Pigott Pitching, Berkery Batting Rout Rebels

And after 13 weeks it all comes down to the last day of the schedule. The Diamond Dogs are still alive, not entirely in control of their fate but with the only opportunity they could ask for to extend their season another week. Or more.

Mississippi State belted out 15 hits, seven for multiple-bases, and gave pitcher Justin Pigott all the support he could ask for as the Bulldogs thrashed visiting Ole Miss 11-1 Friday evening at Dudy Noble Field. State (35-20) evened the series at a win apiece while sustaining the possibility of making it to next week's SEC Tournament.

"Just live to play another day and try to get in the Tournament and the regionals," said shortstop Thomas Berkery, the slugging star of the evening with four extra-base hits and five runs batted in.

State's victory, along with Florida's dramatic extra-inning win over LSU, means the Bulldogs can steal the eighth and final slot in the tourney field if they can win Saturday's 2:00 rubber game with the Rebels; and if Florida takes game-three from the Tigers. Their game in Gainesville starts at 3:00 CT. Tennessee was eliminated from long-shot contention for eighth place by losing to Alabama.

Second baseman Jeffrey Rea agreed that, just like the last two evenings, everyone will be watching the scoreboard Saturday. "But it all happens between our lines."

All activity between those lines Friday favored the home team. State jumped all over a couple of helpless Rebel hurlers to ring up the 11 runs in just five innings. Berkery was the lead Dog, celebrating Senior Day with a couple of doubles, a triple, and a solo home run. All he lacked was a lowly single to complete the cycle. "It would have been cool to get it but I'm happy with the win," he said, after raising his league-leading batting average ten points to .395. He flew out to rightfield in the eighth inning.

It was his double in the first frame that put the first Bulldog run on the board. "I hit a good pitch and from there I was locked in and just let it ride," Berkery said. "I just saw it good and I think I had a little extra juice for Senior Day. You can't ask for a better day, I guess."

Unless it was Pigott's day, perhaps. The sophomore lefthander put in his third consecutive complete game, scattering six Rebel hits while striking out six. He made efficient work of the opposition, needing just 117 pitches, and the one run allowed came with State already in front.

"The defense played great and we hit the ball, and it's easy to pitch when it's 11-1," said Pigott (6-1).

After watching Ole Miss come after fellow lefty Brooks Dunn the day before, Pigott became the Friday aggressor. Mixing locations and speeds he was able to usually get ahead of batters and start eight innings with outs. "I was just trying to get early contact just like usual. We kept leadoff guys off base and that changes the whole inning. And the defense did a great job." By playing errorless ball, that is.

UM starter Brett Bukvich (5-5) had a much shorter stint, getting into the fourth inning before exiting with seven hits and five runs against him. His replacement, Craig Rodriguez, only fueled the fire and gave up the other six Bulldog runs on seven hits as well.

The State assault began with a pair of first-inning scores. Rea opened by ripping a one-hopper that caromed off the pitcher's hand for an infield single. After a trainer's visit Bukvich got a strikeout and was 2-2 on Berkery when State went run-and-hit. It worked perfectly as Berkery lined a shot into the leftfield corner and Rea had no problem scoring all the way from first on the double. With two outs centerfielder Joseph Hunter reached for a 1-0 offering and chipped it over shortstop. The UM leftfielder got to it on the second hop but didn't even make an effort as Berkery rounded and crossed for a 2-0 lead.

"We saw a tape and knew he'd be around the plate," said Rea. "We wanted to get on him early and see what happened. I thought our gameplan worked out well."

The Rebels avoided damage in State's second turn after a leadoff walk and single had two on with no outs. A failed bunt and two fly balls stranded both. But in the bottom of the third Berkery led off, worked the count full, then lifted a drive that kept carrying until clearing the fence left-of-center for his seventh home run. After an out Hunter walked and with the count again full he was running.

DH Mitch Moreland did his job, whipping a single through where the UM first baseman would have otherwise been, putting Dogs on corners with one out and sending relievers to the Rebel bullpen. Bukvich hit catcher Joseph McCaskill to load the bases, giving State a chance to blow it open. He escaped this time with a strikeout of rightfielder Matt Richardson and grounder by leftfielder Jeff Butts. Down 3-0 Bukvich had been able to strand six in the first three innings.

But the starter's stint ended in the fourth as the first two Bulldogs reached, though it wasn't all Bukvich's fault. With Rea on first via a single to leftfield third baseman Edward Easley pounded a double-play ball to the second baseman. Except Justin Henry threw it wide of the middle bag, putting Dogs on corners. Lefthander Rodriguez inherited the no-out jam with the heart of MSU's order coming up.

Berkery had first shot at the southpaw and slapped his second line-drive double of the day, into the rightfield corner this time. Rea scored but Easley was stopped at third, which didn't matter because first baseman Brian LaNinfa was able to go the other way with a base hit for the RBI. And there were still runners on corners and no outs. The Rebels were able to turn a double-play off Hunter's ground ball, though the batter certainly seemed safe, but Berkery came in unchallenged for a 6-1 Bulldog lead.

Rodriguez had some tough luck of his own in the sixth as with one out Butts hit a high drive towards left-centerfield. The leftfielder tried to make a diving grab but only knocked the ball around, giving Butts an easy triple. Rea walked to set up a double-play but Easley spoiled that plan with a little looper over the second baseman. Butts scored and Rea went around to third.

And the Bulldogs didn't stop there as Berkery hit a clean three-bagger of his own to the fence in right-centerfield for two more RBI. He was able to score on a fly ball by LaNinfa, then with bases clean Hunter crushed a solo shot over leftfield for a ten-run lead. Rodriguez was yanked for righthander Stoney Stone to end the outburst. Too late.

"I was telling somebody before the game I wished we could just know we've got it in the seventh inning, have a lot of hits and get it done," Rea said. "My wish came true!" A double-wish that is, because that was about the time confirmation came that Florida had hit a two-run, walk-off homer in the bottom of their tenth inning.

"We were out on the field at the time so we just looked around and smiled," Berkery said.

There was still unfinished business between the lines as Pigott was going for the route. He showed early he was on his game, hanging three zeroes on the top scoreboard line with a couple of meaningless hits and three strikeouts in the second inning alone. "I went right at them with fastballs staying away, seeing if they'd make the adjustment," Pigott said. "We came in a lot more early, then we had success with changeups."

Pigott was leading 3-0 and an out into the UM fourth when Zach Cozart slid a grounder right down the third base line for a double. Another grounder moved the runner a base closer so C.J. Ketchum could get the Rebels on the scoreboard with a single just beyond Rea's glove. And that was the extent of what Ole Miss could do against Pigott's left arm. Of course it didn't hurt that State's offense responded to that lone Rebel run with three in the bottom of the inning and a clinching five the next turn.

Only in the seventh did UM threaten again with a couple of singles. Pigott struck out the number-nine batter to keep his ten-run rule. And that one run allowed was the only time any Rebel also touched third base.

Senior Dogs accounted for seven hits, six runs, and seven RBI on their Day. Now these upperclassmen know exactly what must happen if they are to be playing ball next week and defending their 2005 SEC Tournament championship. "We just have to root for Florida and hope LSU has a bum day, there's no options," Berkery said.

Their younger teammates understand the situation as well, both in SEC and NCAA terms. "Oh, if we have any hope of getting in the tournament LSU has to lose tomorrow and we've got to win, too," said Pigott. "And if we have any hopes of getting in a regional it's a must-win, too."

Coach Ron Polk isn't so sure about that last item, an at-large NCAA bid. "I still think if we lose tomorrow we've got a crack because of our RPI. There are six teams locked-in and South Carolina, us, and LSU are bubble schools." But he agrees that even if State doesn't get help Saturday, they can strengthen their post-season case by winning the last series of the schedule. Besides, the Dogs aren't the only team facing last-day tensions.

"I'm happy tomorrow means a lot for our ball club, and I'm happy for (UF Coach) Pat McMahon to win a game. But I'm a coach and sad a little for (LSU Coach) Smoke Laval who is under a little pressure. But, I'll root for Pat tomorrow, for us."

Polk said junior righthander Josh Johnson will start game-three. "Unless there's somebody else you'd like to recommend," he added to reporters. "And we've got Chad Crosswhite and Brett Cleveland and others, our bullpen is in good shape."

Ole Miss is expected to start freshman righthander Lance Lynn.


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