In fact, 12,620 is only the seventh-largest crowd to watch a game at Dudy Noble Field, though the largest post-season gate by more than a thousand. "A lot of people are probably wondering who in the world we played for the sixth, for fifth, for fourth, for third..." Coach Ron Polk said. "I can remember those crowds. We've had some great crowds.
"But that was good, especially the people sitting out in the sun in the bleachers. Hopefully tomorrow it'll be a little cooler and we get some cloud cover. The kids are out there bounce around, it's the people in the stands we appreciate who made that commitment at 11:00 on Friday to be here and root the kids on."
Good? It was nothing short of great considering that there are no discount or special student tickets to NCAA play. And the Diamond Dogs noticed, though some not immediately. "I wasn't really thinking about it," said freshman DH Connor Powers. "The first time I realized it was my first at-bat (in the third inning). I stepped in, then I stepped back out and looked around and I was like…whoa!"
Starting pitcher Chad Crosswhite knew something big was happening sooner than his younger teammate. "Oh, I noticed the crowd as soon as I stepped out of the dugout. I noticed big-time! It was awesome, the crowd was unbelievable. It'll be awesome tomorrow."
JOINING THE PARTY: Saturday should indeed be another ‘awesome' day at the park with all the potential to move the attendance-bar another notch. Mississippi State is making 1,200 more tickets available to the general public, though they are only good for standing room with no promise of even a view of the action. Not that this will prevent some folk who couldn't get out of Friday commitments from joining the fun.
A number of fans, many with no intent of coming to the games, are openly complaining that State isn't going to sell even more SRO ducats, or just continuing to turn the stiles until 15,000 or so can be reached. The University has good reason for caution, though. The outfield area was nearing practical capacity already even for folk not interested in actually watching the game, with increased potential for problems. Particularly with the outfield rigs which are not the most stable platforms around.
Besides, the MSU Ticket Office has already turned in a heroic effort in the three-plus days—and nights—leading up to the first game. Staff members were still on the job at 1:30 a.m. Friday and some worked similar hours the previous day/night to take care of both chairback re-orders and general public sales.
IN A FLASH: The noon-time temperature of 90 degrees was naturally irrelevant in a packed park, with humiture readings of triple-digits and the wind blowing the wrong way for fans and pitchers alike. Yet Dudy Noble Field dodged a bullet, or lightning rather, in the middle innings. An isolated storm veered off north of campus, hitting the back windows of the press box with a few sprinkles only. But with two outs in the Clemson seventh inning lightning flashed in the storm's center.
Play continued with the out recorded. After the game it was learned the strike had indeed been within the eight-mile limit that would trigger an automatic cessation of play, had anyone known at the time. Fortunately there was no other lightning noticed other than off Bulldog and Tiger bats, and all thunder was provided by the home fans.
NO COINCIDENCE: Mississippi State's win today was the first for a Bulldog team against Clemson in NCAA Tournament action in five tries. It was also the first time the teams had played a post-season game in Starkville.
GOT THE POWERS: Powers could be forgiven his lack of early-game attention to anything other than his task. The redshirt freshman was making his first start of the post-season and in the new role of right-handed DH. He had started every regular-season game only to lose his job at third base for tourney-time. Not that he argued the decision.
"At the end of the season I kind of tanked, I played real bad and there's no other way to put it," Powers said. He meant with the glove, though errors—official or otherwise—in the field also took a toll on his hitting. He did make a pinch-hit appearance in the SEC Tournament against Ole Miss and twice at Florida State with nothing to show for it. But those at Tallahassee saw these outs in a more encouraging light, as did Powers.
"I got a couple of days off and made a few adjustments in my swing, and started feeling really comfortable in batting practice." Polk said the adjustment was just moving the hands down the handle a bit, nothing big. Batting practices the last two weeks showed Powers was getting his touch back, too. "He's been swinging the bat good," Polk said. Good enough that when making out his lineup card with two right-handed DHs to pick from, the skipper took Powers over slugger Jeff Flagg. It obviously worked out well as Powers hit his eighth homer of the year but his first since April 22, and he did it going the opposite way.
"I guess DH helped me out today because all I had to do was hit," he said. "If I try to pull it I usually ground it over to the shortstop." And Powers didn't mind at all as new 3B Russ Sneed handled both his fielding chances routinely. He was even able to laugh during the post-game interviews when, seated next to his coach, Polk's cup of water got knocked over. "That's what he's been doing two or three weeks!" the coach quipped, rudely.
More seriously, said Polk, "Connor understands the situation. I'm sure he'd like to play every day but he wants to contribute and he got the opportunity and took advantage of it." Besides, the coach added, "He still loves me!"
GOOD CALL: The timing wouldn't have been posited by a scriptwriter. As RF Mitch Moreland came to the plate in the bottom of the sixth inning he was being drafted, in the 16th round by Texas. In fact his father got the call from a Rangers rep just before Moreland slugged his clutch two-run homer that tied up the game 5-5.
"I found out after the game was over," Moreland said of his selection. "Actually one of the grounds crew guys came over and told me, I guess he'd been talking to my Dad in the stands." And had he heard the news earlier it wouldn't have mattered as much as the moment did with State down 5-3 when he cranked the shot to centerfield. "We kind of needed some runs after that three spot (by Clemson in the top of the sixth), we had to get the crowd back in it to help us out."
Afterwards proud papa talked to several media members about the moment and the call. Moreland appreciated the timing, but "I guess it's just coincidence."
GOING, GOING, GONE: Moreland was as surprised as anyone that his sixth-inning shot did get out of the park. Off the bat it looked like solid contact but only sufficient to send the centerfielder back a few strides. Then the Tiger kept running, and running, then slowing as his glove-hand dropped as the crowd's volume exploded.
The thing was, Moreland really didn't get his best cut at the offering from Tiger lefty Daniel Moskos. He slightly checked the swing before continuing, trying not to strike out on a clever pitch. "It was kind of a slider a little low and I barreled-up," Moreland said. "I guess the wind picked up a little bit and carried it out of the park." It was his second homer of the post-season (Moreland had a shot against Stetson last Friday) and ninth of the year.
With the wind blowing either straight-out or slightly to rightfield all day, and at quite a brisk pace at that, the makings of a slugfest were there for this game. Clemson responded by hitting three longballs for four RBI, while State got as many ribbies on the two-run shots from Powers and Moreland. "The ballpark played somewhat short today," said Polk. "The home runs were more than you thought they would be against good pitching. I thought Mitch's ball didn't have enough carry but it seemed like it had some backspin. Connor got all of his, and boy, (Clemson's) Andy D'Alessio got everything of his. But it was a lot of home runs."
CRAMPING HIS STYLE: Meanwhile the pitchers got no help and all-hurt from the wind, which was from the wrong direction for any cooling or for comfort, fence-wise that is. State starter Crosswhite likely didn't help his physical cause by working as fast as ever, with that trademark quick wind-and-fire and not too much time between tosses. The soph righty did guzzle fluids at every chance but by the sixth inning the cramps had come.
"My leg locked up on me," he said. This after he'd thrown a ball-one following a two-run homer that gave the Tigers a lead. Crosswhite tried to shake it off and keep going. "The goal was to get to 18 outs." He missed it by three, finished after five-plus. "It was pretty hot out there. But my leg just kind of gave out on me." Fortunately the Bulldog bullpen didn't give up the day, though LH reliever Jesse Carver did allow the Tiger who'd gotten that ball-one to slug a solo homer for a 5-2 Dog deficit at the time. John Lalor and Aaron Weatherford were able to hold it there and secure the victory.
Earlier in the affair Crosswhite had another problem with his footing, when in the top of the second and pitching to Taylor Harbin he took a pratfall. It had nothing to do with cramps or conditions. "My cleat caught the ground and I just fell!" Crosswhite admitted. "Of course I got up and my dugout was laughing at me and I had to laugh with them."
RIGHT ARM FOR THE SITUATION: Lalor wasn't laughing when he took the field in the sixth with Clemson having stormed back in front and another runner on first base. But the righty reliever limited the damage to what had been done, striking out the seventh and eighth batters around a pick-off from C Edward Easley. Lalor had thrown 1.2 innings against Stetson in Tallahassee the week before, but this was something altogether different.
"I haven't gotten to pitch in that environment too often, twelve thousand people," he said. "It was an incredible experience." And the third win of his season, too, as Lalor kept the Tigers off-balance for his stint with placement over power. "I can't sneak a fastball by anybody," he said. "I decided I was gong to change up, throw my breaking ball and just get those over for strikes and work the fastball around the plate. It worked out."
GOTCHA!: It might have been a turning point of sorts when Lalor got the big assist from his battery mate, as Easley caught Doug Hogan leading off first base a bit too aggressively. Easley had tried to pick Tigers earlier and this time he bagged one, clearing the paths for Lalor to end the inning on a whiffing.
"Ed's good at it, he's quick with it," said Polk. "It was a bang-bang play but that was part of the sequence where you feel you need to get outs."
"It's definitely big to get a free out in an inning," Lalor said. Crosswhite would have seconded the notion after Easley gunned down Hogan in the second inning on a more typical steal attempt, and by two steps at that. It was the 29th runner Easley had caught this season, the highest total in the SEC. Of those, 24 have come since April 3.