The Bulldogs could afford to have some fun this evening as they pounded out an 11-2 victory over the visiting Golden Eagles. #17-ranked (Baseball America) State halted their first losing ‘streak' of the season, two games, with the home-field win and improved to 26-10 overall. Southern Mississippi fell to 25-17 with a modest midweek crowd of 2,606 watching.
Butler was in the lineup as designated hitter, with veteran Brian LaNinfa still sidelined by a knee problem suffered in a post-game locker room incident last Friday evening. He had come off the bench nine times previously with nine total at bats and nothing to show for any of them save a walk. But given a chance to start, the true rookie made the most of midweek opportunity. Batting in the nine-hole Butler led off the second inning with a single for his debut base hit, slugged the two-RBI homer in the fifth, and rounded out the evening with a ground-rule double in the seventh. And, he scored three times.
"It felt great," said Butler, though he couldn't decide what he was prouder of—the first hit or the first homer. "That's hard to say, it was good to get them both the same night!"
"Jet's going to have a great future here," Coach Ron Polk said. "It was nice to see him get a chance to play."
Seven other Bulldogs combined with Butler for 15 total hits, and 3B Connor Powers matched his teammate and freshman classmate with three hits while driving in a trio of runs. And they weren't the only true rookies with strong showings Tuesday.
Freshman pitcher Tyler Whitney put in a complete six innings to earn his fourth consecutive weeknight victory, and third over an in-state opponent. Whitney (5-1) matched a season high for both stint and strikeouts, with eight, while giving up four hits and a second-inning run. He walked three.
Whitney didn't try to take complete credit. "As many runs as our team is putting up it's hard not to win these midweek games," he said, after being staked to three scores in the first inning and single runs the next two frames. Still he did his part very well even when USM stacked their order with seven righthanded hitters against the southpaw.
"My curveball wasn't really there and I kind of knew that, I wasn't throwing it well in the bullpen," Whitney said. "But I was able to locate my fastball pretty good and had a pretty good changeup. They swung through a few pitches and I got a few strikeouts."
USM starter Jared Cavenaugh (2-1) took the loss, lasting three full frames with five runs on eight hits and a walk against him. He didn't strike out a single Dog. "He was throwing a lot of fastballs and curveballs early," Butler said. "We were just trying to see good pitches and hit them."
Cavenaugh struggled from his first pitch, a ball en route to walking leadoff Dog 2B Jeffrey Rea. SS Brandon Turner reached on a single for runners on corners and while he was forced at second on C Edward Easley's bouncer the lead man scored.
LF Joseph McCaskill's dribbler to shortstop was slow enough to leg into an infield hit and loaded bases, and on full-count Powers lined a clean single by the shortstop to plate Easley. CF Mark Goforth followed with a fielder's choice grounder with 1B Mitch Moreland crossing the plate for a 3-0 scoreboard as the USM bullpen got busy. Cavenaugh was fortunate to escape further damage as RF Andy Rice's drive was caught on the warning track.
But his second began with singles from Butler and Rea. First baseman Trey Sutton made a diving stab to keep Turner's grounder from getting through, with a force of the batter. Still that was as effective as a sacrifice getting both runners into scoring positions, and Cavenaugh plunked Easley in the back to again fill all corners.
So another fielder's choice grounder, this by Moreland, resulted in a Bulldog run with Butler scoring. It took an exceptional snare by shortstop Brian Dozier to keep McCaskill's hot hopper from getting through and hold the deficit at 4-1. The Eagles were fortunate it was that close as four other Dogs had been left stranded.
Powers was able to punch his grounder past the third baseman for a leadoff double in State's third, and Goforth surprised Cavenaugh with a drag bunt that the pitcher slipped fielding. This time a Rice fly to leftfield was good for a sacrifice RBI and 5-1 margin. Seven of the nine Bulldog batters already had a base hit to their credit.
USM righthander Leighton Davis took the hill for the fourth and worked around a bunt-single from Turner and walk of Easley. He had two down in the fifth before walking Rice, bringing up number-nine batter Butler. The rookie turned on his first offering from Davis and lined it just over the rightfield fence for the two-run shot and 7-1 margin.
"It was a fastball over the plate," Butler said. "I got all of it."
A one-out walk in the MSU sixth led to more trouble as McCaskill doubled to left-centerfield, with Moreland stopping at third base. It was a brief halt as Powers screamed the first pitch over the USM second baseman for a two-run single.
The Bulldogs kept expanding in their seventh at the expense of righty Ben Wade. Butler greeted him by one-hopping the fence for a leadoff double, took third on a Rea grounder and scored on a wild pitch. Walks of Turner and Easley allowed Moreland to get his second RBI with a double lined off the rightfield padding, scoring Turner for a 11-1 difference. It might have been more if USM centerfielder Jody Blount hadn't robbed Jeff Flagg with a grab above the fence.
Meanwhile Whitney was more than able to make use of the offensive support, striking out the first two Eagles faced. In the second inning he had two down and James Ewing on first, only to advance the runner himself with a balk call. Catcher Keith Winstead made it sting with his single into centerfield to put the Eagles on the board. A swinging strikeout kept it 3-1. Whitney ended his third inning with a strikeout and fanned two more in the fourth to strand a pair of runners.
The right-stacked order wasn't causing a lot of problems for Whitney. "They told me before the game, but actually I've had pretty good success against righties all year. I was getting good arm-side run and two-seam running away from the righties."
John Lalor took over for the seventh and with two down got in a bit of trouble as nine-batter Dozier singled and Sutton doubled into the leftfield corner. The lead runner was held and stayed at third as Turner made a nifty grab and better throw to end the inning. Lalor was sharper in the eighth, striking out the side, but he walked a pair in the ninth and with two outs Sutton got the other USM run on his base hit. A swinging strikeout ended the evening.
"Give our team credit, they came out swinging and continued to tack on a few more each inning," said Whitney. "It's easy to pitch like that."
The in-state foes are scheduled for a 6:30 Wednesday rematch at DNF, with Jared Koon (0-0) starting for State and Mike Cashion (2-0) for USM in a contest of righthanders. However weather will be moving through the area and Polk is hoping to avoid having a fifth rainout on the 2007 season.