The teams had met in the first game of the first day in this tournament, with the Phoenix winning 5-4 and knocking State into the loser's bracket. Two days later these were very different teams and the outcome entirely different. Bulldog batters jumped all over depleted Elon pitching for their dozen runs in the first four innings, including a five-run burst in that fourth frame which essentially settled the outcome.
"It's nice to play a game you feel good about," Coach Ron Polk said in the short break between games. "We put the ball in play and things happened."
Good things, for the eight Bulldogs who tallied a base hit off frustrated Phoenix hurlers. Six State batsmen tallied multiple hits, with second baseman Jeffrey Rea, shortstop Thomas Berkery, and first baseman Brad Jones all notching three safeties. Berkery and Jones each had a double, and while DH Brian LaNinfa only hit safely twice both were productive. He had a two-RBI single in the second inning, and a two-run homer in the fourth.
"He's been a hot hitter," said Polk of LaNinfa, who now has nine RBI for the Regional with two homers. Jones' day at the dish was impressive in another way, as the senior was batting in the ninth spot. He responded with two RBI and two runs while helping set up leadoff Dog Rea to drive in a pair and score twice himself.
What Polk liked best about the offensive effort was the timeliness of the early RBI-knocks Five of State's first six runs and eight in all came on hits with two outs. "We got two-out hits, which we haven't had in a long time," the coach said.
With so much early offense Justin Pigott was able to make the most of the starting assignment. "Run support is great!" said the sophomore lefthander, who wasn't too bad himself in a must-win situation. Pigott had expected to start Saturday's game with North Carolina Asheville, only to end up being the closer in a 5-4 nailbiter. He threw 23 pitches in 1.2 stressful innings, but Pigott had no hesitation about being give the ball for a (for real) start.
"It's a Regional, this is it," Pigott said. "That should prepare you. I was just trying to give us a quality start and a chance to win the ball game."
He did his part, putting in eight full frames to earn the afternoon victory and improve his record to 7-1. Pigott's line read three runs, all earned, on five hits. He issued no walks while striking out seven Phoenix, and in five of eight frames he sat the side.
In fact, given the certainty of at least one and hopefully two more games for State to pitch through, it was somewhat surprising Pigott didn't get to toss his third complete game. The man himself wasn't insulted, he was relieved to be, well, relieved by righthander Trent Hill after a tougher afternoon than the stats showed. "I was glad to get through seven," he said. "I saw my pitch count and was like ohhhhh-kay! So I just went out with everything I had left. Nine would have been a struggle, I'm kind of glad Trent finished up."
Hill went three-up, three down in his inning.
Elon also chose to go with a pitcher who had worked Saturday. Freshman righthander Steven Hensley didn't just throw against Clemson, he started the game but lasted just a third-of-an-inning with 26 pitches and five runs charged. Still the Phoenix wanted the Southern Conference's top rookie pitcher to take on the Bulldogs.
It didn't work out. Hensley lasted 1.2 innings this time, absorbing six runs (earned) on six hits with a couple of walks and one strikeout. He ended the season 6-5 with two losses in short Regional stints. Still, as the first three of six relievers who took care of the other innings got beaten up also, the decision to go with Hensley was reasonable enough.
Pigott looked sharp from the start, as he retired six-straight. It was deceptive, he reported. "The first three innings I didn't feel real well, I didn't have command of some things. It was just one of those days you have to grind it out."
Fortunately the MSU offense made pitching less of a grind, making contact early and often on Hensley. Rea led off with a single and third baseman Ed Easley crunced a grounder that one-hopped into his counterpart's face for a fielder's choice. Having seen LaNinfa's Saturday power the Phoenix essentially put the Dog DH on after falling behind in the count.
But Hensley also got down 3-1 to rightfielder Mitch Moreland and fed him a fat fastball. Moreland pounded it through the middle and Rea came in for the first run. LaNinfa held at second, but a pitch later he was rounding the corner and heading home for a 2-0 lead as catcher Joseph McCaskill took Hensley the other way for a RBI single. Moreland tried to stretch his luck a base and was thrown out at third.
The Phoenix freshman was already showing frustration in his first inning. In the second Hensley threw better but with no luck. A walk of leftfielder Jeff Butts had one on and one out with Jones up and with Butts running he reached for a low offering and sliced it through the right side for a pair on. After a talk with his coach Hensley got ahead 0-2 on Rea, but the State second baseman fouled off another strike and watched a dirtball get far enough away for Butts to take third.
Rea then went opposite-field to score the lead runner and leave a pair on base. Elon could have kept it down to 3-0 as Easley popped out and Berkery fell behind 0-2. But the senior broke out of his weekend slump by singling through the left side to score Jones. That finished Hensley with Jesse Lewter taking over. The lefthander had gotten Friday's winning decision over State, but on 0-1 to LaNinfa his catcher was distracted by both Dog runners on the move. Chris Rembert let a straight fastball go off the top of his mitt so both got into scoring position without a play.
LaNinfa took advantage with a single dropped into rightfield for two more RBI and a 6-0 Bulldog lead.
Those extra runs came in handy soon as Elon hung three on the board in the top of the ensuing inning. Ryan Addison led off with a drive that carried the leftfield corner for a home run, his eighth of the year. "A ‘Kentucky' home run," Polk called it. But the eight- and nine-batters followed with a single and a double sliced just over first base for two in scoring positions.
Order-topper Adam Weaver got around on a Pigott pitch and one-hopped it over the third baseman, maybe six inches fair. With the two-RBI double suddenly it was a 6-3 game and still no outs, which earned Pigott a visit. But it was not to critique the pitcher, and nobody was up in the bullpen. "Coach (Russ) McNickle just talked about the situation, the bouncing hits that just happened," Pigott said. "I made some good pitches that didn't work out, he said minimize it and let's get out of this right now. That helped me re-focus."
He did, striking out the third- and fifth-batters around a grounder to the mound by cleanup man Robert Rodebaugh. And MSU's offense was able to offset some of that momentum by producing a run in the bottom of the third. With one out centerfielder Joseph Hunter singled and Jones sliced a drive that fell barely fair down the rightfield line to score the runner all the way from first. A walk of Rea finished Lewter with Lance Cole coming in to end that inning on a line-out by Easley and double-off of Rea.
But Cole, a soft, semi-sidearm thrower, got crunched in the fourth. Berkery led off with a double and on full count LaNinfa lined a shot off the batting range building, his second homer and ninth RBI of the weekend. Moreland doubled and with one out Butts walked, bringing yet another righthanded reliever from the shrinking Phoenix bullpen. Chad Tilley got a pop-out of Hunter but Jones again swung on his first chance and singled for another RBI. Rea and Easley followed suit with run-scoring bse hits, expanding the lead to 12-3 after just four frames.
"That's why those three runs weren't that big," said Pigott, who could just go about his business for four more scoreless turns. "Justin is a great pitcher to throw against Elon, an aggressive ball club," Polk said.
Elon did get a couple on base via Bulldog fielding errors in the fifth inning with no damage. A two-out double in the seventh meant nothing and Pigott mowed them down in his eighth before taking a seat. "He did a good job with two strikes and changed speeds," Polk said.
As of 7:30 rain was still coming down at Kingsmore Stadium and gametime was tentatively being set at 8:30 if the weather broke, as expected. Polk said after the first game that Brett Cleveland would be the starter against Clemson. The senior righthander would be making his 70th career appearance but his first college start if that plan holds.