Bulldog Coach Ron Polk was ejected in the top of the seventh after arguing one of a long string of close calls at first base. Not only that, but State's skipper was literally forced off the field by police before being allowed to return to the dugout for his briefcase. He ended up outside left field, cigar fumigating the enclosed batting cage and coach fuming over evening's outcome.
For that matter he nearly didn't get to stay that close to the action. "I almost got thrown in jail," Polk related. "The lady policeman stuck her face in my face telling me get off the field. I told her to get off the field, she said you want to go to jail? I said put the cuffs on, let's go."
That bizarre turn of events only accented the awful evening for the Bulldogs. After over four hours it wasn't easy to remember that State actually got on the PTP scoreboard first, and that they fought back within a run after three at-bats. But the Dogs could never entirely overcome the opening inning while the Eagles successfully built on their fast start.
"All of a sudden things just steamrolled," Polk said. "And Southern Miss took advantage of opportunities. But we gave up 17 hits, and walked seven. You're going to have a hard time winning games on the road playing like that."
After short stints in his last two SEC starts, Brooks Dunn was given the ball first to hopefully tune-up for this weekend's trip to South Carolina. The lefthander did get to throw 69 pitches…but 40 of them came in just the first inning. In that one turn Dunn was tagged with seven runs on six hits and a walk, though if a routine fly ball had been caught the damage would have been more than halved. The Eagles got other unintended help from an ump.
Tray Sutton's leadoff two-base grounder down the first base line was a legitimate hit, but Dunn should have snared a grounder from Bo Davis. Instead it got off the glove for an infield hit and runners on corners. A fielder's choice grounder drove in USM's tying score.
It didn't stop there. Shortstop Thomas Berkery just missed stopping a grounder by Marc Maddox that had a pair on, then Kevin Coker's bouncer caromed off middle umpire Chuck McElroy's shoulder and away from the frustrated shortstop for a 2-1 lead. Without the accidental contact it would have been a likely double-play; with it, the ball should have been dead and only one run scoring on automatic advancement, Polk said. "They missed the interpretation, and by the time I figured it out it's the next batter."
It was to get even worse. A slow roller became an infield RBI-single for Jody Blount before Dunn got a second out. But he walked the bases full, and a can'ocorn to medium rightfield was simply dropped by Andy Rice. Two runs scored on the error.
A steal by Brian Dozier had two more Eagles in scoring position with Sutton coming up a second time. He came through with a hot-shot single past second baseman Jeffrey Rea, staking the home team to a 7-1 lead. "That was a nightmare inning," Polk said. "There were only two well-hit balls."
Dunn was sent back out for another inning, and after two quick outs he walked three-straight to fill the sacks and finally earn relief. Lefthander Mitch Moreland was good and warm and got a called strikeout of Trey Cuevas to leave all hands stranded.
The Bulldogs thought they had begun well enough. Four batters reached base but only one by hitting the ball, as leadoff man Rea singled. USM starter Barry Bowden did the rest of the damage himself with walks of third baseman Edward Easley and catcher Joseph McCaskill on full counts and, with two outs, by throwing four-straight balls to centerfielder Joseph Hunter to force in a score. A swinging strikeout of Jones left the bases jammed, and when Bowden returned he had a six-run cushion…
…that almost evaporated. Having fallen so far behind, the Bulldogs started hacking more aggressively and it paid off as with one out leftfielder Jeff Butts and Rea singled their ways on. Easley went to 2-2 before whaling the ball over the 30-foot scoreboard in left-centerfield for a three-run homer and 7-4 tally. McCaskill opened the top of the third with a single through shortstop that brought USM's first mound change. But righthander Bryan Adams served up a 2-1 offering that Hunter hammered over leftfield for a two-run homer and 7-6 score.
State could have tied it up as with two outs Butts reached on an infield hit and got to third on a steal and errored throw. It took a nice running snare on the wet turf of Easley's drive by USM centerfielder Toddric Johnson to maintain that lead, which the Eagle offense promptly rebuilt in the bottom of the inning. Yet another infield single, a one-out walk, and base hit through the right side produced one RBI off Moreland and had runners on corners. So a ground-out by Maddox produced another RBI.
Moreland thought he'd struck Coker out on 2-2 with a breaker on the inside corner. It was called a ball and his next pitch was lined past the third baseman as Coker changed places with the runner on second base for a 10-6 score. A fought-off strike by Blount fell just in front of Berkery's glove to load the bases before all were left stranded by a grounder.
Moreland more than doubled his career-longest outing as he got through a scoreless fourth and into the fifth. But he began that frame with consecutive singles for Eagles on corners and was replaced by righthander Jon Crosby. Coker singled in the lead runner for a 11-6 score, then Crosby rolled a double-play and got a pop-out to strand a runner at third.
Two-out base hits by Coker and Luke Adkins off Jesse Carver in the USM seventh each drove in a teammate for the final margin of victory.
Not only did the Dogs never close the gap, after putting up their six State was unable to score anyone else. Berkery and LaNinfa walked to open the fourth and got nowhere. In the fifth Butts also got a free pass, and another as a pickoff throw was errored. Easley did his part with a single to rightfield and Butts was waved around, only to be tagged out at the plate.
The frustration peaked in the top of the seventh. Eagle reliever Patrick Ezell had two outs around a Rice single when Butts was called out on a close throw at first. Assistant coach Tommy Raffo made one of his very rare protests, a strong one, and Polk came to join the debate. He worked over first base ump Joseph Smith—"Just incompetent," Polk said, "he was scared to death (with) the record crowd and hyperventilating out there"--until ejection, then stayed to argue more while the game management came over. Incredibly, campus security first and then three local sheriffs came out to force Polk's exit.
"That's uncalled-for, that's embarrassing for Southern Miss," Polk said. "They have a good athletic department and program, but to have policemen on the field…"
And if things weren't out-of-control enough, in the eighth with two on, no outs, and righthander Daniel Best sent on in relief, a call was actually reversed. LaNinfa grounded into what looked like a close 3-6-1 double-play, but upon protest first base ump Smith changed his mind and only gave the middle-out. It only added to the lunacy of the evening, and pinch-runner Tyler Bratton immediately got himself caught leading off. State didn't mount any serious challenges against Best.
State did total ten base hits, three by Easley with three RBI. But the first five batters in USM's order recorded 3, 2, 2, 2, and 4 hits and drove in nine Eagle runs.
After the horrid start Polk was reasonably satisfied with the relief work, all things considered. "I thought Mitch pitched well at times, that's the first time he's thrown an extended period. Jon competed well, I didn't get to see much of Jesse and Aaron Weatherford from the corner. But we give up seven runs in the first and make it very difficult."
Polk said usual SEC Saturday starter Josh Johnson will start Wednesday's 6:30 game, throw up to 60 pitches, then turn it over to Chad Crosswhite, Justin Pigott, and whoever else needs to work depending on how the game plays out. He also said that after Dunn worked this evening, he will not start Friday for the first time this season. Instead righthanded freshman Aaron Weatherford will tentatively open game-one at South Carolina.
Righthander Ryan Bellanger will start for USM Wednesday.