"The players aren't used to being under .500," said Coach Ron Polk. "Neither am I." But after a 5-1 Saturday loss and Sunday's extra-inning setback, Mississippi State open April in a deepening conference hole. The MSU Bulldogs won Friday's opener 3-2 in, yes, ten innings.
But this time the other side made the right plays in overtime. After taking their lead in the top of the tenth Georgia turned the save situation over to ace closer Joshua Fields. The righthander was touched for a one-out double by RF Ryan Collins, but he rolled an out off LF Jason Nappi and made substitute DH Jeff Flagg miss on a high fastball for his sixth save.
Alex McCree, the fourth UG hurler of the afternoon, worked the eighth and ninth innings to be on-the-record when his offense got the lead and went to 3-1 on the season. Bulldog reliever John Lalor (0-2) took the loss, pitching the last 2.2 innings with four of Georgia's nine hits charged and the last to runs, both earned. He struck out two.
The outcome spoiled what was the day's best individual effort. After giving up a pair of runs in the top of the first, State starter Ricky Bowen was able to go into the eighth and depart with a 3-2 lead. For his 7.1 official innings Bowen struck out four, walked four, and allowed three runs on five hits.
"I thought as a team we played really well," Bowen said. "We had situations we could have capitalized on and didn't."
Georgia certainly cashed in on their opening opportunity as Bowen walked his first batter on full count, and gave him another free base with a pickoff throw that got past 1B Tyler Moore. A bunt moved Ryan Peisel up to third where he scored on Beckham's single to center. Beckham took off on the next pitch and SS Russ Sneed took his eye off Rich Poythress' grounder, letting it get under the glove for a bonus base.
Which hurt because Bowen made it a 2-0 game by bouncing a pitch past the plate, scoring Beckham from third. That brought pitching coach Russ McNickle out for a short but severe talk to the whole infield, and Bowen threw three strikes by Massanari.
"You never want to walk the first guy, it was a close pitch," Bowen said. "Things just didn't bounce our way, you have to shake it off and just throw the ball."
Which was how he went on to his best stretch of this young SEC season. He erased his own second-inning walk by picking David Thoms off first, worked through another walk and single in the third by the meat of UG's order, and survived a leadoff double in the fifth by sitting the next seven batters. "I didn't feel I had my best stuff today, the slider was spotty. The changeup kind of came through for me."
It took State an inning to get a gauge on UG starter Nathan Moreau as he shot the side in the first. The second was another matter, though it came with a cost. DH Cody Freeman turned his right knee fouling a pitch away but after a look-see was able to reach on a bloop single. 3B Connor Powers followed with a base hit through shortstop, and after Moreau advanced both by overthrowing his catcher Sneed pounded a RBI hit past the UG third baseman. A walk of C Johnny Allen filled all corners with one down.
Moreau coaxed a short fly-out from 2B Jet Butler that held all runners, and was 2-2 on Grant Hogue when the State centerfielder protected the plate with a nice, tight swing and a clean base hit over the second baseman. Freeman and Powers scored as Sneed made third. This left the middle bag open for league-leading thief Hogue to steal second, but Moreau kept it at a 3-2 score with a fly-out of RF Nick Hardy.
The UG starter was finished an out into the third inning after Freeman's second single, with Nick Montgomery taking the ball and stranding pinch-runner Jeff Flagg at first. Hits by Butler and Hogue in the MSU fourth came to naught, and Montgomery worked into the sixth. With two outs and Moore leading off second righty Dean Weaver was summoned to strike out Butler on three pitches.
Looking to bunt Beckham scratched out an infield hit—"a dribbler," Bowen said--to open the Georgia eighth, and after an out and a strike Bowen was lifted for Lalor. The reliever finished off Matt Olson and was 2-2 on Massanari when the UG catcher got enough contact for a fly that fell in front of the centerfielder to score the tying runner from second. Lalor went through the ninth unchallenged and was an out into the 10th when Beckham unloaded. "He got all of his," Polk said.
Poythress' ground-rule double into the MSU bullpen was almost as decisive, as he was able to double the advantage on Massanari's safety into center. The two-run cushion allowed Fields to shrug off a runner at second and come after Nappi and Flagg successfully.
"It was a good team effort, we were in there to win it and had a runner in scoring position in the last inning," Bowen said. "It just didn't fall for us." State matched Georgia with nine base hits, though eight were singletons while the other Dogs had the homer and a couple of doubles. Beckham was 3-of-4 hitting with three runs and two RBI.
Polk, who announced his resignation effective end of the season before the series, was not downcast by dropping a third-straight SEC weekend and falling farther behind the league pack. "I thought we pitched well enough to win two out of three, we only had two errors. But we just don't have the weapons." State played another weekend without lefthanded starter Justin Pigott, ace closer Aaron Weatherford, and 2007 leading hitter 2B Brandon Turner. None were dressed for this series, though Polk hopes to have at least Weatherford (elbow soreness) available for the upcoming trip to Kentucky after the junior threw bullpen with no pain. Pigott (shoulder) is out at least another week, and Turner is a day to day, week to week question with a chronic hamstring issue. "And now we don't know about Freeman," Polk said of the catcher/DH. "I've never had a guy hurt a knee just swinging."
The coach wanted to wait until Monday's staff meeting to settle on pitching plans for midweek home games with Austin Peay State, which will bear on how MSU also approaches the Kentucky series. And, by extension, the rest of this season. The Bulldogs haven't been this far behind in a league race so early in many years and remaining margin is scant already. Still, "I think we can sneak up on some people in the second half if we get everybody healthy," Polk said.
"There's a lot of positive things you have to look at," Bowen said. "The comeback win on Friday night was huge for us as a team. We pitched really well this weekend, we mashed them for hits yesterday and today. We just have to get a few little things going our way now, it's not the big things."