Weatherford Slams Door On Jags 5-1

Naturally Aaron Weatherford would have enjoyed a chance to do some pitching for the home folks. But the Mississippi State righthander was glad to settle for the next-best thing against his home-town team, leaving the bases full of Jaguars in the decisive seventh inning to preserve a 5-1 victory over South Alabama at Trustmark Park Wednesday night.

"It's kind of neat getting a chance to compete against them, be on the opposite side of the field," Mobile native Weatherford said. The winning side, too, as Mississippi State improved to 22-8 while South Alabama left Pearl 17-16. The Jaguars were actually the home team but had sold the contest, the second of a scheduled set, to Trustmark Park. So all but a handful of the 3,370 watching were Bulldog fans. And everyone had to wait for the seventh inning of the evening for any real drama, with State overcoming a 1-0 deficit with three runs in the top of the frame.

The bottom belonged to Weatherford, at least after the Jaguars loaded the sacks with nobody out. The sophomore dashed USA hopes by sitting three-straight to maintain a 3-1 Bulldog margin. For good measure he shot down the entire side in the bottom of the eight, giving Weatherford five strikeouts of six Jags faced. The other popped out.

"I felt good, I had my stuff working for me," said Weatherford, who until a dozen days ago had been a weekend starter. "It was good to get back out there and get after it." Weatherford didn't even mind not getting a piece of the official decision as first baseman Mitch Moreland threw the ninth inning, allowing a hit but no scoreboard damage.

Freshman Tyler Whitney was the evening's winner, working through six full frames with only the one South Alabama score—off a second-inning homer by Jeff Cunningham—allowed. Whitney (3-1) was touched for three hits but walked none and struck out a season-best eight. And right after throwing his last pitch his teammates put three runs on the board, making him the hurler of record.

"I knew with our offense we were going to score," Whitney said. "We've been doing it all year, I knew we weren't going to be shut down."

It took two-thirds of the evening for that offense to break through against USA starter Joey Doan. But after six scoreless frames the Dogs delivered, tying things up on a wild pitch from reliever Brett Turner and taking the lead on Moreland's two-run double off the same.

"That's the way it's been all year," said Moreland. "If we're down we don't feel any pressure. We're going to score before nine innings is up." State added lone runs in the last two turns just for insurance.

Whitney sailed through his first inning, but cleanup man Cunningham took his second pitch of the next frame over rightfield. Three more Jags made base, on hits or an error, through four though only one was stranded as Easley caught the others stealing to end innings. Otherwise Whitney was in control and retired ten of 11 to end his stint after 88 pitches.

"I was able to pitch off my fastball tonight," he said. "I was able to locate and get ahead of a lot of hitters and that's why I was able to get a few strikeouts."

But the one run allowed stood up into the seventh inning. State wasted a one-out double by SS Brandon Turner in the opening inning, and DH Brian LaNinfa's leadoff single in the second. Turner also reached on a third-inning error and stayed on first, while in the fourth 1B Moreland led off with a walk and worked as far as third before a strikeout of 3B Conner Powers. CF Mark Goforth was left on second base in the Bulldog fifth.

Not until the sixth did State put multiple men on bags, and when the Dogs did they went all-out. Moreland drew his second free pass, with one down, and LaNinfa slapped a single through the right side. On 3-1 to LF Joseph McCaskill the Jags looked ahead to the struggling Powers, talked it over and threw ball four. It worked as the freshman popped out behind second base, leaving it up to Flagg.

Doan had enough velocity left to get a ground-out to second base, keeping State down 1-0. Eight Dogs had been stranded already, five in scoring positions. Doan returned to begin the MSU seventh only to hit number-nine batter Goforth on the leg.

That produced the change, after 2B Jeffrey Rea fouled off a pitch, with lefthanded side-armer Turner taking the hill to face the top of State's order. The Jaguars were looking bunt but Rea executed the sacrifice anyway. Turner walked on four pitches and on 2-1 Easley took one off the shoulder to load the bases, again with one out.

Moreland didn't have to swing to tie things up as USA's Turner threw behind the batter for a wild pitch, scoring Goforth. Then on 2-2 Moreland did pull the trigger, doubling to left-centerfield for two runs and a 3-1 Bulldog lead. "It was middle-away and I just barreled it up," he said. The Jags let Turner strike out LaNinfa before calling in righthander Matt Peterson. He walked McCaskill before ending the rally on a grounder.

State put John Lalor on the mound to protect that lead. Only, David Doss greeted him with a hopper that got by third base for a leadoff double and Cunningham walked, putting the tying runs on. "I thought he got squeezed on a couple of pitches," Coach Ron Polk said. While the Dogs talked things over South Alabama sent Lance Heisler to the plate to bunt. It turned into a nine-pitch battle won by Heisler with a single into short rightfield that filled the bags with no outs.

The mess was handed over to Weatherford. He had missed a weekend turn at Arkansas due to shoulder soreness and had plenty of juice after the long layoff. "It definitely helped," he said. So did the opposition, as Weatherford had seen many Jaguars during his prep career in Mobile and even played for USA's hitting coach. Besides, he said, "A big situation like that it helps get the adrenalin going and it's easy to get in a groove."

Weatherford got Joel Collins to infield-fly on a split-finger fastball, coaxed a check-swing strikeout of Bill Kleinschrodt, and on 2-2 slipped another splitter past lefty pinch-batter Ryan McCrory to keep State in front. The scoreboard speedometer showed Weatherford throwing up to 97 mph which was definitely high, but the velocity was real enough.

"He's a max-effort guy," said Polk. Weatherford came back to shoot down the ninth, first and second batters in the eighth frame, two of the strikeouts swinging.

Substitute RF Andy Rice led off State's eighth with a single and was bunted along by Goforth. USA changed moundsmen again with third baseman Doss moving to the hill. His replacement on the corner, Russell Harben, made a great diving stop of Rea's grounder. But his throw was wide of first allowing Rice to come on around and pad the margin. And Rice had a hand, or bat rather, in State's final score as he singled in Nick Hardy (reaching via plunking) in the ninth.

State ended up with seven hits to USA's six, but the Jags committed three errors and the Bulldogs converted mistakes into a pair of unearned runs.

The scheduled series with USA was cut to one game as Tuesday's contest in Mobile was rained out. It was the second washout of State's season, but Polk said while he is working on a couple of make-up games it is not as much a priority now with State having a 7-5 conference record so far and a top-ten RPI.

The Bulldogs were to leave Starkville at 11:30am Thursday for Knoxville and the weekend series with Tennessee. As of now Polk expects to use the same rotation as in the successful series at Arkansas with RH Chad Crosswhite, LH Justin Pigott, and RH Josh Johnson starting the games. And having thrown 33 pitches this evening Weatherford can be used out of the bullpen as early as Friday if needed.

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