Not that Mississippi State's skipper was officially around to watch the finish. Polk was ejected, as per SEC rules, for protesting a ball/strike call in the top of the seventh. Specifically, a full-count ball call that walked in the first run of Tennessee's decisive inning. Afterwards the coach also did not come to the press box for either the post-game radio show or to meet media. "He felt it was best for him to not comment," said assistant Coach Tommy Raffo who stood in for his boss. It was Polk's fifth ejection of a season in which he now is assured of his most losses ever as a head coach in any of his three programs.
Polk missed out on the worst of the seventh, along with his team's best efforts to come all the way back. Not until Tennessee designated hitter and relief pitcher Jeff Lockwood grounded-out Bulldog pinch-batter Jeff Flagg with a runner at third base could the Vols secure the split…which is how the series could very well end given the threat of more rain on Sunday. Dudy Noble Field was already wet from Saturday morning showers and while the infield was dry standing water in the outfield would literally come into play for both teams.
Game-two did little good for the ERAs of either staff with 21 runs scored on 20 base hits. The day's tone was set with homers off consecutive pitches by Vols Josh Liles and Kentrail Davis in the opening inning, a cushion Tennessee never lost. Those shots came at the expense of State starter Ricky Bowen who still managed to turn in over six innings of work; a bit more than his counterpart Bryan Morgado even. The difference was the UT lefthander got more support at the right times and his bullpen could be used more judiciously.
"Both starters were up in pitch count," said Raffo of the decisive seventh inning when each hurler surpassed 100 pitches. "Obviously we didn't get to Morgado soon enough, and they had the window open and they got to us. You can say how it opened, that's fine, but it opened." That comment being as close as anything a coach would say about the day's controversial call.
Morgado (5-2) even emerged a winner on his 6.0 official frames, allowing three runs (two earned) on four Bulldog hits. He walked three but struck out eight. Reliever D.J. Leffler wasn't credited with any innings while giving State three runs on no hits, and Steve Crnkovich was tagged for two more runs on two hits before Lockwood ran out the afternoon.
Bowen went to 2-5 on the year with his loss, taking nine runs on seven hits with six walks and a couple of strikeouts. Yet Bowen was doing what a short-handed staff needed by eating up the first six innings and getting to the seventh with a 5-3 score.
"I knew coming in that going extra-innings yesterday and Aaron Weatherford's arm being taxed and John Lalor throwing so much, at the very least I had to give us 18 outs. I tried to get as many quality outs as I could." It was yeoman's work, too, despite the gloomy, damp setting balls were jumping off bats. And, "I'm sure y'all noticed all day, you get two strikes on a batter and very seldom were people called out," noted Bowen. "And very seldom were any Volunteers called out." There were only three strikeouts of Tennessee batters, all swinging.
Liles and Davis were certainly swinging on Bowen in the first inning, each turning on pitches for solo homers. "I left the balls up in the zone a little," the righthander said. A three-run second was keyed not by a deep shot but a wet baseball as with a runner on second base Danny Lima singled through the right side. P.J. Polk might have scored anyway, but when the ball literally stopped in a puddle perhaps 20 feet past the infield RF Nick Hardy had no chance of getting to it or making a throw home in time.
Nine-hole hitter Cody Grisham's bunt became an infield single for two on with still one down. State 2B Jet Butler might have forced Grisham at the middle-bag on an Andy Simunic grounder but bobbled the catch and had to go to first base instead. This meant two runners in positions to score when Butler simply let a slow roller off Liles' bat get under his glove. Two innings in and Bowen was down 5-0 already.
"But you reset your mind to go back out and try to take care of business. I settled down and I did for a while." A good while in fact, retiring ten of the next eleven which allowed State to leave the bullpen empty.
A Volunteer error in the bottom of the inning that got State on their own scoreboard. Morgado opened by walking DH Cody Freeman, 1B Tyler Moore singled, and Butler earned a one-out walk. C Ryan Duffy grounded right to shortstop for a force of Butler but the relay sailed wide, allowing both two runners to make the plate. Morgado kept it at 5-2 through three innings but in the fourth served Moore something he could no-doubt drive out of leftfield, his 9th shot of the season. A walking and plunking had the tying runners on; Morgado flew-out Duffy and struck out SS Ryan Powers to strand both.
3B Russ Sneed's stab, stop, step, and throw for a double-play got Bowen through six. The seventh was another matter as Grisham's leadoff single was compounded into two bases by another ball-stopping puddle in centerfield. At that point the plate must have shrunk as Bowen walked Simunic and Davis around an out, loading the bases with righthanded catcher Yan Gomes up. With the count full Bowen's pitch certainly seemed to catch the outside black, only ump Danny Everett didn't see things that way. "I'll say I thought it was close!" Bowen said. "Unfortunately in that situation I couldn't make another pitch to that batter."
Polk—knowing what leaving the dugout would mean—had a lot more to say in making his displeasure very public, to the point of chasing Everett around with other umps running interference. "He's going to defend his team, and evidently he'd seen enough of it!" said Moore. Not long after the coach finally exited the field so did a tired Bowen with lefty Andy Wilson getting the ball. His first foe, ironically Lockwood, flew out deep enough for a sacrifice and 6-3 score.
Then Wilson hit UT's Polk to re-fill the bases, giving Cody Brown the RBI opportunity. The Vol first baseman got three of them as his routine-looking grounder took a high hop, ticked the glove of a leaping Sneed, and bounced on down the left-field line for a double and 10-3 difference. "Then we had the seventh where it kind of snow-balled on us," said Raffo. Danny Lima slapped a more typical two-bagger into the same corner to score Brown, and Grisham got his second single of the inning for another RBI and 12-3 tally at the stretch.
"They just kept hitting the ball down the line," Moore said. "We had to stop the bleeding at some point." And, make Morgado bleed a bit. The UT starter hurt himself by hitting both Duffy and Powers, then had a Hogue grounder errored at shortstop fill all posts. Crnkovich got the relief call, only to walk in a run and give up a three-RBI double to Freeman. With two outs Nappi's single to center—and into that same puddle—scored Freeman.
"They brought in another pitcher and he left some balls over the plate," Moore said. "We had some quality at-bats and tried to stay in it." Crnkovich kept it 12-8 through seven, only to stuff the sacks with one out in the eighth. "We had the three-four guys up with the bases loaded and that's all you can ask for at that time," Raffo said. Sneed's grounder to shortstop wasn't sharp enough for turning so Powers scored as new RF Mark Goforth was forced at second. Freeman followed Sneed's suit but this force ended the inning with State still down by three runs. Moore led off State's last chance with a double but was left un-scored as Crnkovich grounded out Flagg to end the afternoon.
Freeman and Moore combined for four hits, four RBI, and four runs in the middle of the MSU order. "I was just trying to have a better approach at the plate," Moore said after going 3-of-5. "I didn't feel last night I was concentrating worth anything." UT's Grisham was 3-of-4 with a RBI and two runs, while Brown drove in three on his one safety.
The Dogs and Vols will be up early Sunday watching the weather, which projects thunderstorms all around the area most of the day. SEC rules allow for a 4:00 deadline to start the game; and if interrupted no inning will begin after 6:00. Having lost the Friday ground gained in SEC West standings the Bulldogs certainly need every opportunity to play and win if they are to maintain any objective hope of making the SEC Tournament.
"We've got nothing to lose," Moore said. "We still have a chance. I know a lot of things have to go our way to get in the tournament and stuff, but we still want to be optimistic and give our team a chance to get in."
If Sunday is played, State will put lefty Justin Pigott (2-1, 4.28era) on the hill while Tennessee said righty Ty'Relle Harris (2-0, 3.25) will get the ball.