But with a 7-0 lead after four, and still up 9-7 coming out of the seventh-inning stretch, the Thoroughbreds seemed capable of spoiling State's sweep. The only ones unworried were the Diamond Dogs themselves. "We didn't have any doubt," said catcher Edward Easley. "The first two games we swung the bat well and we knew we had it in us. We just had to come out and get it done."
They did. Led by Easley's four hits and four RBI the Bulldog offense beat up on shaky Murray State pitching and scored runs—usually bunches of them—in a five-frame stretch. State caught up with a single score in the fourth and three-apiece in the fifth and sixth turns. But it was the eight-run outburst in the bottom of the seventh that secured the day and the sweep.
"We put together some hits and came out on top," said Easley. A total of 17 hits, including four doubles and a two-run homer by freshman Conner Powers. Most of that output was needed to offset a Murray State order that collected 14 safeties, a dozen of that off the first two Bulldog hurlers. Starter RHP Josh Johnson, working on a pitch-limit, allowed four runs on six hits in his three full frames, and RHP John Lalor another five runs on six hits in 3.1 innings of work.
Fortunately a call to the bullpen in the top of the seventh, after Murray State had broken a 7-7 tie, was both timely and correct. Righthander Rickey Bowen limited further damage in relief and then protected the lead gained in the bottom of the inning, in the initial action of his college career. "It was definitely worth the wait," the redshirt freshman said.
Bowen did get touched for a cheap single and RBI by the first batter faced as a Bulldog. If that bothered him it didn't show as Bowen got the top of the Murray State order to watch strike three and strand a pair. "I was a little bit nervous coming in with runners on second and third. But we've got a great defense and the good Lord took care of me out there." Bowen got the eight-inning side on a couple of ground balls around another strikeout to earn his winning decision, with veteran Chad Crosswhite mopping-up in the ninth.
Though there were 26 total runs scored things could have been worse and lasted longer than three hours with a wicked wind blowing nearly straight-out all day. Every moundsman was on his toes trying to keep balls from getting up in the air and out of the park. At first Murray State righthander Mike Perconte did the better job, getting through three scoreless innings.
"He was just mixing in all his pitches, he had a good 12-6 curveball and kept us off balance," said Easley.
Johnson got through his first two innings with no runs but needed to strand three Thoroughbreds along the way. The third turn brought up the top of Murray State's order and they had a read on the righthander by now. With two on and one out cleanup batter Jason Payton drove in Austin Swain, and after two were down Chad Allen dropped a double in the right-centerfield gap.
Two runs scored on that hit, and Payton came on around as James Akin singled for a 4-0 score before Johnson got an inning-ending strikeout. Righthander Lalor assumed the mound for the top of the fourth and had no better luck as a grounder was errored at third base. Swain singled cleanly, then Seth Hudson cleared the paths with a three-run homer.
"You give up seven runs early and it's not easy," said Polk. "I thought Josh was pitching effectively, then he made a mistake with first-and-third with a comebacker and he went to first instead of second for a double-play. They scored four runs from that. And John was pitching from the stretch, they got a chink hit and home run. It really wasn't a badly-pitched ball game."
And down 7-0 Lalor steadied and did what turned out to be the best thing possible in the situation. He kept the Thoroughbreds from immediately padding the margin more, retiring 10 of the next 11 into the top of the seventh while the MSU offense loosened up the sticks.
It began in the bottom of the fourth as SS Brandon Turner and Easley hit consecutive singles. A walk of 1B Mitch Moreland loaded the sacks with no outs, but State got just one run out of the opportunity. Perconte coaxed a grounder to the mound for a force at home and relay to first off DH Brian LaNinfa. That still left Easley on third and he was able to take home on a wild pitch for State's first score of the day.
And not the last off Perconte, as he was tagged for three more runs in the Bulldog fifth. With one out he nicked LF Jeff Flagg and number-nine batter CF Mark Goforth singled into rightfield. 2B Jeffrey Rea won his battle of nerves with the pitcher to walk and fill all posts. Perconte rolled a grounder to his first baseman off Turner, not sharp enough for a double-play though so LF Jeff Flagg could score.
Easley did damage with more authority, slicing a single into centerfield that plated CF Goforth and Rea. Suddenly the Bulldogs were within 7-4, and Perconte was done after getting a grounder to end the fifth frame.
Lefthander Matt McGaha was chosen to protect the lead and he could not. LaNinfa greeted him with a single, and 3B Powers followed with a no-doubt blast over right-centerfield for his second two-run shot for the weekend. McGaha did get a couple of outs but walked Goforth and balked him into scoring position. On 0-1Rea went inside/out to slap a single through the left side, with the leftfielder playing deep enough that Goforth could score standing for the 7-7 deadlock.
The Thoroughbreds weren't quite ready to let the game nor lead get away, scoring a pair in the top of their seventh. With one down a sinking fly ball by Jamie Leidolf fell just short of Flagg's glove. Allen used the opening to single the runner over to third base, then Akin one-hopped the fence for a double, go-ahead RBI, and Thoroughbreds on corners. Polk went to the bullpen for Bowen to take on the bottom pair in Murray State's order. "He's got good poise, and he's a sinker-ball guy," said Polk. "With the wind blowing out you don't want to have a situation with a three-run home run to lose the game."
The righthander did get ahead of Owen, only to have the batter fist a fastball-in just behind shortstop to score Leidholf. Ninth-batter Justin Yount sacrificed for a pair in scoring positions, but Bowen kept the deficit at two by slipping strike-three past Swain. By the time he returned to the hill he had a healthy lead to work with.
Easley, of course, got it started with a leadoff single and Moreland followed with a double for the tying runners on bases. LaNinfa thought he had put State in front with a high drive that didn't stay fair long enough. So he settled for a routine fly ball to rightfield that scored Easley and pulled the Dogs within one. Powers singled to rightfield for runners on corners.
Righthanded hitter Joseph McCaskill replaced Rice to swing on McGaha and two-hopped a grounder to the Murray State third baseman. Owen fielded the ball but hesitated, then settled for a throw to first base that not only let Easley score unchallenged but pulled his fielder from the sack for a fielder's choice.
Flagg was able to earn the game-winning RBI as he lashed a drive that fell fair down the leftfield line for a double. Only Moreland scored as Polk held McCaskill at third base, and playing things safe worked out just fine. Murray State called in lefty Anthony Stacy but he promptly hit Goforth, before Rea ripped a hit past the pulled-in shortstop to score McCaskill and Flagg.
Turner doubled in Goforth and in his second chance of the inning Easley delivered the clinching runs with a hot shot that hit the third base bag and bounded into leftfield and plated Rea and Turner for a 15-9 tally. For good measure the Bulldogs lengthened their offensive afternoon with some eight-inning scores, as McCaskill singled in Michael Rutledge and Cade Hoggard drove in McCaskill.
Crosswhite did give up a one-out single in his closing inning but erased that with a game-ending double-play.
"It wasn't easy," said Easley, "the first couple of innings were rough. We just had to keep battling, we knew we still had a lot of game left." More than enough to blow past these Thoroughbreds when it mattered and begin the schedule 3-0.
"We only make one error in the first weekend, which is good," Polk said. "And we swung the bat extremely well." Which is an understatement for a .466 weekend average and .678 slugging rate with four homers and 37 of the 40 runs driven in. Easley batted .769 in the first three games of his junior season with six RBI, the same total as LaNinfa. Those veterans are expected to hit for average and production.
But there were also strong opening weekends for others, such as Flagg who got his three starts due to the injured wrist of projected leftfielder Nick Hardy. All Flagg did was bat .625 with five RBI and a homer. Redshirt frosh Turner hit .500 in his initial college activity, and Powers .455 with a pair of two-run homers.
Despite the windy conditions all weekend State pitching posted a respectable .240 batting average-against and 4.67 ERA, and a strikout-to-walk ratio of just over 3:1. And as Polk noted there was only one errored ground ball in 101 chances.
The Diamond Dogs resume play Tuesday, hosting Mississippi Valley State at 4:00. Polk said true freshman lefthander Tyler Whitney will start the only midweek game. The coaches will take a few more days to settle the starting rotation for the coming weekend's Cadence Classic when State plays Troy on both Friday and Sunday, around a Saturday game with Michigan.