Eagles Complete Sweep With 6-3 Win

It doesn't appear to matter much who is in charge of coaching Mississippi State these days. Because the Bulldogs themselves still aren't pitching, batting, or fielding well enough to win games.

Southern Mississippi shook off an early 2-0 deficit with three runs in both the third and fourth innings off different MSU moundsmen as the Golden Eagles earned a 6-3 victory over visiting State Wednesday evening. With their second win of the week over State the Eagles improved to 27-17 while the Bulldogs left Hattiesburg 29-13.

And, humiliated, along with the one-third of the crowd wearing Maroon. The announced gate of 5,177 surpassed Tuesday's attendance to re-set USM's mark for second-largest home crowd.

One observer who did not have to pay to get in was particularly frustrated by how the evening played out, as Ron Polk watched from the MSU radio booth. The head coach had been suspended for this game by the SEC for criticizing the umpiring in Tuesday's 13-6 loss, and once the lineup had been made up Polk had no further influence on events.

"I didn't enjoy sitting up here, to be honest," Polk said afterwards. "I'd like to be in the dugout and on the field, but I took my punishment." Assistants Tommy Raffo and Russ McNickle directed the gameplan, and in a few aspects things went as intended. Five Bulldog pitchers were able to put in their pre-assigned innings, and the offense even produced 11 base hits.

Only, anything the Dogs could do the home team did better, or at least more often. And while both teams did rap out double-digit hits the evening was dominated by a pitcher. Eagle righthander Ryan Belanger threw together an excellent evening, working 7.1 innings with just the three runs against his account. ‘Just' because he scattered 11 hits with only that much damage done, while striking out a career-high ten Dogs. Most impressively, he walked no one.

Belanger (6-0) was an out into the eighth before a double by MSU rightfielder Mitch Moreland justified a change. A couple of relievers finished off his victory, with righthander Daniel Best closing out the evening and earning his ninth save.

"I thought Belanger pitched well," said Polk. "Best may be one of the best closers in the country." In fact Polk said State's hope was to somehow get and keep a lead so USM would not be able to utilize their Best man in the pen. It was that part of the plan that failed, though the Bulldogs did lead 2-0 halfway through the third frame.

Belanger wasn't overpowering initially, though State made no use of a game-opening single by Jeffrey Rea. The second was a more efficient inning as four base hits, all singletons, produced a pair of runs. Catcher Joseph McCaskill and centerfielder Joseph Hunter batted their way on to begin, and after a strikeout first baseman Brad Jones dropped a fly-ball single in rightfield to score McCaskill. Jones had to skip over a ground-ball base hit by leftfielder Jeff Butts to avoid an out, and Hunter came home for a 2-0 Bulldog lead.

That early margin could have been expanded the next time up as with two down McCaskill reached on a grounder to deep shortstop and Hunter dropped a fly-ball double in right-centerfield. It would have been close at the plate so McCaskill was held at third base, and rightfielder Mitch Moreland grounded out with a pair in scoring positions. The Dogs would regret that missed chance shortly.

"We had some opportunities," Polk said. "Sitting up here you're pulling your hair out hoping someone gets that big hit in the middle part of the ball game."

Just as on Tuesday, the MSU pitching plan this game was to throw a usual weekend starter in midweek action. In this case, normal Saturday man Josh Johnson. The righthander did get things going under control with a couple of scoreless innings. But in the third Brian Dozier popped up a bunt that Easley first failed to get to on the fly and then threw wide of first to boot. State's starter went up 0-2 on Trey Sutton before the USM leadoff man turned on a third strike and lined it over rightfield for a tying two-run homer.

The shot must have shaken Johnson as he promptly gave up consecutive doubles, to opposite fields, for the go-ahead run. He had to scamper to first for Jones' flip to end the inning with State only down 3-2. Johnson (4-3) finished his stint with four hits, two walks, and a strikeout, but also took the decision.

The fourth-inning change came as scheduled, but giving the ball to righthander John Lalor didn't improve State's situation. Far from it. Because Blount greeted him with a home run over rightfield, Dozier singled and got two free bases on a wild pitch and errant throw by McCaskill. So with the runner at third Sutton swung on a 3-0 pitch and produced a sacrifice fly and 5-2 lead.

And it got worse as the next three Eagles all singled, with a short fly by Marc Maddox falling in leftfield for another RBI. And still there was no visit to the mound, though Lalor looked into the dugout as if expecting one. Left uncounseled he bowed himself up for a pop-out and strikeout, but State had still fallen behind 6-2 and to stay.

Chad Crosswhite came out for the fifth and overcame a two-base errored fly ball. In the sixth he was touched for a one-out single, and with the run-and-hit going Maddox doubled into rightfield. The lead runner hesitated and had to hold at third, and Crosswhite made it matter by striking out a pair to strand both and end his own two-turn appearance.

USM's bullpen had been busy in the second before Belanger got through with just the two runs. Leaving him in was the right call. He hung four zeroes on the top line, stranding lone runners in the fourth and fifth and getting the side in the sixth. It was the seventh that epitomized MSU's ongoing offensive futility, as Rea and Easley singled their ways on and got into scoring positions on a wild pitch with no outs and the heart of the order coming up.

And, going down. Berkery and DH Brian LaNinfa both struck out swinging, and McCaskill's grounder was stopped deep in the six hole with shortstop Dozier making a fabulous long and timely throw to get the out and prevent the run.

It took Moreland's one-out double in the eighth to finish Belanger, and the first Eagle reliever didn't last long. Lefty Matt Caire got a fly-out by Jones but Butts ripped a one-hopper off the USM second baseman's glove for a run scoring error. The Eagles instantly called in Tuesday closer Best and he needed just one pitch to end the inning and any thought of State rally with a ground-out. A one-out reach by Berkery on error in the MSU ninth came to nought.

It was the first time State had been swept in a season series by USM since 1995. That Bulldog team did not receive a NCAA berth, and after losing four of their last five games and nine of their last 13 this squad continues to undercut their own post-season position.

"Southern Miss is a very confident ball club at home, 21-6 right now," said Polk. Yet from his higher-than-usual vantage point he saw the same sort of missed opportunities as in State's other losses the last four weeks. In particular the 11 men left on base stood out. "We've got to knock them in," he said. "We had some chances early in the ball game. But there was nothing our coaches did on the field that I'd have done any different."

But his team has to do a lot of things differently, or at least much better, if they are to succeed in their upcoming road trip to South Carolina.

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