Pigott Shuts 'Noles Down And Out

By any standard Justin Pigott is a sound, serviceable regular-season pitcher. But put him on the mound in the post-season and this southpaw transforms into something as special as the situation. "Playing in conference is really important," Pigott said. "But once you get into regional play there's nothing like that. And you've got to bring it."

Saturday night in the Tallahassee Regional, Pigott brought it. The junior made his fourth NCAA Tournament appearance his best yet, throwing seven-plus scoreless innings at Florida State as Mississippi State claimed a 3-0 victory over the top-seeded hosts in the crucial winner's bracket showdown. The second-seeded Bulldogs (35-20) advanced to the Regional's championship round and will play 7:00 Sunday against the survivor of a 1:00 game between FSU and Stetson.

Pigott's only task the rest of this weekend is to watch. But if the Diamond Dogs do win this Regional, the game-two starter will have played as big a part as anyone. Just the way he wants it in tournament time. "You work the whole year to get to this moment and you've got to bring it, if you don't you go home. I don't want to waste the opportunity for this team."

Pigott wasted nothing against the Seminoles. Before a mostly-hostile crowd of 4,088 he kept the home team at bay and for the most part off base through 7.0 official frames. He was touched for just three hits and while striking out only three ‘Noles he also walked just one. More to the matter, whenever someone did reach Pigott (6-6) and his defense had an answer. And it didn't hurt that his offense gave him a two-run lead in the top of the third to work with.

"We did a good job putting some runs up on the board early, and Justin did his job," C Edward Easley said. The three hits were the fewest hits for Florida State this season, it their first scoreless game in over a year, and first time the ‘Noles had been shutout in a post-season game since the 1992 College World Series. If praise from teammates is expected, FSU Coach Mike Martin put the performance in perspective. "That was just beautiful baseball," he said of the combined shutout by Pigott and closer Aaron Weatherford. "That was excellent pitching."

It had to be to match Florida State's Bryan Henry, the ACC's top hurler and a Golden Spikes nominee with a 14-1 record. The hard-throwing righthander lived up to reputation for most of his 8.0-inning tour and during a mid-game stretch was simply overpowering. "He was very effective after the third inning, he threw strikes," Coach Ron Polk said. Hardy struck out five Dogs with six hits and a couple of walks issued, as well as all three Bulldog runs. Travis Burge took care of a hitless ninth inning.

Pigott didn't so much dominate FSU's order, which had six righthanders and a switch-batter, as he did simply keep them under control. Once, that is, he got control of himself. "The first three innings I felt all over the place," he said, likely due to being well-rested for the first time in weeks. "I finally settled down in the fourth and kind of got into a rhythm. And we made some really good plays." His defense did; there were two fielding errors on the left side of the infield but none resulted in runs or rallies.

The game for both starters turned on the third inning. Hardy had issued a first-inning single to 2B Brandon Turner and walked DH Wyn Diggs in the second to no effect. But the third turn saw 3B Russ Sneed get his first crack at the all-star hurler and he didn't play around. "I was just trying to get things started," he said, and he did with a leadoff single. CF Jeffrey Rea followed with a double off the wall in right-centerfield, his 329th career hit and the MSU record.

Turner didn't wait either, putting his first pitch over shortstop to score Sneed, then Easley got a slider on the outer half and went the other way for a single through the right side. "I was just concentrating on hitting the ball hard the other way and getting the RBI." Rea raced home for the 2-0 lead. It could have been a bigger inning as with two out and runners on corners 1B Brian LaNinfa took off from first to try to draw a throw. He did and Turner headed home from third, but LaNinfa had stopped cold on the paths and was tagged out before the runner could get to the plate.

That missed opportunity to pad the margin loomed larger each inning as Hardy outed a dozen Dogs in a row. The closest brush with a base hit was a fly ball off LF Joseph McCaskill's bat in the seventh that the centerfielder lost track of. Shortstop Mark Hallberg made a remarkable run and near-blind grab.

But Pigott was just about as stout himself, retiring eight of the first nine faced with only a single against his account. "It was a little bit of everything but it always goes back to the changeup. I just tried to work off the fastball with the changeup and changing speeds." In the third inning, after State's offense had taken the lead, the defense had a hiccup as SS Jet Butler made a great diving stab only to throw wide of first base to put Tony Thomas on second base. Butler made up for it by fielding the following hopper and ending the inning.

Five outs later Pigott certainly seemed to hit the outside corner on 2-2 but didn't get the call and walked D'Vontrey Richardson. A 1-2 offering to Brandon Reichart to the same spot also was ignored by umpire Chris Coskey, and on 2-2 Reichart lifted a drive that looked sufficient to tie it up…save for the inblowing breeze that let it land in McCaskill's glove.

Pigott's crunch came in the bottom of the seventh. With an out and one on via his first allowed hit since the opening inning he was able to get a grounder and force at second. A slow roller was bobbled by third baseman Sneed for two on bases, and soon Pigott was full-count to Richardson after yet another 2-2 strike on the outer corner wasn't awarded.

"Coach (Russ) McNickle came to the mound to talk to us and said you know, this is where it's going to be, this is their run right here," Pigott said. "We knew we had to get it done." Richardson fouled off three pitches—"We were throwing everything we could at him,"--then on his 113th toss Pigott got him to bounce a changeup-away that second-sacker Turner fielded and threw in time.

And Sneed promptly rewarded the pitcher by banking Hardy's first offering, another fastball, off the scoreboard behind leftfield. "For some reason I thought it was going out off the bat, I didn't think about the wind." Easley nearly did the same but lofted his drive just a bit too high, so that it died on the track much like Reichart's earlier attempt. Still it was a three-run cushion Pigott took to the mound for the eighth inning. Weatherford had begun warming after the sixth so when Reichart led off with a gapper that McCaskill couldn't quite get to State wasted no time. Or even a visit as McNickle instead of Polk signaled for the change en route to the bump.

Weatherford arrived to meet the top of FSU's order, too. ‘Nole star Thomas was 0-for-3 against Pigott; he grounded right back to Weatherford for another out, though advancing the runner to third base. It didn't matter as Weatherford shot down Hallberg and got Buster Posey to ground out and secure Pigott's first shutout of '07. "I was able to set them up with a fastball and come back and throw some off-speed and a splitter, I got two guys on the splitter."

Weatherford was a bit wilder in the ninth, walking the leadoff man and falling behind 2-0 to the next batter before coming back for a called strikeout on pure heat. He kept firing the fastball—"And I had a good one tonight for sure"—and fanned the last two ‘Noles to end the evening.

"Justin and Aaron had to pitch very well, and they did," Polk said. "And we made some plays behind him. It all depended on who got the base hit, and we got a couple of good knocks."

Now Mississippi State is in the ideal position of watching the Seminoles and Hatters battle to see who gets to Sunday's 7:00 title game. Polk confirmed that righthander Josh Johnson will start. If another game is needed it is scheduled for 7:00 Monday. This win meant that State has started a Regional 2-0 for the first time since 2001, the last time a Bulldog team won the first-round tournament and advanced to the super regional round.

"I'm happy for our guys," said Polk. "But it's a long way to go, no matter who we play Sunday we still have to beat ‘em to get out of here. At the same time it gives us more cushion."

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