Arkansas is 29-12 and at 9-8 SEC remains second in the Western Division standings, but now in a tie with 9-8 Mississippi after the Rebels swept a twinbill from LSU. So State, a half-step back in a typically-intense Division race, knew exactly what LaNinfa's clutch blast meant. As did the hitting hero himself. "It was pretty much a must-win game for us," the junior DH said.
Or, a must-not-lose. And the Dogs didn't, despite giving away repeated leads including an early 5-1 advantage. Arkansas was only in front once, that after bumping a fluke RBI-double in the top of the eighth to break a 7-7 tie. Still Mississippi State didn't crack under the pressure to salvage a split and save the weekend. In fact, that was their motivation.
"We knew we were coming back," insisted reliever and winning pitcher Justin Pigott. "We weren't losing two, not in the same day. This was a huge game, we stay at .500 and have a chance to win the series tomorrow."
Chances were looking dangerously thin after Pigott, who took over from bullpen partner Brett Cleveland in the seventh inning, managed to keep his team within a run by stranding a man in the top of the ninth. With righthander Brett Bollman on the hill Arkansas was looking to seal the set. But MSU third baseman Edward Easley kept hope alive as he barely outran a ground ball errored by the Razorback third baseman.
Bollman was able to get MSU's best hitter, Thomas Berkery, to fly out after the shortstop had hit safely four times already with four runs driven in. This meant LaNinfa had the responsibility. He'd already hit one two-run homer in the affair, back in the third inning off UA starter Trey Holloway. But his last at-bat LaNinfa had grounded out and gimped off with his bruised hamstring.
So the left-side swinger wasn't going to leg out anything. Yet when Bollman fell behind 2-0, then 3-1 the Razorbacks still were going to pitch to him…and LaNinfa had no notions of walking. "I was swinging!" he said later. He said he thought Bollman would come with another changeup and was going to take a hack anyway. "I thought if I miss I'll have another pitch to do something with." But he didn't need a second chance.
Because Bollman put a fastball right in the wheelhouse. "He left the ball up and I got a pretty good piece of it," LaNinfa said. "It felt pretty good off the bat." And it looked even better clearing the rightfield fence with plenty of room to spare. It was his team-leading seventh homer of the season, the fifth in the last eight days.
"Every time he takes a big cut the crowd oohs and aahs, that's when you know a guy is hot," Berkery said. "He's on fire."
Pigott was the direct beneficiary of the blast, earning his fourth win in as many relief decisions by throwing 2.1 intense innings. He was hit three times but only gave up the lone run…though it happened to be his first earned run allowed all season. And it came in a particularly frustrating way, as with a runner on first base and two outs UA nine-hitter Stephen Robison pounded a ball that hit the third base bag and caromed on into leftfield. The Arkansas coach didn't hesitate waving runner Blake Parker all the way round to score the go-ahead tally. Pigott was able to get an odd twin-killing on a fly-ball and double-off at second base of a careless Razorback runner, but damage had been done.
Just not so much it couldn't be overcome with a couple of clutch swings. "They bailed me out," Pigott said, "I would hate to get beat on a dink-double off the base. I don't care about the streak, we won the game. And we needed that more than some dumb ERA thing."
Lots of ERAs were taking a beating in game-two. UA southpaw starter Holloway managed just 2.2 innings with five runs on seven hits before he was lifted. Brian McClelland kept his damage down to a run on four hits in 2.1 innings before giving the ball up. Bollman (4-2) took the loss on 3.1 frames with three runs on four hits.
State starter Josh Johnson did a day's work of his own, battling through six full innings against an Arkansas order that kept the pressure on. He was charged with five runs on six hits, and hurt himself with four walks against three strikeouts. Still he lasted long enough to give State's bullpen a chance to win, which it did if by the harder way.
"Arkansas obviously put some good innings together," said Berkery. "We knew we had to keep going because they were going to keep scoring."
State did the first scoring, in the bottom of the first inning, as Easley doubled and Berkery drove him home on a base hit. Arkansas took three turns to get on the board, as with runners on corners a fielder's choice by order-topper Clint Arnold evened the score. That would be a theme the rest of the way as each side would answer everything the other did.
The Bulldogs appeared to have blown it open with a four-run third inning. With two down Easley walked and Berkery doubled into the rightfield power alley for his second RBI. LaNinfa didn't work any counts this time, as he turned on Holloway's first pitch and slugged it over rightfield for a 4-1 lead. Centerfielder Joseph Hunter stretched a base hit into a double and scored on a single by catcher Joseph McCaskill. McCelland ended the outburst with the score 5-1.
But the margin evaporated almost entirely and immediately. Johnson had an out before giving up a single and walk, which sent Cleveland to the bullpen. An infield-fly gave Johnson two outs but on 2-0 Parker lined a bullet that carried all the way over the fence, his sixth homer of the year. As quickly as that State's lead was chopped to a lone-run margin.
The Bulldogs were able to double the difference with a run in the bottom of the fourth, set up by an Arkansas error. Parker made a nice charging grab of a Matt Richardson grounder but threw it wide of first base for a two-bag play. Holloway held the runner at second on a grounder and fly ball, but a wild pitch put Richardson on third base before Easley walked. Berkery cashed in on another opportunity with a clean single lined into rightfield for the RBI and 6-4 score. LaNinfa nearly expanded things further with a sinking liner left-of-center but Jake Dugger made a great diving, RBI-robbing snare.
And still the Razorbacks kept the pressure on, as David Hum led off the top of the sixth with a double. An out later he made third on a ground ball by Walker, and Matt Willard caught State's defense flat-footed by dropping a bunt to the left side. Johnson deflected the ball just enough that Easley had no throw after the grab and Hum scored unchallenged. A steal and wild pitch only meant Willard was at third when Parker fanned.
State was able, again, to match Arkansas' challenge. Leftfielder Jeff Butts swung on the first chance, lining a single to center. With one out he took off for second with Easley swinging behind him and bouncing a grounder leftwards. The UA third baseman couldn't come up with the ball putting Dogs on corners and giving Berkery yet another RBI situation. He didn't deliver a mighty blow, but his nubber to the right side couldn't be fielded easily or quickly.
So Berkery beat the flip to first base as Butts crossed the plate, meaning State's bullpen had a 7-5 lead to protect after six complete. The advantage didn't survive the top of the seventh as Arkansas evened the game off Brett Cleveland. With one on and one out Jake Duggar lined a double that fell barely fair inside the rightfield stripe. The lead runner was held at third but it didn't matter as on 1-1 cleanup batter Danny Hamblin, the star of game-one, scorched a single that plated the pair and for the first time produced a tie score, 7-7. A two-out double again had a pair of ‘Backs in scoring positions before Pigott was asked to get his team to the stretch still tied, somehow. The southpaw did by rolling Brian Walker out, setting up more drama and trauma for the final two innings.
"Pigott did great again," Coach Ron Polk said. Not only did he both relieve and win, but Pigott also prevented State using any other arms that were being saved for Sunday. "We've in good shape with Chad Crosswhite and Aaron Weatherford," Polk added.
Both teams tallied 13 base hits, and both teams stranded only six runners. Of course this was a ‘victory' for the Bulldogs, who have left so many on bases this season it has become a team trademark. Not this game. "We did a good job getting them on, getting them over, and getting them in," said Berkery, who scored once to go with his four RBI. LaNinfa also drove in a quartet, including himself with the game-winner.
"LaNinfa and Berkery are the dudes right now!" Pigott exulted. "This was the biggest win, by far, this season."
Setting up an even bigger game Sunday as State and Arkansas play for the series. "It's going to be a battle tomorrow," LaNinfa said, "hopefully we come out and get it." Just as the Bulldogs got the great bit clutch knock with a game, weekend, and maybe even season hanging in the balance. "Obviously it helps because we're not just trying to win the Sunday game," Berkery said. "We needed a win like this I think to get our legs back under us, get our hopes up a little bit, get us excited."
And the mob awaiting LaNinfa at the dish were definitely excited. Or as Pigott said, "Walk-off home runs work magic!"
Game One: Razorbacks Make Early Burst Stand Up in 6-2 Opening Win
Danny Hamblin's three-run homer in the top of the first inning of the afternoon got Arkansas off to a fast start en route to a 6-2 victory over Mississippi state in game-one of a Saturday SEC doubleheader at Dudy Noble Field.
That shot, as well as subsequent expansions in the third and fourth frames, was more than enough support for Razorback pitcher Nick Schmidt. The lefthander put in seven complete innings and was charged with just one Bulldog run, that in the second. Schmidt (7-2) was able to keep State on ‘1' for the rest of his afternoon as he scattered eight base hits with a couple of walks while striking out a career-best eight batters.
By complete contrast, MSU's Brooks Dunn was only able to work into the third inning and record an official 2.1 frames before being pulled after the shortest stint from a State starter this season. The lefthander was tagged with just one base hit by the dozen ‘Backs he faced, but of course that lone safety was Hamblin's homer. The real problem for Dunn (6-3) was control as he struggled to hit corners, especially against righthanded hitters, and walked four Arkansans, all of whom were driven home.
The fast hook meant reliever Mike Valentine was given the thankless task of burning a lot of innings, and the righthander acquitted himself admirably. Valentine battled through 5.2 frames with eight hits to his account. Those first two safeties plated runners put on by Dunn, while Valentine was charged with one other Arkansas score. He did not walk anyone and struck out a pair before giving the ball to Jon Crosby to take care of the eighth.
The most frustrating lines on the final box score for the Bulldogs were the totals for both base hits and left-on-base. State matched Arkansas with ten hits, and while the Razorbacks had two doubles the Dogs got a triple. Both hit one ball out of the park, though State's was a solo shot in the eighth by centerfielder Joseph Hunter for the other MSU run. The difference was what Arkansas did with their other safeties, and even more those early bases-on-balls that became the margin of eventual victory.
Meanwhile State followed a season-long trend of getting guys on the basepaths only to leave almost all of them unscored. This time a total of 11 Dogs were stranded.
The game started at the scheduled Saturday hour of 2:00, but it was the lineups from Friday's rained-out contest taking the field. Or in Arkansas' case, the batting order. And Razorback swingers took advantage of having first turn to take control immediately at Dunn's expense.
The senior southpaw hurt his own cause as, after opening with a fly-ball out, he walked consecutive batters. On 1-1 Dunn located a strike on the outer half of the dish, but righthanded slugger Hamblin was able to extend and get all of it. Even with the wind blowing in his high drive cleared the fence right-centerfield, giving Hamblin his 11th homer of the year and Arkansas a 3-0 lead.
Dunn retired the UA side his second time-out, but in the third, after State had shaved a run off the deficit, Dunn again put a pair on via balls with one out and Hamblin coming up again. That was enough to force an early change with Valentine taking over. He got Hamblin to fly out to shortstop, but Arkansas also made a smart move with lefty David Hum pinch-hitting against righty Valentine. He lined a single into rightfield for one RBI, and Matt Willard bounced a base hit over the third baseman for another run and 5-1 Razorback advantage.
Arkansas added another run in their fourth, as Stephen Robison bunted his way on and was sacrificed along a bag where he could score on a double by Chris Hollensworth. That was all the Razorback offense, and more than enough to hold up.
State put a pair on in the first turn against Schmidt with singles by second baseman Jeffrey Rea and DH Brian LaNinfa, both of whom stayed stranded. The second inning was a bit more productive though a pair were still left unscored. Catcher Joseph McCaskill led off with a single and was forced at second as first baseman Brad Jones reached on the dropped relay to first. Rightfielder Matt Richardson dropped a double into the leftfield corner that was covered quickly enough so the lead runner had to hold at third base.
This almost cost the Dogs their one run in the inning as after leftfielder Jeffrey Butts walked to load the bags Rea grounded to the UA second baseman. It took some fast footwork to outrun the relay, prevent a twin-killing, and allow Jones to come home for State's first run. A pop-out by third baseman Edward Easley left Dogs on the corners.
And until Hunter led off the eighth by lining a solo shot over leftfield, that was all of State's offense. Hunter's homer, his second this year, came off UA reliever Devin Collis. The lefty shook that off and got six of the next seven batters out with only Rea reaching on an errored grounder.
Berkery, who missed the two midweek games to attend a family funeral, had a pair of base hits for State, as did LaNinfa. Hollensworth was the only Razorback with multiple hits.