"It's huge, it's something we really concentrated on this year," said senior 2B Jeffrey Rea. "In the years past I don't know if the intensity has been where it should be. So one of our goals we set earlier this season was to get the win."
A win earned by being a bit more productive at the plate. The Rebels (25-14) actually had a couple more hits with 16 safeties. Mississippi State (24-8) did a bit better job of bunching the batting, though, and cashing in on opportunity. Such as in the decisive fifth inning when the Bulldogs broke a 4-4 tie with seven runs produced off four hits and as many walks.
"It's been the same way all year," said 1B/P Mitch Moreland. "We do what we have to do to win, whether it's put up 14 runs or throw a gem. But as long as we're getting it done we're happy with it."
Moreland was certainly happy to be one of four Dogs with three base hits. He also had a pitching hand in the victory, recording the final two outs as the last of six MSU hurlers to toe the rubber. Starter Tyler Whitney got the victory by working the first four frames, in which he was tagged for ten base hits and charged with seven runs, five earned. Whitney (4-1) did strike out five with no walks before Coach Ron Polk let a series of relievers take their scheduled turns. All were needed in a 3:50 marathon as Ole Miss was not knocked entirely out of contention until Moreland got a called third strike to end the evening.
But the only pitching duel was which man, from which bullpen, would be on the mound when the game was decided. The unlucky loser was OM's Jesse Simpson, second of their six pitchers utilized. He was reaching the end of his stint with a tie score when State put the go-ahead runners on, and while a teammate let those Dogs score it was Simpson (1-1) absorbing the decision on three runs, three hits and a walk.
With 30 combined hits and a event-record 23 runs (breaking the mark of 21 set in State's last win, 15-6 in 2001) scored it was unfair necessity to charge any pitcher this evening. "Some games are pitchers' duels, tonight we brought the sticks and so did they," Rea said. "We just had a few more clutch hits."
OM starter Craig Rodriguez ran into near-instant trouble as after getting the game's first out LF Joseph McCaskill found the left-centerfield gap for a double. McCaskill had to check up until sure a soft liner by C Edward Easley had cleared the shortstop, and Polk stopped him at third base leaving Dogs on corners.
Moreland went for his first pitch and sliced it the opposite way into the leftfield corner for the first two RBI of the evening. SS Brandon Turner got a third as with the count even he grounded a single right through the box, also producing a mound conference. Rodriquez left Turner on base with a fly ball and called strikeout but trailed 3-0 after just half-an-inning.
State went quietly in the second, but the third time around also had the first-frame producers up again and McCaskill bounced a base hit between the middle-infielders. Rodriguez walked both Easley and Moreland to fill the bases, resulting in an early hook and righthander Simpson inheriting the no-outs jam. Turner got his second RBI with a single past first base, scoring McCaskill.
The hit was too sharp to send anyone else and Polk held Easley at third, but Moreland didn't get the signal and was run down between second and third. It hurt because DH Brian LaNinfa grounded into a double-play to end the inning, where otherwise the lead runner would have expanded the lead to more than 4-0. That path-gaffe loomed large in the bottom of the frame as the first two Rebels reached on near-identical fly balls into short right field.
A bunt attempt by nine-hitter Brett Basham only resulted in a force at third base, and when Jordan Henry singled through shortstop all stops were occupied. Justin Henry dribbled a roller that was just a tick too slow to turn into two outs, with only Jordan forced at second while C.J. Ketchum scored. Zack Cozart also slapped a soft one that got past first base for another run scored. And with the bullpen still empty, Whitney was touched for RBI singles from Cody Overbeck and Zach Miller.
The lead lost, and Justin Pigott starting to loosen up, Whitney was able to strike out the ninth batter of the inning and keep the tally tied 4-4 after three. And by simply surviving this onslaught the rookie would become a winner, benefiting from the biggest Bulldog inning.
Easley got it going with one out by watching ball four, and Moreland slipped a safety past the diving second baseman. Turner looked at one ball, then lined a single that landed a step in front of the rightfielder. Easley trotted in from third with the go-ahead run as Ole Miss went back to the pen for Justin Cryer.
But the righty reliever couldn't find ump Charles McElroy's zone and walked LaNinfa, 3B Conner Powers, and sub-RF Andy Rice in order, forcing home a pair of runs. CF Mark Goforth got his own RBI swinging, dropping a single behind shortstop to plate LaNinfa for a 8-4 lead. Then it was back to free-bases with Rea walking and Powers scoring.
"The scouting report was he threw a lot of balls and walks a lot of people," said McCaskill. "We had good bat discipline and took some balls."
Cryer and backstop Basham failed to hook up with a wild pitch letting Rice run home, and an errant throw by the catcher letting the other two runners advance. It mattered because while Easley flew out at the track, with Reb rightfielder Jordan Henry running down a great snare, it still let Goforth take the plate and give the Bulldogs a 11-4 lead halfway through the game.
Whitney had a run shaved off the margin though, by the top of the Ole Miss order. Consecutive singles put runners on corners and Cozart bunted his way on with the lead runner scoring. That was sufficient for State to hand Pigott the ball. One pitch produced a line-out by clean-up batter Overbeck, but a one-hopper off Miller's bat was booted at first for a run scoring error. And Pigott walked the bases full, still with only one down.
Fuller Smith's two-bouncer only netted a force of the middle runner with Cozart scoring, and Ketchum singled cleanly for a 11-8 score and Rebels still on corners. Fortunately Basham reached for the first pitch and grounded out to strand two teammates and leave the Bulldogs still in front after Pigott's assigned stint.
Greg Houston was handed the 11-8 lead to protect in the sixth, with the OM order starting over again and both Henry's hitting their ways on. Jordan took third on a fly-out to rightfield, and got no further as Houston rolled a double-play. In the bottom of the seventh it was Ricky Bowen's turn, but after a leadoff strikeout he put a pair on with a single and walk forcing Polk to go with Aaron Weatherford ahead of schedule.
The Rebels had already committed to a couple of lefty pinch-hitters for the eighth and ninth slots in their order. Weatherford got both of them, with a fly ball and called strikeout as the game passed three hours.
And after their only consecutive scoreless innings the Bulldog offense got back to business in the top of the eighth. Rea reached as his chopper was mishandled, and McCaskill barely missed going yard as his high drive hit the centerfield fence for a double and pair in scoring positions. Cody Satterwhite took the ball and got a harmless ground-out from Easley. But down 1-2 Moreland was able to slash a grounder past the drawn-in first baseman for one RBI, and a fly-ball to center by Turner brought in pinch-runner Nick Hardy via sacrifice for a 13-8 margin.
Powers reached on an error to open the ninth and scored on Rea's one-out, two-on single. Reliever Brett Bukvich walked the sacks full and left them that way on a pop-out and strikeout, so State settled for the final five-run difference. Even Weatherford wasn't immune to harm, as with one out in the eighth Justin Henry's drive got off the rightfield wall for a triple. He scored on Cozart's errored grounder.
But that was all as Weatherford struck out cleanup man Overbeck and flew out Miller to end the eighth. He started the ninth with a fly-out before Moreland was allowed to shut it all down. "It was fun to be out there at the end," he said. "It was just a great game all the way through. And we're happy to be on top."
The crowd of 8,012 also topped all marks, college or pro, at three-year-old Trustmark Park and erased the event record of 6,712 set at Smith-Wills in 1995. And by snapping the five-year losing streak State evened the event scoreboard at 14-14 with Polk's first win in it since returning to State. He had been 11-7 in the old Mayor's Trophy from 1981-97.
And if the coach was typically low-key, his upperclassmen were satisfied to finish their careers without being shut out in Trophy/Cup Games. "That was my first one," senior McCaskill said. "So I'm glad to win it."
After 17 days on the road, with six games played and three washed out, the Bulldogs return home and to official SEC play with this weekend's series against Louisiana State. Righthander Chad Crosswhite is expected to get the start in Friday's 6:30 opener. Polk said LH Pigott and RH Josh Johnson are back in the weekend rotation as usual for Saturday/Sunday.