Though still solidly in the Western Division cellar, the Diamond Dogs could glimpse some rays of remaining hope through Sunday's overcast. "We still have three series left, we're four games back of second place," said RF Grant Hogue. "We still have a window."
This day's window was in the weather. Morning rains, on an outfield and sidelines still soaked from Saturday, put game-three very much in question right up to the 1:20 decision by coaches, umpires, and grounds crew that play could go on…at least until another forecast round of rains arrived. "I didn't think we were going to play, I really didn't," admitted Coach Ron Polk. Fortunately, as it turned out, the game began.
It ended with two outs and two Bulldogs on base in the bottom of the eighth, more than sufficient for an official contest. But had the Volunteers managed to keep State from scoring in the bottom of the eighth, or for that matter extended the seventh long enough for the rain to resume and the game to ‘revert' an inning officially, it would have ended a tie and done the Dogs no good at all.
And as State starting pitcher Justin Pigott said, "If we didn't play this game it would have been like a loss. We got it in, we won, and this could lead to something."
Getting Pigott on the mound for only his second outing since a mid-March injury meant something good for State's opportunity in the rubber game. The senior southpaw put in 5.1 innings, allowing five Volunteer hits and all three runs. Which was just what the team needed as Pigott simply kept his offense in realistic striking distance for the later innings; as well as did it quickly enough to stay ahead of the oncoming weather.
"He keeps us in the ball game, we get a couple of key hits," Polk said. "And that's how you win." Pigott handed the ball and game to reliever John Lalor who by working the next 1.2 innings with a hit, three strikeouts, and no damage was in position to get the winning decision and even his season record at 3-3. Aaron Weatherford took care of the Tennessee eighth inning with three strikeouts and a hit also, and would have sealed the deal in the ninth if necessary.
Tennessee starter Ty'Relle Harris (2-1) took the loss, putting in six-plus innings with six runs on nine Bulldog hits. He struck out six and walked one, and left after the go-ahead run crossed.
"He had a real surprising fastball and controlled and mixed his pitches real good," said 1B Tyler Moore, the Bulldog batting star with three hits, three RBI, and the crucial tying home-run in the bottom of the sixth immediately after the Vols had taken a 3-2 lead. "It seemed we had runners on base a lot and never could execute. We finally did a couple of times."
Both starters were able to stick a couple of zeros on the board, before Tennessee took advantage of MSU miscues in the top of the third. With one out Andy Lima's grounder was bobbled by 3B Russ Sneed and the runner made first without a throw…then noticing no Dog covering he dashed on to second without a challenge. Ninth-batter Cody Grisham made it sting all the more by taking the first pitch into rightfield for a RBI single.
The Bulldogs were able to match that in the bottom of the frame as C Ryan Duffy singled, took second on a SS Ryan Powers grounder to first base, and scored when with two down CF Mark Goforth bounced a base hit just past the diving second baseman's glove-side.
The weather did the Dogs a more fluky favor in the fourth as a brief break in the overcast and burst of sunshine caused UT rightfielder Josh Liles—not wearing shades—to lose Sneed's fly ball for a leadoff double. The infield had been covered and a classic ‘Dudy hop' got over the Vol third baseman as Moore singled, with Sneed having to stop at third. Both runners held up as LF Jason Nappi lined right to the shortstop, giving no twin-killing chance. They did an even better job creating the go-ahead run as Moore took off on a delayed ‘steal' meant to draw a throw.
UT catcher Yan Gomes did fire, but to third base where Sneed was leading off. The low throw hit the bag and Sneed was able to scramble up and home for a 2-1 MSU lead through four.
Though glad for the game, Pigott's preparations were out-of-synch a bit. "They said 2:15 and I said alright. Then they said 2:05 and I had to rush and get loose!" But the old Dog was good from the start, getting easy fly-outs the first two innings and then good support when the Vols started slapping grounders. Especially from Powers. The shortstop made a nifty twin-killing with Vols on corners in the fourth, timing his stab-and-step perfectly at second and firing the relay over the oncoming runner. His fifth inning running grab towards third base was remarkable enough, but Powers turned into an exceptional play by somehow getting enough on the throw to first to beat Andy Simunic there.
"One of the best plays I've ever seen," said Moore.
But the long layoff began showing in the Vol sixth with a leadoff single by Liles. Kentrail Davis tried to bunt him into tie-scoring position only to have ump Todd Henderson rule he had stepped on the plate making contact and was out. UT Coach Todd Raleigh was ejected for protesting, so he didn't get to see his team even things up as Gomes lined a base hit that centerfielder Goforth turned into a RBI by diving for the sinking drive.
"Mark was being aggressive, it stinks it got past him but I'd rather him be aggressive," said Pigott. "I got kind of upset and didn't focus on the next pitch." Because Jeff Lockwood's RBI-single scored Gomes and Tennessee ahead even as the sky and weather reports were darkening further.
Lalor took over to strand a pair and keep the margin at minus-one, which mattered. Because with one out Moore lifted a high fly that kept carrying until clearing rightfield for his 10th homer of the season. "It was an 0-2 fastball, I was sitting fastball and it hit my bat kind of late. I was surprised it went out, it must have had some backspin on it!"
It was still a 3-3 tie after the stretch when Duffy went the other way. His deep drive stayed in the park but leftfielder P.J. Polk couldn't get a read and the ball landed on the track for a leadoff double. In the obvious bunt setting Powers squared, then jerked backwards as Harris came high and tight. Enough so that the ball glanced off Powers' left hand; initially Henderson ruled a foul-tip, but when the shortstop showed evidence of contact a hit-batsman was awarded to UT protests.
Hogue also showed bunt, but pulled back. "Coach Polk said if the third and first basemen crash go ahead and swing. The first time, I didn't and he looked at me like I was an idiot! So I said I've got to get it done this time, just put it in play." He did, the dribbler going right towards the spot that would have been occupied by a shortstop…had he not been dashing to cover third as the corner-men crashed for a presumed bunt.
It became the shortest ‘double' Hogue has ever hit, while pinch-runner Cade Hoggard came home and Powers made third. "I don't think that's in the playbook," Hogue said.
Now down 4-3, Tennessee replaced Harris with Joey Rosas to handle the no-outs, two-on in scoring spots jam. After striking out Goforth, Rosas intentionally passed Sneed to fill the bases and himself was relieved for righty closer Danny Wiltz. Whether or not the Vols were playing to delay long enough for rain, Wiltz worked very slowly and pitched not too carefully in walking DH Cody Freeman to force Powers home. The back-breaker came on a Powers single through the left side for two more RBI and the final score.
Fortunately for MSU Nappi and Butler got out quickly, even as the press corps wondered by UT centerfielder Davis caught the sinking fly ball to end the inning and not let it roll through to continue the frame, hope for rain and reversion to the previous tied game through sixth. State wasted no time making a final pitching change.
"You feel good with Aaron Weatherford and a four-run lead," Polk said. "And talking to the grounds guy I knew we weren't going to play the ninth." Weatherford fanned three of the four faced, then got to watch sub-catcher Brooks Lewis double to lead off State's eighth. Sneed was at the plate when a sprinkle turned into heavy rains and first-base ump Paul Guillie halted action. An announcement four minutes later that the game was over was premature, it turned out, but ultimately accurate.
By then practically every Dog had stripped to tee-shirt and sliding shorts, or less, and were diving into the infield mud or outfield puddles or both. "The coaches had been talking about if we win this thing we're sliding," reported Hogue, who missed out on the fun—with no regrets—with post-win media obligations. "I was like that's the last thing we need with injuries!" Fortunately no one was added to the injury list from the afternoon's fun. Or game.
"It was a big victory, it did a lot for our confidence as a team and shows what kind of ball club we've got," said Moore. "We got some guys in scoring position and were able to get some great-at bats, balls fell in place and we got runs."
Still the good feelings were muted by awareness of State's overall situation. Polk is basing whatever post-season possibilities might remain on scrambling into second in the final West standings, under the assumption the entire Eastern Division will qualify for Hoover. Even if an East squad slumps and a third West team makes the cut, for it to be the Bulldogs is still a very, very tall order with three SEC series and nine games—weather permitting—left.
And while the pitching staff is just about 100% healthy again, the order and defense took another blow when OF Ryan Collins injured his right shoulder twice in Friday's game; once diving back into first base, then on a swing that aggravated damage already done. Collins is lost for the rest of the season.
"That's a big loss," Polk said. "And Freeman (shoulder) can't catch for another two weeks." Second baseman Brandon Turner, out most of two months with an ongoing hamstring problem, might be back for the LSU series as could 3B and leading slugger Connor Powers is also out at least that much longer with his own hamstring issue.
But injuries are something these Dogs have just learned to live with and play around. And at least they've finally been able to secure a series. "Maybe we can get hot," said Hogue. "We've been saying that all year but hopefully it will be a boost for us."
Pigott is more objective. "We don't have a tomorrow. That's pretty much were it is. We've got to win and we've got to win now. We put ourselves in a hole but we're not going to quit now."