"It doesn't matter how it gets done," said DH Brian LaNinfa, who along with Moreland had one of the clutch two-RBI hits in the decisive seventh. "As long as we get it done and get the momentum back on our side."
Until the stretch all momentum was on the side of the Wildcats as they scratched out scores in four of their first six turns and led 5-1 going into the stretch. In a matchup of the SEC's two leading offenses (UK came in batting .357, State .356), former Bulldog slugger John Cohen had his squad manufacturing instead of mashing while starter Chris Rusin kept a leash on State swingers.
"There were two different philosophies going there," Coach Ron Polk said. "John is going one run, one run, one run, and he has the opportunity because everybody was on first base." In fact UK's leadoff man reached safely somehow in eight of nine innings. "And with the way Rusin was throwing I was saying John's probably right."
Until the seventh inning, that is, when Rusin ran out of steam and no Wildcat reliever could put out a growing fire. "The team made a great comeback," said MSU reliever Ricky Bowen. "Things were looking a little grim there early on."
Bowen benefited from the comeback to earn a save, throwing the last six outs of the evening with two runs off two hits. He didn't get a decision, though; that went to bullpen partner Greg Houston as he entered to get the last out of the UK seventh, strand three Wildcats and keep the margin at four runs. Houston may have only faced one other batter, walking the leadoff man in the eighth, but that one out resulted in his first college decision being a winner.
Aaron Weatherford started for State and worked five complete innings, allowing six hits and four runs with four strikeouts. Chad Crosswhite tossed 2.1 frames with a run on two hits and three walks, the last two left stranded by Houston.
"Pitching kept us in the game," said LaNinfa, and he was correct as despite giving up the first five runs and all those leadoff reaches Bulldog moundsmen never let things get entirely out of hand. Of course for most of the way it didn't seem Rusin would need much margin to protect either. "He had us off-balance," said Moreland, who was one of the more successful State swingers against the UK starter.
"He's a great pitcher," said LaNinfa. "He doesn't throw very hard but he hid the ball in his delivery and it was hard to pick it up." With that crafty approach Rusin got into the sixth with two hits and a lone run against him to that point.
Weatherford found faster trouble against UK's batting order, starting with a leadoff walk to Antone DeJesus. Mike Brown's two tries to bunt failed but infield ump Mark Chapman called a balk, both negating a fly-ball from Brown and advancing the runner. Brown punched the next pitch through shortstop for a RBI. A successful bunt put Brown in scoring position and with two down Matt McKinney bounced up the box that shortstop Turner could only deflect.
The State starter began his second turn also with a free pass, which meant a steal and one-out single from Brock Wright made the margin 3-0. The third time around it was a single, by Sean Coughlin, that put the leadoff man on with a bunt moving him along. A walk made it two on and one out when Ryan Wilkes lined out to rightfield. Coughlin bluffed a tag but was lax getting back to the bag and Andy Rice caught him for the twin-killing.
But Jason Kipnis opened UK's fourth with another leadoff single and after one ball to nine-batter Wright pitching coach Russ McNickle was ejected by plate ump Jack Cox for protesting too many similar calls. Brock Wright didn't wait to walk, pounding a grounder that ate up 2B Jeffrey Rea for a run-scoring error and 4-0 Kentucky lead. Weatherford was able to get through a two-out walk and bunt single in his final frame.
By contrast Rusin sailed through his first three innings with minimal challenge. A two-out double by Moreland in the first and one-out errored grounder from 3B Conner Powers in the second were his only issues until the fourth turn when both Moreland and LF Joseph McCaskill walked. LaNinfa and Powers both fanned but SS Brandon Turner won his battle with a clean single through the right side that scored Moreland. CF Nick Hardy hit it well also but a couple of more to the second baseman's glove hand so he could nip any real rally.
Crosswhite assumed the hill for the sixth and followed his predecessor's theme of letting the lead Kat reach, this time bottom-of-order Wright via plunking. Two outs later it seemed Wright would not advance further but a walk of Sawyer Carroll kept the inning going for cleanup-man Coughlin. His hot shot off the pitcher's glove reached outfield grass to score Kentucky's fifth run.
And Kentucky filled the bases in their seventh with a leadoff (of course) single and walks from Crosswhite. Houston got the call with two outs and rolled a slow grounder to third baseman Powers for the nice throw and out. It was the turning point of the evening though nobody knew at the time with Rusin returning to start the seventh.
His hit total was doubled as Powers and Turner each singled sharply. Seeing the starter losing something Cohen wasted no time calling James Paxton from the pen to face the bottom pair in State's order only to have Hardy walk and fill the sacks. State changed batters to let righthander Cade Hoggard face the southpaw. Paxton got the redshirt freshman swinging, but senior Rea was able to watch four balls go by to force in Powers.
Righthander Tyler Henry was sent to meet the meat in MSU's lineup and he promptly missed Cox's zone four-straight times, walking Easley and scoring Turner for a 5-3 tally with three runner still on bases. Cohen's hook came out once again with lefty Warner summoned to stop the bleeding. It didn't help.
"Once we got to the pen we focused better and started looking for some better pitches to hit," said Moreland, who on 1-2 got one he liked and sliced it deep the other way. UK leftfielder Kipnis took a bad angle, first across then back and got his glove up enough to let the ball go off it. Hardy and Rea scored though lead runner Easley had to hold up at second and Moreland settle for a two-run single and tied ball game.
Warner got a second out and was full-count to LaNinfa, but his sixth offering ended up bouncing to the right-centerfield fence. "I thought it was a fastball," the DH said. "One of the coaches said it was a slider, I don't know!" What was clear was that the runners had been moving so Moreland followed Easley all the way home to put the Bulldogs in front 7-5. Kentucky made their fourth mound-change of the frame with righty Brock Baber facing Powers, who had begun the frame a half-hour earlier. The third baseman blooped a single beyond shortstop, LaNinfa came on around, and Mississippi State had turned a five-run deficit into a 8-5 advantage.
"We made some good swings and put some runs on the board," Moreland said.
And the Bulldogs didn't delay utilizing the bullpen either. When Houston walked Carroll to open the eighth his place was immediately taken by Bowen. By good fortune Cox's plate suddenly widened with called strikeouts of the fourth and fifth Kat batters, then a fly-ball to strand the lone runner.
State was able to pad the lead with a pair in the bottom of the eighth. Hardy lashed a one-hopper down the third base line for a one-out double and Rea not only got the bunt down but turned it into a base hit and Dogs on corners. Easley singled in one run and after a grounder forced Rea short of third for out-two McCaskill chipped a base hit just over the first baseman for a 10-5 tally and yet another call to the pen. Colby Brown had the honor of ending MSU's offensive evening on one pitch and a fly ball.
Those bonus scores loomed larger when the Wildcats kept swinging in their last chance. Wilkes doubled and took third on a passed ball, so he could score unchallenged on a grounder from Kipnis. But it was Wright's high fly that cleared leftfield and the top of the UK order coming back up that had the home crowd antsy again. Bowen steadied to fan DeJesus and ground-out Brown.
"I think I was throwing all fastballs, until that last inning when I threw a few sliders," said Bowen, who in his last four outings has had two wins and two saves. Henry (0-1) took the relief loss for UK, but it was really a shared setback by the bullpen as four of the five relievers combined to give up seven runs. Eight Bulldogs hit safely with Moreland, Powers, and Turner all getting two safeties.
"We beat a good club tonight," Moreland said. "Hopefully we'll come back tomorrow and play ball again." Neither team will get much rest after the nearly four-hour evening game, as Saturday's contest starts at 2:00. State will start lefthander Justin Pigott.