State Tops 'Noles 9-4 For Regional Crown

The evening started out as a slugfest with three combined homers and five runs scored in the opening inning. But make no mistake, Sunday night was a duel of pitching staffs. And with a stronger starter and better bullpen, Mississippi State took the measure of Florida State 9-4 in the championship round of the Tallahasse Regional.

With the win Mississippi State (36-20) claimed its first Regional title since 2001 and the first for Coach Ron Polk since he returned to Starkville. The Bulldogs await their next weekend's assignment, pending the outcome of the Myrtle Beach Regional. Host and #6 national seed Florida State's season ended at 49-13.

"It's a credit to our players, they played extremely well these three games," said Polk. "We pitched it well, we hit well and we played good defense."

It took all three to win the title game and avoid an all-or-nothing contest Monday. The Bulldogs hit the ball well enough to collect 14 safeties, played errorless defense, and most of all pitched just a bit better than the home team when it mattered most. And it really, really mattered to State's staff.

"We wanted as a team to get it over tonight," said starting pitcher Josh Johnson. "We didn't want to stick around and give them one more chance."

Thanks to gutty efforts from Johnson and a trio of like-minded relievers, the Seminoles didn't get a chance to force one more game. The quartet of MSU arms allowed six base hits, two of them for home runs which showed just how vital it was to limit FSU's opportunities. Though their offensive teammates were confident they could also do their part, even after Florida State slugged a two-run shot in the opening inning to get the scoring started.

"We never felt like we were down," said 2B Brandon Turner. "We felt we could get the momentum back and were able to do that."

Senior righthander Johnson deserved much of the credit to that mentality, though. His 6.0 innings matched his longest stint since mid-March, when he also got his last victory, against San Francisco. Coming at the pressurized end of an up-and-down campaign, Johnson (3-3) was rightfully proud of his victorious stint. He gave up all four FSU runs on five hits but walked just two and fanned six ‘Noles. The 18 outs was a full-night's work in this situation.

"Of course you want to pitch all nine, but realistically I wanted to give our team a chance for six or seven innings," he said. "It was just hanging in there and hanging in there." Long enough to turn it over to his ready-and-able bullpen. Ricky Bowen, Aaron Weatherford, and RF Mitch Moreland each tossed an inning and while none was awarded an official ‘save' that was exactly what they did.

"Everybody pieced it together tonight," said Weatherford. "It was a great team effort and a big win."

Seminole starter Danny Rosen took the loss, giving up the first six runs in his 2.2 innings on six hits with three strikeouts. Rookie reliever Matt Fairel took care of all but the last two outs, charged with three runs on eight hits with six strikeouts.

Johnson's opening wasn't auspicious. He got a couple of quick outs but just missed on full-count to Buster Posey, the call clearly aggravating him. A ball later cleanup ‘Nole Jack Rye, 0-for-8 on the weekend so far, skied a drive. "That's a pop-fly at Dudy Noble Field," said Johnson, but at Dick Howser Field it was sufficient to clear rightfield for a fast 2-0 lead.

"I knew I had good stuff in bullpen," Johnson said. "I just had to battle through that first inning and get out of it I'd be OK." He ended the first then retired the second-inning side with two strikeouts.

Fortunately Rosen's start was even worse as he walked CF Jeffrey Rea to lead off, and on 0-2 tried to finish off Turner too quickly with an outside fastball. His drive looked routine at first but kept carrying to clear the deepest part of left-centerfield and even the score up. Rosen came back with two strikeouts, then on 1-1 1B Brian LaNinfa turned on the fastball and hammered it out to right for a 3-2 Bulldog lead.

"Hit two runs in an inning and that's going to give you momentum," said Moreland.

Things stayed there for an inning, then FSU's Tony Thomas lined a one-out double off the fence in the top of the third. He stole on to third base and tied the game as Mark Hallberg singled through shortstop. Hallberg was on second with two outs and full-count to Rye; this time Johnson got the called punchout. "I struck him out on a changeup, that was a big part of the game."

The contest hinged on the Bulldog half of the third inning, as given plenty of help from the opposing pitcher State scored three cheap and crucial runs. Turner and C Edward Easley went down routinely, before Rosen loaded the bases on his own. He hit Moreland, walked LaNinfa, and wild-pitched both into scoring positions. For good measure on full-count he plunked LF Joseph McCaskill to give 3B Russ Sneed a chance to swing.

"I've got some runners on base but if I don't do anything it wouldn't help," Sneed said. "I was just trying to compete with the pitcher and he threw me a slider. I stayed on it long enough to squeeze it through the left side." The blooper fell behind shortstop and far enough in front of the leftfielder that Moreland and LaNinfa could score unchallenged, though the latter slid across just in case. "That was a big momentum-changer," said Moreland.

A single by DH Wyn Diggs was too sharp to score anyone so the sacks were re-loaded before FSU finally sent someone to the bullpen. Meanwhile Rosen went full to Jet Butler. The MSU shortstop dribbled one right back to the moundsman, who had the ball go off his glove for an infield ‘hit' and RBI with McCaskill making it 6-3.

Lefthander Fairel wasn't really warm but got the relief call anyway, inheriting full paths. He got Rea swinging. But in the fourth Fairel was tagged by Easley for a single, then a drive off Moreland's bat that got over the centerfielder's glove and to the wall for a RBI-double and 7-3 scoreboard. A two-out triple by Butler in the fifth did no harm.

Meanwhile Johnson was able to hang consecutive zeroes on the top line. He had a runner on third in the fourth and left him there with a grounder to second base. In the fifth LaNinfa's leaping stab robbed Thomas of a double.

"When Brian makes a play like that you know you're doing well," Polk quipped.

The sixth wasn't so smooth as with one down Johnson was taken deep for the second time by Rye, which got the Bulldog bullpen active. A two out-walk made for more tension before Johnson fanned Ohmed Danesh to get back into the dugout with a 7-4 lead and ended his night's work.

Bowen struck out his first foe but gave up a single to nine-batter Brandon Reichert and on full count walked Thomas. His reaction drew a warning from the ump and a chat with McNickle while Weatherford ran to the pen. Bowen fell behind 3-1 before a called strike, then deep fly that Moreland chased into the foul-corner for a sliding catch.

Still Bowen walked Posey on 3-2 to load the sacks for Rye, who nearly tied the game with a liner that sliced a step outside of the rightfield line. Bowen caught his breath and on 2-2 got the slugger to keep it on the ground, right to Turner to keep State ahead by three going into the stretch.

Weatherford held the margin despite a leadoff walk in the eighth. A couple of called strikeouts around a grounder to his glove stranded that runner. Then it was Moreland's turn. "I knew in the seventh I was coming in for the ninth," he said. And he inherited a larger 9-4 lead partly of his own expanding.

Fairel was an out into the eighth when Rea reached on an infield single. Turner and Easley followed with clean hits of their own to fill all posts, and Moreland took the first pitch curveball through the right side for a couple of RBI. "That took a lot of weight off my back," Moreland grinned. While much of the home crowd began leaving their last game of the season, righty Jimmy Marshall took Fairley's place to end the eight.

And Moreland made fast work of the final FSU frame on a deep fly ball, called strikeout of order-topper Thomas, and grounder to Turner. As his relay got to the first baseman's mitt LaNinfa raised his free hand with index finger to the sky.

"We got the job done right there," said Moreland, one of five Bulldogs with a pair of base hits and the team RBI leader with three. Turner drove in a pair and scored twice himself, while LaNinfa also crossed the plate two times.

Still with all the scoring, this was obviously a matter of which pitching staff had more stuff to throw by batters. "The game was crazy at the beginning," said Bowen. "There about the fifth inning it began to settle down into a little bit of a duel. Thankfully we had the big lead, our hitters came out and pounded the ball and it was easier to throw."

Four Bulldogs were named to the All-Regional team. Turner, Sneed, and Rea made the 11-player list and LHP Justin Pigott, the winning pitcher in State's crucial 3-0 Saturday victory over FSU, was voted Most Valuable Player.

Now Mississippi State returns to campus where they hope to learn Monday of where they will be playing the super regional against the winner of the Myrtle Beach Regional. Host and top-seed Coastal Carolina needs to take two from two-seed Clemson to win their tournament and automatically host the super round. If the Tigers take one more win they and State both have bids in to host, with the NCAA making that decision.

But for this night, the Diamond Dogs could celebrate one tournament title. "Coming in I knew this wouldn't be easy," Polk said. "But we found a way to get it done."

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