With Tuesday night in the books all Bulldog attention turns to the looming showdown with arch-rival Mississippi that will settled State's post-season fate. The Dogs are 11-15 in SEC play and ninth in the overall league standings, one place out of the SEC Tournament field. Their situation boils down to winning one more game this weekend than 12-15 LSU while keeping pace with 11-15 Tennessee, which would sneak State into the eighth and final slot.
The Bulldogs also know that getting to Hoover for the conference classic could very well determine if State receives a bid to the following tourney, the NCAAs. "We've got to do one better than LSU," senior shortstop Thomas Berkery said. "Basically that's what it comes down to. We're going to try to win all three regardless."
Likely everyone at the park, including the teams themselves, came expecting to see the home side romp. But UT-Martin gave the Dogs all they could handle and nearly more, twice rallying from three-run deficits to even the score and keep it a contest.
State threw four pitchers at the visitors, with Cleveland proving himself the right arm at the right time. The senior entered in the top of the seventh after Martin had tied things up 6-6 and with go-ahead runners still on the paths. He got a quick strikeout to end that threat and stranded one man in the top of the eighth before his offense broke the deadlock and put him on-record.
Staked to the lead Cleveland made quick work of the Martin ninth, against the heart of their order. He fanned Lance Renton, got a nice running grab by leftfielder Jeff Butts of cleanup Hawk Brett Spivey, and a more routine fly-out to left to end his evening. That gave Cleveland his first decision of the season, as in 2.1 innings he struck out two, walked none, and was hit only for a single in the eighth.
UTM reliever Chadwick Cameron was the loser, giving up the last three MSU runs on three hits. His big problem was walks, as Cameron (3-3) issued six Dogs free passes while striking out nobody.
The Skyhawks started with Derek Link, and after an inning to gauge the lefty State was able to hurt him for three runs in the second turn. Actually Link hurt himself, walking a pair in that second inning. With two outs leftfielder Jeff Butts chinked a soft liner just over the shortstop's glove to score centerfielder Joseph Hunter. It was Butts' 40th RBI of the season. A third Link walk loaded the bases and pushed two Dogs into scoring positions for third baseman Edward Easley, and this time his base hit produced RBI as rightfielder Andy Rice and Butts crossed the plate for a 3-0 lead.
Jon Crosby opened for State and put three zeroes on the scoreboard, though in the third inning he needed a pop-out to leave three on bases. But an errored grounder at shortstop opened both the fourth and the door for Martin to tie the tally. A single and bunt had two Hawks in scoring positions, and Jason Hockaday delivered a single to short leftfield for the first UTM run. A grounder back to the mound scored another, and order-topper Hideaki Sato singled to centerfield for another RBI and 3-3 tie. None of those runs were earned.
It stayed even into the bottom of the sixth when Skyhawk charity again set State up for a productive inning. Link issued consecutive walks to open the frame and to the bottom of the MSU order at that. The change was made with righthander Cameron taking over, and second baseman Jeffrey Rea met him with a sacrifice bunt to move his teammates up a base each. So Easley was intentionally passed to fill the bases and set up outs all around.
Berkery foiled that tactic with a fly ball deep enough to rightfield that Rice could take home and break the tie. A walk of first baseman Brian LaNinfa re-loaded the sacks, and catcher Joseph McCaskill came through with a two-run single for a 6-3 State margin…
…which didn't last through the top of the seventh. Righty Trent Hill had taken over in the fifth and sat six-straight Hawks. But he was hit in the seventh for a leadoff single and another errored ground ball at shortstop. A base hit behind shortstop filled the paths with still no outs before Mike Valentine could replace Hill.
Lance Renton took the first pitch to the warning track for a sacrifice fly, and Spivey followed with a base hit for a second run. And runners were still on corners, so a wild Valentine pitch let Zachary Dean race across with a re-tying run. Valentine got a second out before a walk which rushed Cleveland in to strike out Douglas Nicodemus on a full count with the runners in motion.
Finally in the bottom of the eight the home team took a lead that Cleveland would protect. UTM rightfielder Zane Gresback made a great grab of a foul-fly to out Easley, then Cameron walked Berkery and gave up a chink single to LaNinfa. The Skyhawks had a chance to get out of the inning still knotted as McCaskill bounced one to shortstop. He was able to outrun the turn and prevent the double-play, giving Hunter his chance. On 1-1 the centerfielder spanked a one-hopper past the diving third baseman, scoring Berkery.
Cameron walked DH Mitch Moreland to load the bases, then on 3-2 to Rice missed outside and forced in McCaskill for the 8-6 score. Lefthander Eric Walker took over and ended the inning with one pitch as Butts grounded out to the first baseman. But State had done just enough to get away with their 24th non-SEC home win of the campaign.
Seven Bulldogs had at least one hit, with a pair for Easley, Hunter, and Butts. The latter scored twice as did Rice. The Skyhawks collected nine hits and leadoff man Sato had three of them. All 19 of the combined safeties were singles.
Coach Ron Polk said after the game that though this final SEC series starts a day early, running Thursday-Friday-Saturday, the plan is to go with the same rotation as this past weekend at Kentucky. "We'll go Brooks Dunn, Justin Pigott, and Tibba," he said, meaning the game-three starter is To Be Announced. Polk also said that pitcher Matt Lea is to have another examination Wednesday afternoon to see if he is available at all for the series.