The junior righthander was ready to get off to a solid start, and first baseman Brian LaNinfa was able to drive in all the necessary runs as third-seed Mississippi State held off fourth-seed North Carolina Asheville 5-4 in an elimination round game. The Bulldogs (36-22) stayed alive one more post-season day and will meet the loser of Saturday evening's Clemson-Elon contest at 3:00 Sunday.
A crowd of 3,157 watched UNC Asheville end their season 28-35. These Bulldogs had a long day at the park, playing the last eight innings of a rain-halted Friday game with Clemson and losing 3-0.
After State lost 5-4 to Elon Friday afternoon, Coach Ron Polk named lefthander Justin Pigott as Saturday's starter. But as pitching coach Russ McNickle watched Regional host and national top-seed Clemson blow pitches by the UNCA Bulldogs, he figured Johnson would be the better matchup. At least, to start it off.
"Clemson had success throwing fastballs by them and I've got a good enough arm to do that," Johnson said. "I went out and threw my game." For 4.1 innings he did, striking out six Bulldogs with no walks while allowing eight hits and three runs, all earned. It was just what Mississippi State needed from their first moundsman of the day.
As was a productive day at the dish by LaNinfa. His two-run single in the top of the first inning staked Johnson to a relaxing lead, and his three-run homer in the fifth provided the margin of eventual victory. The blast was a monster, estimated at close to 450 feet after clearing the batting practice building behind rightfield. LaNinfa tried to make light of the big hit. "I just wanted to win, I didn't care how we did it."
With the whole season at stake Polk saw it another way. "We just needed one hero," he said.
Johnson's effort on such short notice was a bit heroic also. "Josh competed well," Polk said, as the junior hung four zeroes on the bottom line of the scoreboard while his offense built that 5-0 lead. McNickle wanted to get 18 outs from the starter but 13 was sufficient with a full bullpen available.
"I thought I had good stuff early," Johnson said. "I ran out of gas a little in the fifth inning and started missing my spots and they started hitting me." But up to that point he was in control, retiring nine of the first ten Asheville batters faced. A leadoff double in the fourth and infield hit had a pair on with UNCA trying to play small-ball. Johnson fielded the bunt himself to force the middle-runner, then stranded two with a couple of good strikeouts. It was all according to the revised pitching script.
"I didn't throw but three or four changeups and a few sliders," Johnson said. "I threw a lot of fastballs." Johnson got no official credit on the boxscore, though. Aaron Weatherford (5-2) was awarded the decision by throwing 3.0 innings of scoreless middle-relief, and Pigott found himself closing things out the last 1.2 frames to get his second save.
Johnson also had the luxury of always toeing the rubber with a lead. Asheville starter Alan DeRatt (loser, 8-5) was under pressure immediately and hurt by defensive lapses. Second baseman Jeffrey Rea opened the day with an infield single and third baseman Edward Easley reached on an errored fielder's choice. A fly ball from shortstop Thomas Berkery advanced both runners into scoring positions for LaNinfa.
He fell behind 0-2 but outwaited DeRatt's changeup and lined it the opposite way. Ashville third baseman Burnich, who stands 6-3, seemed sure he had it snared…and let the shot skim off the glove and into leftfield for a two-RBI double. DH Mitch Moreland followed with a single for Dogs on corners but DeRatt kept the deficit down to 2-0 with a first-pitch popout of centerfielder Joseph Hunter and catcher Joseph McCaskill's grounder.
DeRatt kept it a two-run difference for three more frames, standing MSU Bulldogs in the second and fourth. The fifth was another matter. With one out Easley lined a drive over the centerfielder's head for a double, and a wild pitch moved him along to third. Berkery was put on first intentionally to set up a force, but LaNinfa foiled that in a big way. A big, high, long way, as on 1-0 he got every atom of a fastball on the inner half. "I didn't even try to hit it hard," LaNinfa said, though all knew it was gone immediately.
With a 5-0 lead at the halfway point the Bulldogs didn't worry about wasting chances for an even bigger cushion by leaving Moreland and McCaskill on bases. They should have. "We had opportunities to expand the lead, we just couldn't get it done and left ten guys on base," Polk said. The strandings loomed large soon as Asheville matched LaNinfa's three runs with their own trio in the bottom of the fifth. Three-straight singles loaded the bases before Johnson got an out by fanning order-topper Kevin Mattison.
On 1-0 Matt Henson chipped a little floater that barely cleared the infield dirt. That was far enough to fall fair for a single and two runs. Elliot Arrington drilled the first pitch into leftfield for a third UNCA run that ended Johnson's day and brought in Aaron Weatherford. The righthanded freshman, another hard thrower, inherited a two-on, one-out challenge with the cleanup batter up. He handled it well as a grounder produced a force-out, then Hunter ran down a deep drive a step before running into the fence in straight-centerfield.
Weatherford followed that by sitting the next five foes, before walking Henson with two down in the seventh. A ball to Arrington brought a visit, and on the next pitch the #3 batter spanked the ball but where Rea could get it on the first hop and flip to first. UNCA went with another righthander to open the seventh and Ben Buchanan kept it 5-3 despite a one-out double by Moreland.
A great rob-job by Butts gave Weatherford an out to open the eighth. But on full count he missed to walk Edmund Locklear, and UNCA reached into the roster twice. First pinch-runner Graham Baughn was put on first; and then a righthander, Nathan Durham, picked up a bat.
Having watched the other side make their moves, Polk responded by replacing Weatherford with Pigott. He went 1-1 before coaxing a perfect roller for Berkery to step on the middle sack and relay to first to end the threat.
And still there was more drama to come in Asheville's last chance. Pigott got behind Kyle Smith before giving up a single, then on 2-2 he hit John Whited on the ankle. Righthanded pinch-hitter Tony Wall was bunting to set up a tying-try, but his sacrifice was slotted so well it became a bases-loading hit. An extra-base knock would likely have won the game and the top of the order was up.
"I just had to take a deep breath and go try to get one at a time," Pigott said. "It worked out." Because leadoff man Mattison grounded straight to Rea to start a 4-6-3 double-play. "It was just at three-spot fastball, away," Pigott said. The lead runner did come home for a 5-4 score and the tying run was still on third base, but Pigott coaxed another routine grounder to the right side that Rea handled for the game-ender.
"It's nice to win a close ball game, but it wasn't easy," Polk said. "We get 13 hits but only five runs. That's the only disappointing thing." That, and eight MSU strikeouts. Fortunately the top third of the Bulldog order got on bases five times and became four of LaNinfa's five RBI. The first baseman finished with three base hits, as did Rea and Moreland. State out-hit the other Bulldogs 13 to 10, and Asheville only managed one extra-base knock.
While after the morning reversal of announced plans any statements might be taken cautiously now, Polk and McNickle both said Pigott will probably start Sunday's game. He threw 23 pitches in relief. The opponent was almost certain to be Elon as Clemson was pounding the Phoenix through three innings Saturday evening. "Justin thinks he can (throw) and I imagine that is going to be our decision," Polk said.
If Saturday's evening game continues as it began, the survivor of the afternoon Sunday game will meet Clemson at 7:00. A Tiger victory would end the Regional, while a Clemson loss would force an extra championship game Monday at 3:00.