Saturday Clemson Regional Notebook

GOOD CALL: Mississippi State's coaches were not blowing smoke; they really did intend to start Justin Pigott in Saturday's game, regardless of who they would play. But as assistant coaches Russ McNickle and Tommy Raffo watched North Carolina Asheville get three-hit and shut-out by Clemson in the noon game (forced by a Friday night weather delay) they came to a different conclusion.

Instead of going with Pigott, a lefthander with mid-80s velocity and movement, a harder thrower looked like a better matchup. "We thought we could beat their bats," McNickle said.

Which meant starting either Josh Johnson or Aaron Weatherford, both fastball pitchers and righthanders. Under the circumstances of a do-or-die game, junior Johnson would obviously get the nod over rookie Weatherford. "During the fifth inning I said Josh could be a good matchup," pitching coach McNickle related. "Tommy agreed, and right after that Coach called."

Polk also agreed, but Johnson didn't find out until he arrived at the ballpark he was going to throw a day earlier than expected. "Coach McNickle had talked with me a couple of days about maybe I'd be the third starter out," Johnson said. "But I was ready to pitch any time."

"He did well until the fifth," McNickle said, "(then) he mislocated and left some balls off (the plate)." The coaches hoped Johnson could get through six and let Pigott or perhaps another close things. But midway of the fifth it was obvious a change was needed and Weatherford was called in anyway. Three full frames later Pigott found himself pitching on the day planned, but at the opposite end of the game. "I was preparing for it, I was ready to pitch. But I knew Josh was going to pitch a good game so I wasn't worried about it. I figured we were going to win this game."

That faith helped because Pigott had to get State out of a jam in the eighth; and then he loaded the bases to open the ninth, putting the winning run on first base with no outs. McNickle said yes, there was thought of calling in a veteran closer like Brett Cleveland, but… "In that situation he pitched himself into a mess, and got out of it."

"I'm like greaaat!," Pigott said, "because I knew Asheville was team that feeds off energy, especially in the ninth. They just wanted a chance and I gave them that chance. I knew this was going to be a bear." But he did his job by rolling two ground balls to the second baseman, one for a double-play and the other to end the afternoon.

McNickle had hoped to not use Weatherford, who he said now cannot come back Sunday because after 30 pitches of his velocity a day-off is necessary. "It made us make an extra move, but we got the win and we get to play tomorrow." And who will the pitching coach give the ball Sunday? Pigott, he expects. "We're going to try to flush him real good and rehab him. He only threw 23 but they were an intense 23 pitches. He's one of the most diligent guys in getting ready."

Asked how he'll prepare for Sunday, Pigott laughed. "Sleep! No, just eat good and get some sleep and get prepared for tomorrow, mentally more than physically. I don't care (who State plays). It doesn't matter at this point of the year."

LONG-GONE BALL: Junior first baseman Brian LaNinfa has hit some solid shots this season, but home run #10 might have been the most important. In the top of the fifth inning LaNinfa saw a 1-0 fastball from Asheville starter Alan DeRatt that was supposed to be inside. It wasn't inside enough and ended up outside the park. Far, far outside, beyond both rightfield and the covered batting range. The most conservative estimate of the shot was 430 feet; locals had it at 450, though it was hard to judge if the ball actually cleared the far side of the slanted roof.

Regardless, it was a crushing blow good for three RBI and provided State's margin of victory. LaNinfa said he wasn't trying to go so deep, really. "I was just trying to get the runner in from third!" he explained. "I'm glad I got three runs on it, I just wanted to do everything I could to win that game." Actually in a sense he did almost everything offensively to win it, driving in all five Bulldog runs. He had a two-run double in the top of the first inning.

"We mentioned this morning in pregame we needed a hero," Polk said. LaNinfa certainly earned the Saturday title, though the coach couldn't resist a jab while discussing that blast with media. "Fortunately we got a cheap home run from LaNinfa in the fifth inning," he quipped. And later, discussing such a high, long shot, Polk said, "It makes his swing bad the next time." And indeed, the next time up LaNinfa popped his first pitch maybe 90 feet to the shortstop.

LaNinfa has hit a more productive homer this season, with a grand slam at Auburn. And for that matter this Regional shot might not even have been his longest ball of 2006. Those who were at the Friday LSU game in Baton Rouge saw him crush a solo homer over a 30-foot-high sign beyond their rightfield. "I think that one might have been longer," LaNinfa said. "I hit this one good, but that one I hit more to the gap and got more on it. It felt just as good, any home run feels good!"

TOP DOG SLUMPING: Nobody is going to take his first-team All-SEC or third-team All-America honors away, of course. Still it has not been a great Regional so far for senior shortstop Thomas Berkery, who has gone 1-for-4 and 0-for-4 in his two games. His only hit Friday was on a bunt-single. Saturday he reached on an intentional walk and scored on LaNinfa's homer. He has struck out three times.

"Berkery has had two bad days," Polk said. "But he's pressing, the scouts are up there, and he's jumping at the ball, pulling it."

Berkery had a 15-game hitting streak snapped Saturday. That string was only half the length of his single-season school record of 30 games compiled from March 3 through April 14. And while his average has now dropped to .384 in two days, that is still well in-front of the SEC batting competition. Going into the post-season his closest active challenger was Michael Campbell of South Carolina (.364 regular season) and Alabama's Emeel Salem (.362 regular season). Post-season stats do count in the final SEC standings. Thus Tennessee's Borbon at .366 is still second-best in the SEC but he can't help himself further.

Actually Berkery's hottest competitor if the season might become teammate Jeffrey Rea. The junior second baseman has raised his average to .363 and is in the SEC's top-five.

SMALL BALL, BIG TOPIC: In both Regional games, as well as a couple of times in the final regular season series with Ole Miss, the Diamond Dogs displayed an offensive aspect most had forgotten about. Specifically, the ‘short' game. State has been bunting both to sacrifice and for hits; not a lot, but definitely more than seen during the regular season.

Or at least that's the perception of fans and media alike, with regular MSU reporters asking each other in mock-ignorance what it means when a Bulldog batter holds the bat in front of the plate and shoves the pitched ball one direction or another. Polk doesn't find it quite so funny, or even accurate. The coach is not as dead-set against the short game as perceived. "We played like that in the first part of the season," he said. "But look at the scores." As in, all the scores in April and May when State either had a healthy lead or was falling behind by multiple runs.

"You can't steal much when you're down 2, 3, 4 runs," Polk said. "And why should I bunt when we don't knock guys in to begin with?" Which was an even sorer point given State's mid-season volume of runners left on bases. The current total is 529 for 58 games.

"People keep asking why you're not bunting, how many times did the other team bunt and not get the guy in. That's a statistic I always look at, I read a lot of books on statistics and bunting is not a statistically good thing unless you've got a great bunter up there and the next guy is hitting about .700 for the season." An exaggeration, of course, but the coach does have reasons for his bias. Even State's successful sacrifice in the sixth when Jeffrey Rea pushed Jeff Butts to second base with one out came to nought. "I bunted Jeffrey and shouldn't have, should have let him hit. We bunted Butts over and he stayed at second base."

A less-appreciated aspect of State staying away from the short game is that there aren't a lot of Dogs adept at playing that style. This is not an especially athletic team to start with. "And the only guys I can do much with are Hunter, Butts, and Rea," Polk said. "We can do some other things with other guys, but…" But, if that ‘other' means stealing bases, Polk is also concerned about injuries because slide plays are inherently risky.

Still, given their choice, some of those quicker-footed Dogs would love to do more of these aggressive things rather than wait for a big hit. Like Rea, the leadoff man. "I feel when we do that stuff—bunt, hit-and-run, steal—we do real well. It keeps stuff moving, you don't get on your heels, you stay on your toes. So I like to put pressure on them instead of them put pressure on us."

For the record, State has been trying to pressure the other side more often. Such as Saturday's first inning when Rea reached on an infield single. Ed Easley's grounder ought to have been a double-play and for much of the season would have, but Rea was running before the swing and it produced an error and two on base to eventually be driven in by LaNinfa.

"It felt like it was putting pressure on them because the pitcher made a bad throw, he tried to rush because I was stealing," Rea said.

State doesn't run often but Polk picks the spots well, as his team is 46-of-55 in steal attempts.

TWO ‘LEADOFF' MEN? Senior leftfielder Jeff Butts is having a good post-season, going 3-of-8 in two games. With a .325 average, fourth-best on the squad, the same question that arose last season is being discussed again: why is Butts batting ninth, where statistically he is bound to get fewer chances to swing than if he were in the top half of the order?

Butts has dealt with the question in the past and stated his preference for batting ninth, because he feels almost like another ‘leadoff' man there…and thus has a better chance of being scored by the top-half hitters when he does reach. Polk favors combining his best movers also. "I like him back-to-back with Jeffrey Rea. That's two guys on who can run a little bit."

Ironically, Butts has more RBI this year than runs scored, 43 to 35. And both are career-highs.

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