Diamond Dogs Punch Ticket To Omaha

One of the last teams expected became the very first club to punch their ticket to Omaha. And it was the Diamond Dogs who did so, punching out Clemson 8-5 to win the Starkville super regional and earn Mississippi State a berth in the College World Series. "This is a college baseball player's dream, is to go to Omaha," said RF/P Mitch Moreland. "And we're getting to do it."

Mississippi State (38-20) will do it next Friday, when they take the field at Rosenblatt Stadium for the first day of the CWS against the winner of the Chapel Hill super regional. Game two of that tourney was being played between host North Carolina and South Carolina, with the Tarheels up a win. Clemson ended their season 41-23. A crowd of 13,715, the largest ever to watch a NCAA super regional game, packed Polk-Dement Stadium and shattered the record of 12,620 they'd only set Friday.

State was able to wrap up its super-round series in the minimum two days and avoid a Sunday rubber game. While game-two didn't feature the same sorts of big blasts and power pitching, the outcome was just about the same as Friday's 8-6 outcome. The host Bulldogs made the pitches necessary, hit the ball in the right places at prime times, and defended the field as required. Just as they have in all five of their NCAA Tournament games, in fact.

As LF Joseph McCaskill said, "We picked the right time to do it." So the Dogs will try to do it again as part of college baseball's elite eight in Omaha.

"I just want to make sure these guys know that we aren't done yet and that we're prepared to compete for a national championship," said Coach Ron Polk, who will be taking his sixth Bulldog team and eighth squad overall to Rosenblatt. And, he added, "I've been to Omaha five decades now as a coach."

But probably not with as unlikely a bunch as his 2007 Bulldogs. Or at least not a team that had lost eight of their ten games going into the NCAAs. "I'm sure some fans were starting to grumble, that's what fans are all about," said the coach. But once his roster recovered from injuries that triggered that slump, State was primed for the post-season run. "I said this was a ball club most people would not want to have at their regional. I hope the people at Omaha say they hope not to have to play these boys."

His boys certainly manned-up for the super regional against a Clemson club capable of crashing the Omaha party as well. "We all did great today," said Moreland. "It was the whole team."

In particularly it was a pitching staff that refused to be knocked out by an aggressive Tiger order. Starter Justin Pigott may have had more efficient outings this season but maybe never as tough a stint as the 6.0 complete innings tossed in the noontime heat. The southpaw struggled some with control yet limited the damage to the five runs on nine of Clemson's dozen hits, with a single walk and three strikeouts.

And with all that Pigott (7-6) also got the winning decision, thanks to opportunistic offensive support and some stout bullpen relief. "The pitching worked out very well," Polk said. Ricky Bowen got a couple of outs in the sixth, and Aaron Weatherford and Moreland combined to take care of the closing stretch. Moreland picked up his second save of the season by getting two tense outs in the last Tiger turn.

Clemson righthanded starter David Kopp (6-3) took the loss on just 1.2 innings, blowing a 2-1 lead and allowing a total five runs on five hits with two walks and no fannings.

"He didn't have the control he usually does," said McCaskill, one of three Dogs with a pair of base hits. "He threw hard, he had some sharp stuff, but right now we're just hitting the ball."

Kopp was shaky from the start, walking CF Jeffrey Rea on four pitches and giving up a single to 2B Brandon Turner. C Edward Easley gave it a ride deep enough to left that Rea could take third while Turner stayed on first. Just not for long; he took off for second as Moreland swung behind him and grounded to the right side. The run-and-hit worked as planned with the only play at first base while Rea raced home for a 1-0 lead.

Pigott had his own first-inning issues, loading the bags after an out with consecutive singles and a full-count walk of cleanup man Andy D'Alessio. A drive by Taylor Harbin reached the warning track so lead runner Wilson Boyd could tie the tally, then Doug Hogan lined a hit into center to score Marquez Smith for a 2-1 Tiger lead. Pigott had to throw 30 pitches to finish the opening frame.

That paled to Kopp's second-frame fate as he also filled all posts but with no outs. McCaskill bounced a base hit up the box, then 3B Russ Sneed's grounder along the same track was booted by the shortstop. DH Wyn Diggs twice squared and let both go by, then swung away and dropped a blooper behind shortstop.

Nine-slot swinger SS Jet Butler got the first really sharp contact of the inning, skipping his hot shot between the first baseman and his bag and on into the corner, scoring McCaskill and Sneed and putting State back in front 3-2. Kopp walked Rea to re-load the sacks. The pitcher was able to roll a double-play off Turner's bat but it was still just two outs and Diggs came on home. Easley went after the first pitch and hit it safely to leftfield for the RBI and 5-2 scoreboard.

And, a Clemson pitching change with Ryan Hinson taking the ball. The lefty did manage to stop the bleeding for a while, as Pigott scuffled through a couple of scoreless turns despite plunking the leadoff Tiger in the second and a one-out infield hit in the third.

"I was just trying to make adjustments," Pigott said. "Every inning out there was an adjustment, that's what you have to do when you don't have your good stuff." But Hogan led off the Clemson fourth with a solo shot to leftfield, and with one down 1B Brian LaNinfa made a great diving stop only to throw the ball into the MSU dugout. That put Addison Johnson on second where he could score as nine-hitter J.D. Burgess went full and doubled down the leftfield line for the RBI.

As Bowen jogged to the bullpen Pigott left the tying runner on second with a couple of fly balls, getting back in the dugout with a 5-4 lead through four. By the time he returned to the hill he had a couple more runs in his account to work with. Moreland led off with a double to left-centerfield and took third on a deeeeep fly from LaNinfa to the same area. With one out and the runner on third Clemson pitched around McCaskill before going back to the bullpen for P.J. Zocchi.

On 1-0 State showed the same false double-steal attempted at Tallahassee that failed. This time it didn't work either but McCaskill got back to first safely while Moreland stayed put. Sneed then ripped a double past the Tiger third-sacker who could only point, hopefully, at foul ground. It was fair and Moreland scored while McCaskill stopped at third. He didn't have to stay long as Diggs got his third RBI of the afternoon on a grounder to the right side, for a 7-4 score at the half-way point.

Pigott tossed his 100th pitch with two out and one on in the bottom of the fifth. That runner was there only due to a close call, as shortstop Butler again threw high to first and LaNinfa made the leaping save and seemed to tag Harbin. The initial out call was reversed immediately with no debating, though the grounds crew had to be waved back to the gate. Then Hogan dropped a Texas Leaguer between three Dogs close to the rightfield line.

Harbin was coming all the way but LaNinfa found the loose ball and fired a strike to Easley. "I didn't see the throw, it was just focused on getting behind the plate to backup," Pigott said. "But I was in the best spot to see the tag." A clean one that kept State in front 7-4 and allowed scheduled grooming to continue. Pigott came back for the sixth inning, with Johnson rapping a one-out triple and scoring on Burgess' grounder.

That was as close as the Tigers got. Three innings of warming had Bowen loose enough, but after an opening out he was hit by Smith and D'Alessio to put the tying runners on for the dangerous middle of Clemson's lineup. Harbin certainly made his bid for a lead with a high drive to deep left. Nick Hardy, subbed in just this inning, kept a bead on the ball as he ran for the wall. "When he hit it I thought it was out. The wind caught it, I was braced against the fence and was lucky enough to get my hand up and catch it." Inside the wall, it turned out.

The ball had barely got back to the infield as Polk crossed the line signaling for Weatherford. Three breaking balls for strikes ended this threat. "Aaron gave me everything he had," pitching coach Russ McNickle said.

Alan Farina had taken over pitching for CU an out into the seventh to strand Moreland after a double. He had a bigger, bases-loaded jam in the eighth and escaped with no damage again. But Weatherford wasn't letting the Tiger offense close the gap; instead State's offense gave some priceless padding in the top of the ninth as Hardy turned a Farina fastball into three bases on hard running—"I wasn't stopping at second," he said-- which paid off with Sneed coming up to bat in another RBI setting.

"I told him he could do it," said Moreland, who was also preparing to pitch in the ninth if needed. "He came through again." Because Sneed's pop-fly glanced off the charging centerfielder's glove for a RBI single and the final MSU margin to protect.

The Tigers didn't go down meekly in their last chance as the strike zone tightened up on Weatherford and order-topper Brad Chalk singled on full count to lead off. Weatherford got Boyd to watch strike three, then after going full again Smith drew a walk. That gave D'Alessio, with 17 homers on the season, a chance to tie things up. It also brought Moreland to the mound.

"I got loose in the eighth inning, they told me to be ready if D'Alessio came up." The pitcher won this battle as Moreland got the slugger to half-stroke a curveball that carried far enough to show what D'Alessio might have done on a full hack. Sub-RF Andy Rice had been playing back practically on the track already and made the easy catch as both runners held their bag.

Moreland finished the day and the tournament by getting Harbin to fan on a high fastball, setting off the championship celebration that lasted most of a half-hour. "I felt sorry for anyone on the bottom of the pile," mused Rea, who'd needed a bit longer than most to arrive at the mound from centerfield.

Polk will allow the players the Sunday-off they've earned to enjoy their victory; the staff and MSU administrators are already working on plans for the next and most meaningful round of their tournament season. It's old hat for the skipper of course, but a new experience for everybody on the 25-man playing roster. Old or new, the Diamond Dogs intend to make the most of this opportunity.

"It's our first time to go," said senior Rea. "And," he added with a look at the coach, "maybe we can get him his first Omaha win!"

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