaNinfa and DH Joseph McCaskill filled the bases for the first time in the afternoon. Given State's miserable record batting in such situations, the Tigers might understandably have thought they had the Dogs right where they wanted ‘em and Crawford struck out Butts for one out.
He got Diggs to ground right back to the pitcher and the throw home produced a force-out, but the relay attempt was thrown high of first base and both LaNinfa and McCaskill scored. Diggs galloped around to third base on the error. His hard running paid off as a wild pitch on full-count to Hunter allowed Diggs to score the third run of State's rally.
State was also able to keep making things happen and build on the lead in ensuing innings. Easley singled in front of the rightfielder to lead off the MSU third and Berkery walked. Moreland grounded into a twin-killing but Easley was able to make third base and score on a base hit by LaNinfa. The three-run lead turned into a 6-1 margin in the fourth as McCaskill walked his way on to lead off and made second on Butts' sacrifice bunt. Diggs also drew a base on balls and Hunter bounced a high hopper that the AU third baseman slapped but couldn't catch. The sacks were again loaded with Bulldogs and this time Rea lined lined a drive that the diving leftfielder got a glove on but couldn't quite control. McCaskill and Diggs scored for a 6-1 State lead going into the bottom of the fourth. Only, the advantage didn't survive that half of the frame.
Johnson had shaken off his rough first inning to sit the side in the second and, on a line-out double-play, keep the Tigers down to the one run after three. And when he opened the fourth with two fast outs the junior seemed in control. Even a double to right-centerfield didn't seem much of a problem. But when a strikeout ball went wild the Tigers had runners on corners, and a walk of pinch-batter Stapleton loaded the sacks.
Johnson managed to earn a balk call before throwing a pitch, scoring Dixon from third base, and after two more balls ump Gilmore abruptly turned to the MSU dugout and thumbed Polk, who afterwards proclaimed his innocence. He had actually walked away after a missed strike call. "I heard some commotion in the dugout and started walking back, he looked at me and threw me out. I didn't say one word to him. Incompetence, there's no question about it."
After a useless argument Johnson hit order-topper Johnstone on a full count to re-load the sacks, then on 2-1 served up a fat one that Boutwell smashed over the 385 sign in left-centerfield. "Josh gave up some runs and some hits," Polk said. "But if we block a ball in the fourth inning it's two outs and nobody on."
The grand slam tied things up 6-6, but Auburn didn't stop there as Johnson was left on the hill to give up consecutive singles and Tigers on corners. This produced the change at last with Weatherford asked to keep it tied. But with the count full and the second runner going Andy Bennett dropped a fly-ball perfectly between State's right- and center-fielders. Both Tiger baserunners were able to score and Auburn was suddenly in front 8-6.
"The guy had a tight zone behind the plate and they hit the ball well," Weatherford said. "I came in and they just happened to hit that double. I'd like to think I normally do better in that situation than I did tonight."
It was 9-6 an inning later as, again with two outs, as Stapleton doubled and scored on a Bianucci single. Yet by the time the Tigers got back up to swing it had been knotted-up as State pushed three runs across in the top of the sixth. With one out Andy Masten walked Diggs and Hunter on and on 2-0 Rea went the other way with a fly ball falling in leftfield for a double. Diggs scored, two Dogs were in scoring positions, and Auburn went back to the bullpen for Nicely.
All the righthander did was hit Easley to load the bases and give up a fly ball to Berkery, scoring Hunter and getting State within a run. And after working the count to 3-1 Moreland also went to the opposite field for a base hit. Rea jogged across the plate to even the count at nine runs apiece, and by the time the top of the sixth ended on a full-count grounder the game was already 2:30 old.
Weatherford managed to strand a couple of runners in the fifth, and negated a leadoff-double in the sixth with three routine outs. He left another Tiger on in the seventh, which happened to be the only frame neither team scored a run, and came back out to toss the eighth with a healthy lead at last. "I tried to imagine it was 1-1," he said, and Weatherford pitched it that way. Besides, he had to throw more fastballs than he wanted "Because the guy was so tight behind the plate. I had to put it on a pinhead."
"Aaron pitched a great game," LaNinfa said, "he did what we asked him to." State had Mike Valentine and Justin Pigott both warmed and ready but the rookie was able to finish out the long evening.
Auburn did break double-digits with a run in their last at-bat, as with one out a couple of pinch-hitters both singled their way on and Ryan Jenkins took advantage of the RBI opportunity. He accounted for Auburn's 14th and last hit. Nine Tigers got at least one safety, while seven Dogs had a hit…or in the case of LaNinfa, four, on a 4-of-5 night with five RBI. Rea had three hits and four more RBI.
"It's just a great team win for us," LaNinfa said as State knotted the series and stayed a half-game back of second-place Arkansas in the SEC West standings. Both gained a game on first-place Alabama, now 9-5 after a second loss at LSU.
And, the Diamond Dog batters gained a big emotional boost by coming through at crunch time after weeks of frustrations. Not that they can take anything for granted Sunday, LaNinfa warned. "We just have to forget about today and come out tomorrow and play hard."
State, which still has a relatively well-stocked bullpen with relievers Pigott and Valentine as well as Chad Crosswhite and even Matt Lea available, will start righthander John Lalor in game-three. Auburn will go with righthander Chris Dennis.