There may not have been a more unlikely Friday offensive hero on State's weekend roster than Busby, who until this night had only seen right-handed relief duty in 15 games. But infield injuries and a late (regulation) game decision to pinch-hit for the starting shortstop meant Busby found himself, for the first time in college, taking his glove to the six-hole in the top of the ninth inning. Then in the first extra frame he got to face an opposing pitcher and register his first collegiate hit, a dribbled single to the right side.
When it came his next turn to swing the situation was much more intense as Tennessee reliever Rosas gave a one-out walk to Hardy and moved him into scoring position with an errored pickoff throw. An intentional walk of 2B Jet Butler and an unintended free pass of C Brooks Lewis meant the sacks were stuffed for Busby. Coach Ron Polk had him taking the first pitch, a called strike. After that Busby was on his own against the UT southpaw. "I was trying to be selective but not too selective and watch three strikes go by." Instead he saw something to swing at on 0-1—"I can't remember, I think it was a changeup," he admitted. There was no questioning the clean base hit between third baseman and shortstop to score Hardy and end the evening one minute short of 10:00pm.
"It was a great team effort," said winning pitcher Aaron Weatherford. "It probably was as much fun as we've had all year, the team was getting in the game and guys coming out of nowhere stepping up and doing stuff for us."
While his bullpen comrade might have balked at the ‘nowhere' bit, Weatherford was right in that State maximized a limited roster of fielders and batters to extend the series-opener and ultimately prevail in a nailbiter. "And we've lost our share of one-run games," noted Polk. Such as last Sunday's 4-3 setback at Alabama when, ironically, reliever Busby was saddled with the decision. The rookie's versatility more than evened that account this time around. "He's a good athlete," Polk said. "He had a tough outing at Alabama and probably thought he had a chance to redeem himself."
Only the day before, Polk had also said he didn't want to "burn" Weatherford in a tied game on Friday or Saturday. But with a 3-3 deadlock in the tenth the skipper didn't hesitate to call on his ace closer to keep things even. "I guess the truth comes out in the clutch!" Weatherford joked. "I was just glad I got an opportunity to get out there."
Weatherford (2-0) put in 2.1 innings with four strikeouts and one hit, and earned a successful decision. He showed his standard hard stuff but mixed in more off-speed pitches as the stint extended. "After an inning-and-a-third you don't go right them, once they've seen your stuff and how you work batters you kind of mix it up. I tried to keep them off-balance."
Rosas (3-2) was on the losing end with the deciding run on a hit, three walks, and a strikeout in 1.1 innings. UT starter Nick Hernandez went the first seven full frames with two runs allowed on five hits, and Danny Wiltz was charged with the tying run on four this in his 3.0 turns.
State starter Chad Crosswhite has had a tough April since returning from injury, but back on the home field the junior righthander was able to give a quality start of seven complete innings with just three runs on eight hits. That was exactly what Polk wanted to open a weekend, and Crosswhite got good support behind him.
"He didn't have the strikeout pitch," Polk said. " They put the ball in play and we made some plays."
Crosswhite overcame his early challenges, leaving Vols in scoring positions in the first three turns. A fly-out to center stranded runners on corners in the opening inning; in the second after a Sneed throwing error put threats on second and third with one out a pop-out and grounder negated both. And Sneed made consecutive grabs-and-throws to leave a runner on second in the third.
Meanwhile the starter got a lead to work with as CF Grant Hogue opened the evening at the plate by pounding the second pitch from Hernandez down the left field line. He had scoring position already but went on to third base on a misplay by leftfielder Griffin. RF Ryan Collins didn't waste time grounding deep enough to shortstop for the easy RBI.
That advantage held into the fourth when a walk, single, and hit batsman loaded all posts with no outs. Cody Grisham's fly ball to right field plated Josh Liles from third base to tie things up, then order-topper Kentrail Davis singled through the right side scoring Andy Simunic. In the fifth Griffin made it 3-1 by taking Crosswhite's 1-0 offering over leftfield for his 11th home run of the season.
For his part Hernandez shook off the first-inning run quite nicely, sitting 13 of the next 14…or actually all of them as a first-inning single by Sneed was erased on a double-play. The string was snapped in the bottom of the sixth when he hung one on 1-0 that C Ryan Duffy crushed over rightfield for a solo homer that put the Bulldogs within 3-2.
This just made the next two turns that much more frustrating. In the seventh Sneed led off with a ripped single to center, and when DH Cody Freeman tried to sacrifice his bunt bounced by the pitcher's glove for an infield hit. Only, 1B Tyler Moore watched a 2-2 fastball nick the bottom of the strike zone, before LF Jason Nappi bounced into an inning-ending double play.
It was even closer in the eighth as Butler's hot hopper glanced off third baseman Cody Brown for an infield single. State played for the tie and pinch-bunter Lewis—hitting for Duffy—executed his mission. Lefty Mark Goforth made the most of his matchup with a single, but directly to the leftfielder so Butler had to stop at third base.
Hogue's fly ball wasn't all that deep but Butler had to be sent in the situation. Charging rightfielder Josh Liles' throw was on-target and the tag came down as Butler slapped at the plate. From ump Paul Guillie's angle it was an out, though the replay shown later looked worthy of a real argument.
"It was close," Polk said. "I don't know how it looked up, from my vantage point I couldn't tell if he touched him or not."
The Bulldogs finally managed to push the tying run across in their last regular chance, as Collins laced a drive into the rightfield corner for a leadoff triple. An out later Freeman grounded hard to shortstop, where Grisham bobbled it just enough to have no play at the plate and Collins crossed unchallenged.
Having taken over in the eighth, Bulldog reliever John Lalor had two outs in the Tennessee tenth when Liles poked a fly ball in short leftfield, and was able to turn it into a double. Polk chose to walk Andy Simunic rather than let the second-sacker go for a fourth base hit, then change pitchers. With the count 0-2 to P.J. Polk, both runners stole a base farther along before Weatherford froze the UT designated hitter for a called K. With the go-ahead Vol on second in the 11th the closer fanned both Danny Lima and Griffin…the latter after a visit from pitching coach Russ McNickle that Weatherford didn't require.
"There was no discussion, I knew what to do!"
So did Busby in the field or at the dish. "It's awesome, I'm so excited right now. I'm jut glad I got a chance to play a couple of innings at shortstop this year, it happened to be tonight. Things fell my way." And now? "I'm ready to pitch!"
Busby might have to before the weekend is out. State will start RHP Ricky Bowen (2-4, 7.06 ERA) will open game-two against Vol lefthander Bryan Morgado (4-2, 3.22). With a chance of weekend weather there was some discussion of a possible Saturday twinbill to get the series in, but Polk—worried about the bullpen and thin infield depth—said the teams will stick to the usual schedule and take their chances. Either way, the MSU mindset was much better when the stadium clock struck 10:00 Friday night.
"You can't ask for a better team effort and better team win, and pump some life back into us," Weatherford said. "Because we need that right now."