Actually it's only been three seasons since the 2004 Bulldogs broomed at Alabama, more than long enough a wait. This sweep is certainly sweet enough for a State team that at 31-12 and 13-9 SEC strengthened their status for both the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. The Dogs not only held on to second place in the Western Division and third in the overall league standings but gained some ground on Ole Miss and South Carolina, tied for fourth at 13-11. The Tigers (28-22, 7-17 SEC) fell further into the league basement.
"We talked about it, it's something we haven't done in a long time," said senior 2B Jeffrey Rea, a member of that '04 squad. "It's big to sweep this weekend because we dropped two (rainouts) at Tennessee and our winning percentage is all we have."
Rea was among the ecstatic Dogs waiting for Rice as he followed three teammates across home plate. Only one of the scorers really mattered, as 1B Mitch Moreland was on third base with one out and in position to score on all sorts of scenarios. Still Rice made the game-winner all the more magnified and memorable with his first collegiate four-run shot.
"I haven't hit many walk-offs in my life, let alone a grand slam," he said. "I'm still in awe." For that matter his only other longball this season was back on March 7 against Jacksonville State. This was a much more pressurized situation when he came up in position to break a 5-5 tie.
After Ricky Bowen, fourth MSU hurler of the afternoon, worked the ninth and left a go-ahead run on second base to keep it tied, Moreland opened the bottom of the frame with a single into rightfield. DH Brian LaNinfa missed on two tries to bunt him into scoring position, yet on 1-2 was told to try again and did it perfectly. With Moreland now on second Polk sent team-average leader Brandon Turner, unable to run on a pulled hamstring, up to try for a RBI. Auburn didn't bite, walking him and forcing Russ Sneed to pinch-run for Turner. Had the game gone into a tenth inning this would have created all sorts of lineup issues for State.
But Tiger reliever Brett Butts, now working his third inning, couldn't locate and walked 3B Conner Powers to fill the bases and put Moreland on third. This left it up to Rice just to get a ball into outfield somewhere. "Coach had faith in me," said Rice, "so I could go out and show what I could do."
Butts had walked Rice, a substitute in rightfield, in the seventh. But on 2-2 the Bulldog was swinging away. "I knew he was going to throw a fastball with bases-loaded, just being aggressive. He was working away pretty much the whole time, I saw a fastball and went with it." And the lefty hitter gave it plenty of ride to the opposite field, though at first Polk didn't know if it would carry.
"I yelled to Mitch to get back, the way balls had been dying here. So we stood there and watched it, I don't know how far it went out." By plenty, and not too far from where a certain grand slam hit in 1990 also landed. By pure coincidence Burke Masters was in the house to see this one, too.
Bowen (5-1) got the win for a one-hit, one-strikeout inning's work. He took over from Aaron Weatherford who ‘blew' his first save opportunity of the year with a tying Tiger run in the eighth inning. Still Weatherford's 1.0 official frame accomplished what had to be done as he scattered three hits with only the one score against him and struck out three. Two of those fannings ended the eighth with Tigers on first and third bases.
Starter Josh Johnson worked the first 5.1 frames with three runs on eight hits, three strikeouts and a walk.
Auburn scored lone runs in a trio of innings off Johnson. A controversial double in the second by Ross Smith scored Robert Brooks, and in the third a two-out hit by Andy Bennett drove in Joseph Sanders. The Tigers made it 3-0 in the fifth as Eric Skinner came home on Luke Greinke's base hit through the middle.
"It seemed every time they got somebody to second they scored," said Polk. "But Josh never gave up the big inning, that's how you lose a game."
Meanwhile AU starter Bryan Woodall was surviving six State hits with no damage done in four turns. But the righthander lost some control in the fifth. CF Mark Goforth walked to lead off and Rea singled into leftfield. A fly ball put Goforth on third base where he scored as Woodall threw a foot behind C Edward Easley's head. Another dirtball had Rea on third. Easley dribbled a grounder that the pitcher couldn't scoop in time for an infield hit, RBI, and 3-2 score.
Johnson's stint ended with one out in the sixth after an infield single and successful run-and-hit, as well as lax attention to second base on the throw-in, had Tigers in scoring positions. Reliever John Lalor made two pitches but the best strike was from Goforth, as the centerfielder caught Justin Bristow's short fly ball and got the ball back to Easley in time for a tag of Smith to end the threat.
The Tigers decided five frames was a good day for Woodall and gave Friday reliever Chris Dennis the ball for State's sixth. He gave Powers a one-out walk, wild-pitched the runner along, and saw RF Cade Hoggard's chopper die in front of the charging third baseman for an infield single and Dogs on corners. That brought Butts from the bullpen.
The righthander got Goforth to ground it back, with Butts holding Powers at third before getting out-two on the other corner as Hoggard ran to second base. But Rea used his trademark inside-out swing for a 0-1 single over shortstop and the tying RBI. Hoggard had to hold up at third. Rea was allowed to steal second without a challenge which came back to bite as on full count SS Jet Butler bounced a base hit through the four-hole for two runs and State's first lead, 5-3.
Lalor walked Eric Skinner to begin the seventh, only to coax a fly-out before Greinke lined out to Moreland for a snag-and-step double play. But when he walked Josh Donaldson to start the eighth he was lifted for Weatherford. Donaldson still scored as Sanders' pulled shot caught the left-field line for a double and RBI. And with one out Smith singled into rightfield, too sharply to test Andy Rice's arm. Smith stole second without a throw.
Weatherford fanned Brooks and got two strikes up on Bennett only to allow a 2-2 blooper a step too far behind second base for any of three Bulldogs to catch. Suddenly it was a tied game with the go-ahead Tiger on third base and still only one out. Weatherford steadied and struck out both Bristow and pinch-batter Philip Bianucci on split-finger fastballs to get the Dogs back into their dugout still even 5-5.
"It kind of got interesting there pretty quick," Weatherford said. "I didn't have my best stuff today but I was able to compete with what I had and get out of that." Auburn had one more chance to go in front as with two down in their ninth Donaldson dropped a double into rightfield. Bowen left him unscored with a fly ball to centerfield, setting up the last-chance heroics and home-plate party as Rice came around, no sacrifice required. "It lets me know that I've still got it, and something like this really helps."
"It was unbelievable for him," said Rea. "We all knew for sure it was going to get the run in, but we saw it going out and said ‘good gracious'!"
The Diamond Dogs had other things to say about winning the whole weekend and improving their post-season picture. State has two SEC series remaining on the schedule, at Georgia and against Alabama. Both are currently out of the eight-team field headed to Hoover and the SEC Tournament. Mississippi State is much closer to the other end of the SEC spectrum and hoping to stay there, even gain some ground in the remaining two weekends.
"The goal is go in strong to the SEC Tournament and hopefully host a Regional," Weatherford said.
SEC TOURNAMENT STANDINGS: (Team, SEC record, SEC%)
1.Vanderbilt 17-7 .708; 2.Arkansas 16-8 .667; 3.Mississippi State 13-9 .591; 4.Ole Miss 13-11 (beat S.C. 2-1) .542; 5.South Carolina 13-11 .542; 6. Florida 12-12 .500; 7.Tennessee 10-12 .455; 8.LSU 11-12-1 .479; 9. Alabama 11-13 .458; 10.Kentucky 10-13-1 .438; 11.Georgia 8-16 .333; 12.Auburn 7-17 .292.