Tigers Take Series With 3-1 Sunday Victory

Mississippi State had hoped improve their status in the SEC's Western Division with a productive weekend on the home field. Instead the Diamond Dogs lost both a series and valuable ground, as visiting Louisiana State earned a 3-1 Sunday decision at Dudy Noble Field.

The Tigers broke a 1-1 tie in the top of the seventh on second baseman Nicholas Pontiff's two-out, two-run single, and relievers Shane Ardoin and Paul Bertuccini made that margin hold up. Bertuccini foiled Mississippi State's last-inning bid for a comeback by rolling a grounder and leaving the bases full of the tying and winning runners.

A crowd of 3,788 watched State fall to 25-10 and 9-7 SEC, with only their second lost series of this season. It still cost the Dogs dearly in the West with 13-5 Arkansas stretching their lead over both MSU and 10-8 Ole Miss. The Tigers (23-18-1, 8-9-1 SEC) stayed just in front of Alabama for fourth-West.

"Pretty unsatisfying," was 3B Conner Powers summation of the Sunday rubber game and series as a whole. "We'll come back, it's just disappointing."

Disappointing all around for the Dogs, who wanted to bounce back after letting a 5-2 lead get away in Saturday's 6-5 defeat. Instead State's league-leading offense was frustrated all afternoon, making good contact off three LSU moundsmen with only Powers' sixth inning solo home run to show for it. That came off starter Jared Bradford (7-2) who lasted 7.1 innings with no further harm off the other five safeties allowed. He struck out five with a couple of walks.

State starter Josh Johnson was even more efficient allowing only two hits and a run in the top of the fourth. The senior righthander, who had been down with shoulder tendinitis a week, showed no ill effects of a layoff by lasting six full frames with a strikeout and no walks. "My arm definitely felt the best it's felt all year," Johnson said. "The first time I haven't had to deal with pain. I felt good on the mound, I had command of all three pitches."

With both starters working well and quickly the game moved along smartly, until it became a battle of bullpens. And the Tigers held the slight edge there as relievers Ardoin and Bertuccini had a lead to protect. They did, with Bertuccini getting his third save of the season. The loss was charged to soph righthander Aaron Weatherford (3-2) as he was tagged for the deciding scores.

Even then it wasn't so much failure to pitch well that doomed the Dogs, it was unexpected lack of the sort of clutch batting that had been State's strength for so long this season. As Johnson put it, "We just didn't get the big hit when we needed it and they did."

Bradford deserved most of the credit. LSU had talked of starting another Sunday arm but changed plans without warning. Not that the home team was too surprised. "We knew Bradford was their best pitcher, probably," said Johnson. He proved it by slicing through five innings facing the MSU-minimum, yet without overpowering stuff.

"He's got a little zip," Coach Ron Polk said. "But he mixes it up with straight fastballs and curveballs. You can't dig in at the plate against him, that makes him effective." Bradford did give up a one-out single to SS Brandon Turner in the first inning but erased that on a double-play, and had three of his Ks after the third turn. Johnson was even sharper as he didn't allow a Tiger to reach through three, though seven of the nine outs were on air-balls and a couple of them dangerously deep.

"I kind of had a couple of scares, they hit the ball hard a few times and got it up. Luckily it fell good for me today." Until the fourth, that is, when order-topper Chris Jackson hit the centerfield wall for a leadoff double. Another fly ball moved him to third before designated hitter Blake Dean drove him in on a grounder to the first base side.

Johnson was tagged for another two-bagger, with two down in the fifth, which produced a short mound talk. One pitch and a ground-out took care of that. "Josh did what he had to do, give us six innings and he felt good," said Polk. Meanwhile Bradford was still having his way, rolling another double-play in the fourth to negate a bunt-single from Turner. The Tiger righty retired the fifth-inning side and was an out into the sixth with the one-run lead.

Until Powers saw a slider he liked on 1-0 and got every bit of it for a shot that carried two rows into the leftfield vehicles. It was his first home run since March 24 and State's first since the Sunday game at Arkansas. An infield single by 2B Jeffrey Rea and clean hit from Turner had a pair on before Bradford got C Edward Easley to ground out, stranding the pair and keeping it even through six.

Weatherford, in recent weeks a successful closer, found himself on the hill earlier this time as he replaced Johnson for the seventh inning. The move didn't work as well as hoped, though it wasn't the pitcher's fault at first. A grounder by leadoff batter Jared Mitchell was errored at shortstop and the runner bunted to second base. With two outs and the count 3-1 State chose to put Ryan Schimpf on first for free and set up forces.

This too backfired on the Bulldogs. Because a double-steal put both Tigers in scoring positions and brought up Pontiff, the mid-game hero Saturday with a two-run homer. The second baseman didn't hit it out this time but still got a pair of RBI as on 0-2 Weatherford came with a split-finger fastball. "That didn't split very much," Polk noted. Pontiff's bounder went right through the middle of the infield for a 3-1 Tiger lead.

"He killed us all series, he was real clutch," said Powers. "He had a real good two games and came up big for them."

Weatherford kept it there the last two turns with only a Jackson single in the eighth against his account, and that runner was deleted as Easley threw out his sixth Tiger of the weekend. But the Bulldogs couldn't make up the scoreboard damage done. A pair were on with two outs in the seventh with Bradford getting a routine fly-out.

Bradford began the eighth with a 3-2 walk of Goforth and Rea grounded him to second on another full count. So after 104 pitches LSU felt the time was right for change. Lefty Ardoin got south-side hitter Turner to ground out hard to shortstop, and with Goforth on third and full count once more Easley lined out to left.

The last home-team chance was more interesting as with two down sub-DH Brian LaNinfa drew a walk. With Michael Rutledge running State sent righthanded hitter Jet Butler to the plate for the matchup, and he walked on 3-1. Powers singled through shortstop, too sharply to risk a play at the plate but still loading all corners.

This was Bertuccini's cue, for a right-on-left matchup with Goforth. It took two pitches for a grounder scooped by the shortstop and flipped for a middle-force.

Unsatisfying, indeed. "Especially after Friday night when we put up 12 runs," said Powers, who had two of State's seven hits and batted .364 for the weekend. "But in the past two when we needed it we'd hit a really hard ball right at somebody's glove."

Polk wasn't dissatisfied with the work of either Johnson or Weatherford as they did limit LSU to only four hits. "It wasn't that we didn't pitch well, we just didn't get the hit at the right time. Tip your cap to LSU, they did what they had to do and now they're back in the picture."

Correspondingly, the picture is a bit more unclear for a Bulldog team that will still have a national RPI among the top-ten and be sitting second in the West standings. But with four SEC series left teams are jockeying for both conference seedings and post-season sitings, and Mississippi State failed to improve their stock in either category. This makes the upcoming five games, two at home against Southern Mississippi and a weekend visit to Ole Miss, all the more crucial.

Polk said freshman Tyler Whitney will start the Tuesday game with USM, with Wednesday TBA. He is more comfortable about weekend plans now that Johnson is over his sore shoulder and both Chad Crosswhite and Justin Pigott gave good starting efforts as well. Polk also expects DH LaNinfa, hobbled by a knee this weekend and missing two starts, to be full-strength for the midweek games.

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