A pinch-hit single by Pat Irvine in the bottom of the eighth inning scored Ryan Addison from third base for the margin of Elon's 5-4 victory over the third-seed Bulldogs. The second-seed Phoenix (45-16) advanced to a winner's bracket game with the victor in Friday evening's game between host and top-seeded Clemson and UNC-Asheville.
Third-seed State (35-22) will meet the loser of that game at 3:00 ET Saturday, and it is down to do-or-die for the Dogs if they want the season to continue. Coming on the heels of another one-run setback, MSU veterans recognize the situation all-too-well. "I guess we're right were we need to be, in a sense," junior second baseman Jeffrey Rea tried to joke.
No Dogs were laughing during the final two innings. State had rallied from 4-1 down after four frames to tie things up in the top of the fifth, and it stayed even into the eighth. Elon reliever Jesse Lewter retired the MSU side, and State starter Brooks Dunn returned to the mound. After a rocky second inning the senior lefthander had settled into a groove and retired 16 of 19 Phoenix. He was an out into the eighth when Addison singled.
Rightfielder Mitch Moreland did a good job holding it to a one-base hit, but the go-ahead runner being on base produced the pitching change. "Brooks pitched well," Polk said. "He was at 120 pitches and they had a righthander coming up."
So righthanded reliever Chad Crosswhite was handed the ball and told to keep it knotted. Addison was able to steal on the second pitch as substitute catcher Joseph McCaskill's throw tailed to the far side of the sack. Crosswhite got a fly-out that moved the runner up to third base with two now down.
With the last man in the order due up Elon opted to pinch-hit lefty Irvine against Crosswhite. The pitcher was ahead 1-2 and Irvine barely managed to foul off a fastball. "It was close but he foul-tipped it," Crosswhite said. He came back off-speed but Irvine waited and went the other way, hopping a base hit past third baseman Edward Easley and bringing Addison home for what proved the decisive score.
"We made a good decision," said Polk of the late change of moundsmen. "If he hits it at Berkery we're still playing. But it found a hole."
"I'm glad they called on me, all I had to do was hold that gap," said freshman Crosswhite. "I was a little nervous but not that much." He did not figure into the decision as starter Dunn (8-6) ended up absorbing the loss.
Lewter was the biggest beneficiary of the score, though he didn't throw a pitch after Elon took the lead. State sent righthander Matt Richardson to the plate instead of lefty Brad Jones and righty Chad Tilley was called in to finish the afternoon. Richardson dropped a single into leftfield to lead off but McCaskill couldn't bunt him over and took a called strikeout that looked up-and-out. Leftfielder Jeff Butts popped out his first pitch and order-topper Rea watched a 2-2 fastball that umpire Danny Mascorro thought caught the upper, outer corner.
Tilley earned his 11th save of the season while Lewter went to 5-1 with the decision.
As close as it was at the end, Polk knew where this one got away from the Bulldogs. "The second inning was our nemesis," he said. That frame could have been entirely different, too, because State scored first. Elon starter Matt Chastain did get the side in his first turn but the Bulldogs were making contact. It paid off in the second with some unintended help as DH Brian LaNinfa led off by lifting a fly ball straight to short centerfield.
The Elon centerfielder and shortstop both went for the blooper and collided, and the ball dropped for a single. Shortstop Paul Bennett got the worst of the contact and play was delayed several minutes. Upon resumption Moreland lined a drive that might have made the right-centerfield fence if not for the incoming breeze. He settled for a double and two in scoring positions with no outs. Centerfielder Joseph Hunter lined the first pitch to his counterpart for a sacrifice-fly and RBI. Moreland took third base but stayed there, the first of many lost chances for the Dogs.
It stung more after Elon promptly hung four runs on the bottom line of the scoreboard. Dunn stranded a pair in his opening inning and still realized he wasn't on top of things. "I had suspect control from the beginning. We had a great gameplan and scouting report for them, I just didn't get it done. I was pitching behind in the count." It showed as he opened the second inning with a walk of Chris Price. Ryan Addison hit his way on, and Bennett bunted well enough down the third base line that he reached safely to stuff the sacks with nobody out yet.
Number-nine batter Jordy Snyder bounced a grounder that starting third baseman Michael Rutledge hustled in for. Even a good throw to the plate would likely have been too late to prevent one run via the fielder's choice. But Rutledge's attempt was off-line and bouncing away from Easley into the MSU dugout for a second, unearned score. The other two runners were also able to scamper into scoring positions. Leadoff batter Donny Jobe's fly ball plated Bennett from third and with two outs Chris Vasami singled up the middle for a 4-1 Phoenix advantage.
"We don't make a play and they get four runs," Polk said.
Yet having fallen behind Dunn was able to relax. "You've got nothing to lose," he said. A couple of singles in the third did no harm and in the fourth a two-out error at third base wasn't an issue either. Immediately after his offense knotted the tally in the fifth Dunn got the side, then walked #9 man Snyder with one out in the sixth to get the Bulldog bullpen busy. Even a two-out balk call didn't faze the lefty as he ended that frame on a grounder.
For his part Chastain avoided damage from a leadoff-double by Butts in the third with a couple of strikeouts, and a two-out walk of Hunter in the fourth came to nought. It took the depths of the Dog order in the top of the fifth to get something something serious going against the righthander, as Rutledge opened with a clean single. Butts lofted a fly ball that the Elon rightfielder let drop in front of him for two on and no outs with the top of the order coming back up.
Rea made it matter as on 3-1 his drive fell beyond the driving centerfielder into the right-gap. "I just worked the count and one got away from him, I hit it." Both runners scored ahead of him as Rea slid into third base with his first triple of the season. That aggressiveness paid off on a grounder by Easley deep enough to shortstop for the tying RBI. For good measure State even had Berkery, 0-for-2 so far, lay down a bunt single. He was left at first but the Bulldogs had evened it up.
They also failed to take a lead. Elon stuck by their starter even after a leadoff single by Moreland in the sixth. Jones bunted him over and the runner took third on a fly ball from McCaskill, now catching after a defensive switch at third base. That was when the Phoenix went to the pen for southpaw Lewter to face lefthanded-hitting Butts. It was a good call as the MSU leftfielder flew out on the first pitch.
Winner Lewter had a hitless 2.1 innings with no walks or strikeouts, either. Chastain gave up eight of State's nine hits and struck out four with one walk. "I thought we had some opportunities, his command was somewhat questionable, but he always seemed to come back and they only walked one guy," Polk said. Tilley allowed the one hit and nothing else with those two strikeouts, both of which had the punched-out Dogs complaining. "There was a high strike zone at the end, which happens occasionally," offered Polk.
Dunn was credited with 7.1 innings and five strikeouts against three walks and all five Elon runs. "I'm glad they gave me the ball for the first Regional game, I wanted to be number-one today," Dunn said. "I just let my team down."
But the pitcher couldn't be saddled with all the blame. Besides that, the Phoenix showed how they had won the Southern Conference and earned a second-seeding for the NCAAs. "They're a fine ball club, a good looking team," Polk said. Elon also played errorless ball compared to State's two miscues.
Now all the Dogs can do is get ready for…whoever they will see Saturday afternoon. As this was filed, Friday's 7:00 game had been halted in the bottom of the first inning by lightning and the weather looked iffy all evening. So the MSU staff was on-hold as far as making lineup decisions for Saturday, though Polk did say regardless of the opponent lefthander Justin Pigott would start. He also said that ill outfielder Andy Rice was at the ballpark but unable to play after a bout of stomach sickness. Rice should be ready to go for the second day.
Which, the Bulldogs hope, is not the last day of their 2006 campaign. "It's never seemed we've done it the easy way, we're always fighting here and there," Rea said. "But it's going to be tough. We've got a lot of veteran guys who've done it before so we have to do it again."