Dogs Fall Short 13-11, Miss SEC Tourney Shot

After weeks of rising anxiety and fading opportunity, Mississippi State folk had to endure nearly four more hours of sheer Saturday agony before the issue was finally and sadly settled. No, the Diamond Dogs will not play in the 2006 Southeastern Conference Tournament.

Ole Miss lit up State pitching for four runs in their first at-bat and kept on scoring while successfully limiting repeated Bulldog comeback bids to take a 13-11 victory at Dudy Noble Field. With the rubber-game win the Rebels improved to 36-20 overall and ended the SEC schedule 17-13, earning a fifth-seed at next week's league tournament. They also took a third-straight regular season series with MSU, for a composite 10-3 record in that span.

The loss ended State's schedule at 35-21, 11-17 SEC, and may well have ended the 2006 season, period. For certain the Bulldogs will not be playing in the SEC Tourney. They went into Saturday needing both to win this series and for LSU to lose at Florida again. The Gators did their part with a 10-5 win, but State's loss means the Tigers will still receive the eighth and final slot in the SECT Field.

Now MSU can only pray the NCAA sees fit to invite them to play in their tournament without having appeared in Hoover. "That's all you can hope for, that somebody gives us a shot," senior shortstop Thomas Berkery said. He and other Dog veterans know there is a precedent for such hope, having gotten a bid in 2004 without playing in the SEC classic. The field of 64 will be announced May 29.

Getting to Hoover would have sealed that deal, and with first pitch an hour before LSU-Florida began the Bulldogs could focus entirely on their own business. "We talked about it before the game," senior leftfielder Jeff Butts said. "For nine innings give everything you have. I think as a team we did that."

They did, even after a horrific start that could have and maybe should have deflated the Dogs entirely. The Rebels rang up seven runs on State starter Josh Johnson and led by as much as 13-5 at stretch time. Their 20 hits, which included consecutive home runs in the top of the third, was the most State pitching allowed all year.

And still it came down to the last chance as the Bulldogs got a leadoff home run from second baseman Jeffrey, and had the tying run swinging from the plate. First baseman Brian LaNinfa nearly extended the affair, with his long drive snared just in front of the fence, just right-of-centerfield. "If he pulls it it's a tie game," Coach Ron Polk said.

Instead it was the second out of the final frame and DH/pitcher Mitch Moreland's fly ball to leftfield ended it 3:48 after first pitch. Rebel reliever Cody Satterwhite, who entered in the eighth after State's tenth run, worked 1.2 innings with only the Rea longball against him. He got his first save of the season, preserving a win that UM starter Lance Lynn appeared to have locked up long before. Lynn (5-3) was the primary beneficiary of the outstanding offense and at one point held that eight-run margin.

Despite giving up five runs with seven hits and five more free passes (walkings or plunkings) the young righthander was able to put in 5.0 innings to receive the decision before handing it off to reliever Garrett White with one on base. The lefty worked 2.1 frames and absorbed eight hits for five runs. The first two UM hurlers combined for all ten State strikeouts.

And still it took Satterwhite to stave off a final home team rally and end the game in nine. The way both sides were hitting and scoring had there been extra innings it might have turned into nine hours. "When you have 16 hits you feel you have a chance to win the game," Polk said. "But Ole Miss swung the bats great, especially our early pitching."

Most particularly against Johnson and Chad Crosswhite, who were shelled for a dozen runs on 14 Rebel hits. On Friday, asked who would start the do-or-die game, Polk said Johnson before adding "unless you have another suggestion." Perhaps the media should have offered other options, given the junior righthander's 1-2 SEC record and 6.33 ERA in league innings.

To his credit Johnson did get ahead of almost every batter faced in his 2.2 inning stint, no small feat given the tight zone of umpire Danny Everett. Yet he was unable to finish those Rebs off. Leadoff man Justin Henry dropped a single in rightfield, Chris Coghlan drew a full-count walk, and with the runners going Zach Cozart hit through the right side for one run, Rebs on corners, and no outs yet.

With Crosswhite already in the bullpen Johnson got two sharp defensive plays behind him. LaNinfa fired a grounder back to the plate for a tag of Coghlan, and rightfielder Andy Rice ran down a sinking liner. But given the chance to avoid further damage Johnson misfired. Logan Power pulled a bouncer inside third base for a two-run double, and Justin Brashear singled past LaNinfa's glove for a run-scoring single and 4-0 deficit the Dogs never entirely recovered from.

Johnson did get through a scoreless second, a rarity for both sides this offensive afternoon. But in the third Alex Presley began with a tough bounce over the waiting LaNinfa, and with two outs he stole third base. Johnson thought he'd struck out Justin Brashear, with Everett disagreeing, and on full count the UM catcher crushed a drive that nearly reached the scoreboard. "He had a bad hop and that 2-2 pitch was close," Polk said, "if we get the strike there he doesn't hit the two-run homer."

With the bases clear Johnson stayed in only to serve up a fat one that became a solo homer for number-eight batter Mark Wright. With the score 7-2 a change was made and Crosswhite ended the inning, but his own tenure would be no better and just half-as-long even after State's offense matched those three runs in the bottom of the third.

Because the top of the Rebel order scored once in the fourth, with Presley fouling off three strikes before fighting another Crosswhite offering just beyond Rea's glove. Henry came home from third though Coghlan was gunned down by rightfielder Andy Rice. It was the fifth that dug the Dogs into their deepest hole, though. A leadoff single and ground-rule double from Brashear set Wright up to deliver a pair of RBI on his bouncer over the third baseman. The double was errored by Butts into an extra base and Wright scored on a single.

Righthander Aaron Weatherford took over to face the top of the UM order, only to have Coghlan plated Button with his one-out single to expand the lead to 12-5. The last Rebel run came on a one-out single by Presley off Moreland in the seventh for the longest lead of the day.

"Not the ideal situation," Butts said afterwards. "But at the same time we had some confidence from yesterday and we didn't feel it was over." And despite the awful opening the Dogs did have some reason to think they would score lots themselves. The pair in the bottom of the first kept them from collapsing immediately, as third baseman Edward Easley singled and Berkery doubled. LaNinfa looped a chink hit into centerfield to cut that deficit in half.

But that frame also revealed State's season-long offensive downfall, inability to maximize opportunity. Lynn loaded the bases by nicking Moreland and walking centerfielder Joseph Hunter, before Rice fanned on 2-2 and catcher Joseph McCaskill flew out. Lynn stranded two more in the second and had a pair of outs in the third before Rice reached on a tough hop single. McCaskill also got on via the infield hit, then Butts wasted no time going after a first fastball. He pulled it over rightfield for three runs and a 7-5 score.

"We said don't panic and try to make things happen," Berkery said. "I think we did a pretty good job of that."

The key probably was scoring nothing in the three middle-innings while the Rebs kept expanding the margin. A leadoff walk of McCaskill in the sixth brought White to the hill and despite putting two more on the reliever was able to leave the sacks stuffed again, by fanning LaNinfa on three pitches. Yet the Dogs still weren't done as after the stretch Hunter, pinch-hitter Matt Richardson, and McCaskill all hit their way on with a RBI from the latter. With two down Easley reached via an infield single to load the bases.

This third full-sack situation was the charm for State as Easley drove in two with a single, and Berkery's grounder produced a fourth score in the frame as the force at second base was dropped. With his bullpen busy Wright got LaNinfa to ground to the shortstop to hold it at 13-9. But in the eighth after a three-pitch strikeouts he was tagged for consecutive doubles by Hunter and Richardson, cutting the margin to three.

Instead of holding Satterwhite back for the SEC Tourney the Rebels called in the bullpen ace to stop the bleeding against the bottom two in MSU's order. It was the right call as McCaskill grounded out and Butts flew out. And while his stuff was struck solidly four times in the final frame only Rea's shot did any damage.

Johnson (4-4) took the loss, and inevitably the question was asked if Polk had second-guessed the starting decision. "Well, who pitched good?" he responded. "Other than (Jesse) Carver." The lefthander took care of the final two innings with one hit and no runs. Otherwise, State moundsmen had just four combined strikeouts against those 20 base hits. "Our pitchers competed, Ole Miss swung the bat today," said Polk.

Word that the Gators had beaten LSU meant nothing to the Dogs, especially the upperclassmen who won't be able to defend their 2005 SEC Tournament title. They gave it a best, last shot insisted Berkery. "We were going to give it all we had for nine more. We made a couple of crucial errors and a couple of crucial pitches that could have been located better. There's a number of things you can name, we played hard so you can't fault us for that."

Now all that is left these Dogs is the slender hope they do get to play hard again, courtesy of the NCAA's selection committee. It will be an eight-day wait before they know, though, and Polk said after a 1:00 Sunday team meeting the players will be turned loose to await the word, yea or nay.

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