LaNinfa didn't have a flawless day, but going 4-of-5 with a couple of doubles and reaching safely in all appearances was close enough. Besides the four RBI he scored three times, and each time Murray State took one-run leads—in the first and third innings—he pushed the tying teammate across.
"I was nervous my first at-bat," the senior admitted. In fact it was that initial appearance that produced his only ‘failure' as LaNinfa settled for reaching on a fielder's choice. Yet even that produced a run on an evening when about everything the lefthanded hitter tried turned out well. "I relaxed and just had fun and let my talent take over. It was a good win for us."
And a good way for Aaron Weatherford to begin his sophomore season. The righthander overcame his own case of opening-day anxieties to put in six complete innings, striking out a career-high eleven against four hits and two Murray State runs. Things didn't look so optimistic early as Weatherford walked the first three Thoroughbreds faced and gave up a run on an infield single. But he shook that one off, along with a RBI-double in the third, to take care of business.
"I was nervous, but it wasn't like my knees were shaking. I knew when I found it I was going to be on because I had good stuff in the pen. It was just a matter of time before I got in that groove and rolled with it." State rolled with the starter for 25 batters and the scheduled number of frames before getting some relievers into the action. That did open the gate in the eighth as Murray State cut a 8-2 lead down to three runs, with the tying batter at the plate and two down.
Righthander Chad Crosswhite was called in to keep things under control. He got that batter to watch strike three, then retired the side to end the evening and earn his first college save with two more strikeouts. Mississippi State pitching had all the support they needed from both offense and defense as no errors were charged. This was good news because Coach Ron Polk went with a somewhat-unexpected lineup.
Specifically, starting three-year second baseman Jeffrey Rea in centerfield; backup catcher Joseph McCaskill in leftfield; little-used backup Jeff Flagg in right; and freshmen Brandon Turner, Russ Sneed, and Conner Powers at second, shortstop, and third. Flagg was in because Murray State started lefthander Jacob Donze; the rest were in because Polk is still figuring out what defensive combinations will fit together best this season.
Reviews on this first grouping were positive. "We were 11-1 last year when we didn't make any errors," said redshirt Turner. "We didn't make any errors tonight and pulled it out so I guess we'll stick to that strategy."
Weatherford stuck to his own gameplan despite walking the first three batters onto bases in 14 pitches, none swung at. That rough start might have helped the excited soph get over his nerves, which were from excitement more than anxiety. "I've been looking forward to this, I'm tired of practicing!" he said. He got the cleanup batter to watch three called strikes, and after catcher Edward Easley saved a dirtball he punched out another Thoroughbred.
Had Tyler Owen's grounder been a bit sharper Weatherford would have gotten out with no damage; as it was the dribbler became a cheap single and run. A pop-out behind the plate ended the inning. State got that back immediately as with one down Easley singled to leftfield, and walks of 1B Mitch Moreland and McCaskill moved him to the third corner. LaNinfa's soft grounder did the same trick as Murray State had in the top of the frame, only it was to the right side. There was no chance to turn the double-play and Easley easily tied the score.
In the Murray State third Seth Hudson got the first real hit off State's righty, and Tyler Pittman followed with a drive over the leftfielder for two bases and a go-ahead RBI. That was all the ‘Breds had going for them for the next four-plus innings though as Weatherford retired three-straight on called strikeouts to begin an overpowering stretch.
"I was able to keep them off-balance," he said, mixing fastballs with much-improved sliders and changes and retiring 11 of 12 to end his stint. The last out came when he took the relay off a grounder to the right side.
The starter was able to leave the mound a winner, too, with a 6-2 lead. Like their first lead Murray State's 2-1 advantage did not last out the inning. But this time the Bulldogs not only caught up, they moved in front. Easley was again the tying run, leading off with a single and moving around on consecutive ground-outs. LaNinfa also got the tying RBI, this turn on a bounder down the line that stuck in the rightfield bullpen gate for a ground-rule double.
Flagg followed with a single that scored LaNinfa from second, no mean feat; and Turner drove a fly-ball double to the right-centerfield fence for a 4-2 Bulldog lead.
LaNinfa got to cross the dish a third time in the bottom of the fifth with two down, having doubled again into the right-field corner. Flagg delivered his second RBI with a one-hop shot the diving shortstop could touch but not stop. Flagg was lifted for Mark Goforth to run the bases…and he did, stealing second successfully as he often did last season at Birmingham Southern. When Turner fell behind in the count Goforth was sent for third. The throw skipped past the baseman and Goforth scored unchallenged for a 6-2 lead.
The seventh gave LaNinfa his chance to pad the numbers and stretch the lead, off Murray State righthanded reliever Drew Leeper. Andy Rice, taking over in rightfield, led off with a triple to the fence just left-of-centerfield, and LaNinfa singled him home for a third RBI. With two down and two on Powers lifted a fly ball for the sacrifice and 8-2 score.
Redshirt freshman Rickey Bown made his MSU pitching debut in relief for the top of the seventh and started out much as the starter had, with consecutive walks. No damage came of it. Junior lefty Jesse Carver took over for the Murray eighth and had more issues with a single and balk to begin and a two-out walk. Chad Aallen slipped a single under third baseman Powers' glove for a third Murray run, then Carver hit pinch-batter Taylor Thieke to load them up.
Austin Swain singled down the left-line for two RBI, pulling the Thoroughbreds within 8-5 with the tying batter coming to the dish. Crosswhite entered and shot down Hudson on three pitches to end the threat. And the Bulldogs were able to un-do most of the damage with a couple of runs in the bottom of the inning, aided by some small-ball tactics. Easley walked and Moreland singled, and both advanced as slugger Rice dropped the sacrifice bunt nicely. LaNinfa, of course, got an RBI with his single, and a ground ball by Goforth plated Moreland for the final margin of MSU victory.
"Everybody pulled their own weight tonight," Weatherford said, "from Turner ripping one to right to Andy Rice laying down a bunt for us. It was a team win."
Game-two is 2:00 Saturday. State will start junior lefthander Justin Pigott while freshman righthander Brad Rowland is expected to open for Murray State. Polk said with a righty on the hill Saturday, and also on Sunday, he plans to start Rice in rightfield, Goforth in center, and Rea in left with Turner still at second. True frosh Jet Butler, who pinch-ran in the last inning, could also see action at shortstop with redshirt rookie Sneed.