Late Longballs Key 4-1 Win Over Auburn

The Bulldogs could have settled for another one-run outcome in their favor. But with the score 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth Edward Easley put his right foot down and Mississippi State was able to put their collective cleats on Auburn in Friday's SEC series opener.

Easley and Mitch Moreland slugged consecutive first-pitch home runs in Mississippi State's final inning at the bat to turn a tight contest into a more relaxed 4-1 victory over the visiting Tigers. "There at the end we put two good swings on the ball and tacked on a lead," said catcher Easley as the Bulldogs improved to 29-12 and 11-9 SEC. Auburn fell to 28-20.

A couple of first inning runs was all State had to show midway through the eighth, and while that was still sufficient for a lead it left the Tigers too close for comfort. Easley, who provided the first score on a ground ball in the opening frame, was still hitless on the evening when it came his turn to lead off the MSU eighth. "My first three bats felt good but things didn't turn out. I felt I wasn't getting my foot down early. Coach reminded me, get my foot down and get a good swing on it. I happened to see a fastball and attacked it."

And whaled it over leftfield. 1B Moreland followed by smashing his first pitch from Tiger reliever Chris Dennis over the other gap and even deeper, giving closer Aaron Weatherford more than enough margin to work with in the ninth. And, making a winner of starter Chad Crosswhite.

"Our team got some key hits at the end, and when Aaron comes in like that he shuts it down," said Crosswhite (6-2), who had done a pretty effective job keeping the Tiger order down in his seven full innings. He allowed three hits and the lone run, in the fourth. His line, two strikeouts and a walk, wasn't impressive but the performance was as the soph righthander bounced back from a shelling one week before at Ole Miss.

"I was pretty nervous," Crosswhite said. "I didn't know how I was going to bounce back from last week, I was so embarrassed. But I just thank the Lord, it was awesome."

"He had all three pitches working," said battery partner Easley. "He located and kept us in it. And at the end we put some runs up for him." Tiger starter Evan Crawford (4-5) took the loss, going 5.2 innings with a couple of first-inning runs against him. He was hit four times, walked three and struck out three. Dennis was tagged for the two longballs in 2.1 total innings with a pair of strikeouts.

Crawford's start was rocky. A walk had 2B Jeffrey Rea on first when LF Joseph McCaskill grounded right back to the pitcher. His throw pulled the first baseman for a pair on, and both advanced into scoring positions on a passed ball. So a left-side grounder by Easley let Rea come home.

With two down DH Brian LaNinfa went behind two strikes before evening the count and lashing State's first base hit of the evening, a double to the left-centerfield wall for a 2-0 Bulldog lead. Crawford was able to shake it off, retiring the next eight Dogs and leaving both Moreland and Rea unscored in the fourth and fifth after their doubles.

"We jumped on him by an error and took advantage of it, but he did well to continue pitching and keep us from scoring," Easley said.

Crosswhite retired the side his first two turns, then saw five Tigers reach base in the third. None scored. With two on, via a leadoff walk and error at third base, the pitcher got two more balls hit to the left corner for consecutive forces on the bag. It could have been a third but 3B Connor Powers fired for first and too high, loading the bases. Number-three batter Josh Donaldson hit it well to center and Mark Goforth ran the drive down to keep it a 2-0 game.

The fourth frame was another matter as with one out Crosswhite was tagged for a single, then a double by Robert Brooks to score Joseph Sanders from first base. Crosswhite rolled consecutive grounders to hold a one-run lead. Another fielding gaffe, at shortstop, created further Auburn threats in the fifth with a pair on and no outs. SS Jet Butler made up for the error with a snag and force of the lead runner, then starting double-play.

It was a test of Crosswhite's confidence that he passed. "We had some errors but they kept saying just pitch through it and we'll get out of it. My fastball located pretty good, I was in-and-out more than usual."

"He had to work himself out of a couple of jams," Coach Ron Polk said. "We had a couple of breaks and put them in the hole a little. But Chad pitched well."

It was still a one-run difference in the bottom of the sixth. Crawford walked Moreland before leftfielder Luke Greinke ran down two solid drives by the middle of MSU's order. But when RF Cade Hoggard singled, this time dropping the ball in front of Greinke, the Tigers didn't hesitate to change moundsmen and righty Dennis got Butler to ground out.

After Crosswhite mowed down six-straight State also pulled the bullpen-trigger quickly, handing Weatherford the ball to take on the top of Auburn's order in the eighth. "I knew going in I had about 92 pitches, and it was humid today and my legs got tired," Crosswhite said. "My body's still not quite used to throwing that many pitches, I got tired and knew that was probably it."

With one down Weatherford struck out Greinke on a dirtball that got through for a free base. The baserunner either lost track of outs or thought Donaldson's deep drive was going out, because Greinke was nearly at third base when sub-LF Nick Hardy made the warning-track grab. A relayed throw finished the odd double-play and inning.

And just two tosses into the bottom of the eighth the Bulldogs had doubled their lead. Easley's first-pitch drive did clear leftfield, his 11th homer of the season; and Moreland followed with a deeper shot over right-centerfield for a final 4-1 scoreboard. "We just got the late hits we needed to get some insurance," said Easley.

"It was a well-pitched game by both teams, not a lot of hits but both teams did well and kept battling. And Aaron did a great job coming in to close it."

Polk had to adjust his game-one lineup for injuries, with regular starting SS Brandon Turner down with a hamstring and righthanded DH Jeff Flagg coming off a series of back spasms last weekend. Polk said Flagg could play this weekend yet, and might have to as other regular RF Andy Rice is having wrist problems and even latest starter Hoggard is not 100% physically. Turner is on the weekend roster but only for pinch-hit purposes if a fly ball is needed. "He can't run at all," Polk said.

Saturday's game-two will start later than usual due to graduation, with first pitch at 6:07 for the regional Comcast telecast. Lefty Justin Pigott (3-4, 5.43) will start for State while righthander Taylor Thompson (4-1, 4.99) is expected to open for Auburn.

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