Tide Slams State 4-3 In Series Opener

Mississippi State took care of one crucial piece of business Thursday…or rather, had it taken care of for them, as losses elsewhere around the league locked up a Bulldog berth in next week's SEC Tournament. That was about the only positive news of the night, though, as Alabama handed State a 4-3 loss at Dudy Noble Field.

Third baseman Alex Avila slugged a grand slam homer in the fifth inning to back up a full-route effort by pitcher Tommy Hunter as Alabama open the final SEC series of the season successfully. The Crimson Tide improved to 30-23 and evened their league record at 14-14, leaving them a win short of earning a SEC tourney with Kentucky's loss to Auburn. That same game was also all State (32-17, 14-12) needed go be assured of a place in the eight-team field, though LSU losing at Vanderbilt would have achieved the same purpose.

But it still wasn't the way the Diamond Dogs wanted to get it done. "Obviously we're really disappointed," said SS Jet Butler. "Things didn't work out tonight. It's good to know we're in but we were hoping for a big win tonight."

Nor did the modest MSU crowd see anything to celebrate. Only 2,779 were at Dudy Noble Field, the smallest group to watch a series-opener of the season.

But even the home folk had to appreciate Hunter's performance as the husky righthander hurled 144 pitches for a second complete-game win. Hunter (7-4) held the Bulldogs to only five hits, striking out just six but only walking one batter and hitting another. And twice he left tying runners in scoring positions, including in the crucial fifth frame when State managed its only true threats.

"He was just getting ahead and hitting his spots," said Butler, who had the best contact off Hunter with his solo home run in the fifth inning. "His slider and curveball were pretty good pitches, he was throwing a changeup but it wasn't as good as the others. He just pounded the zone and hit his spots."

State starter Crosswhite (7-3) took the loss, working four-plus innings. Had the righthander stopped at four-full he would have left with a shutout. But in the fifth he loaded the sacks for Avila to clean. Crosswhite's line listed eight hits allowed with three walks against seven strikeouts.

John Lalor took care of 4.2 official innings with no more damage done on two hits, three walks and three strikeouts in relief. Ricky Bowen was called in to get the last out with the bases loaded in Alabama's ninth.

Crosswhite had to deal with a pair of baserunners in each of the first three innings. He left them on corners in the first with a strikeout of Del Howell, and after a couple of two-out hits in the second C Edward Easley picked Greg Paiml off first base. In the third frame the top of the order was back up and two quickly reached on a single and shortstop's error.

"I kind of struggled early locating," the starter said. "They had six lefties in the lineup, I kind of had my work cut out for me." Still this time he struck out Avila, and with both runners going 2B Jeffrey Rea made a great grab of a grounder headed to the hole that not only prvented a run but produced an out at first. Tide DH Howell was up and on 1-2 tried some gamesmanship by calling time with the pitcher already in motion. Crosswhite steadied, smoked Howell with a fastball, and shouted as he left the mound. "We got out and I thought we were going to do pretty good."

State's first score came in the second inning as DH Brian LaNinfa led off with a double into the leftfield corner. LF Joseph McCaskill advanced him with a grounder to shortstop, and 3B Connor Powers came after his first pitch with another bouncer to the left side. LaNinfa was moving on contact and crossed unchallenged.

1B Mitch Moreland's one-out double in the fourth came to nought so it was still a 1-0 game in the top of the fifth. Not for long, though. Nine-hole hitter Paiml doubled past third base and Emeel Salem drew a walk. State expected the bunt and Powers was in but he simply froze on Brandon Belcher's bump towards shortstop, letting the runner reach and load the bases with no outs.

Avila had a 2-1 count when he lined a shot to rightfield. "I didn't think the ball had a chance, it just seemed to go," Polk said. All the way out for a grand slam and 4-1 lead. "I left a changeup up and he put a good swing on it," Crosswhite said. "It was just one of those things." A walk of Bentley ended his evening.

Lalor did his part, though after rolling a one-pitch double-play he walked a pair on. "I thought he kept us in the game," said Crosswhite. A fly ball ended that inning and Lalor retired another eight-straight before a walk in the eighth. He got Paiml looking to strand that runner.

The Diamond Dogs were able to chop a pair off their deficit before the fifth inning was out. With one down SS Jet Butler lined the first chance over rightfield for his second homer of the season. Hunter then hit CF Mark Goforth on the shoulder for a free base with the top of MSU's order coming up, and in his third chance against the starter Rea was able to bounce a single between the diving middle-infielders. Goforth gambled and made third without a throw.

With starting DH Brandon Turner unable to run the paths on a bad hamstring, lefthanded hitting Wyn Diggs got to swing for the RBI. He delivered, though had Rea not been running on the pitch the grounder to second would have ended the inning before Goforth scored. Rea stole third base but Easley watched strike three to leave the tying run aboard.

It mattered because Hunter responded to that rally with his best work of the night, sitting the State side in the sixth and seventh turns on routine fly balls and a couple of called strikeouts. Not until the eighth did Alabama even send someone to the bullpen. Even when Diggs reached on his one-out single to rightfield all the Tide coach did was talk, not hook.

Easley covered pinch-runner Michael Rutledge with a swing and ground-out to first base, but on his 122nd pitch Hunter fanned Moreland. Meanwhile Lalor ran out of gas in the ninth with a couple of base hits around two outs. Righthander Bowen walked the bases full on four balls before a called third strike to Brandon May.

Hunter sealed his victory with a ground-out, fly-out, and line shot by Powers snared on the run at the leftfield track. "He didn't dominate us, but we just didn't get enough guys on base," Polk said.

The Bulldogs have lost five of their last six games and three-straight SEC outings, leaving a deflated locker room. "It's kind of downright now because the last couple of weeks we've had it rough," Crosswhite said. "But we've got to pick our heads up and keep going."

It is all the more important because while the SEC Tourney load was lifted Thursday, pressure of the NCAA sort is building at schedule's end. Mississippi State is still quite confident of a bid; what is slipping from Bulldog paws is their hopes of hosting a first-round Regional. "We've lost a lot of close ball games," said Polk, "early in the season we were winning them. We're in the SEC Tournament now but we'd like to win these next two ball games." And if State does they can still somehow win the Western Division title, as long as Arkansas loses twice again to Ole Miss.

"We've got to come back and do it all again tomorrow," said Butler. "We'll come out and play as hard as we can and hope for the best."

Friday's game-two (6:30) will pit Bulldog lefty Justin Pigott (4-5, 5.04) against Tide southpaw Miers Quigley (4-6, 4.46).

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