Duffy Shot Gives Dogs Series-Starting Win 6-5

OK, so giving away a save situation wasn't exactly what Aaron Weatherford intended. Or was it, since letting Arkansas temporarily catch up left him in position to win one? "That was the plan!" Mississippi State's closer jokingly claimed. "I'm just glad Duffy hit a bomb, I told him man, thank you, we needed that!"

Catcher Ryan Duffy did indeed hit a bomb, on the first pitch in the bottom of the seventh inning that made a winner of both Weatherford and Mississippi State. Duffy's solo shot was the margin of 6-5 victory in Thursday night's SEC series opener at Dudy Noble Field, making the host Bulldogs a 22-32, 8-20 SEC. Arkansas slipped to 32-21, 13-14 SEC, but remained eighth in the SEC Tournament standings as South Carolina was pounded by Tennessee and gained no ground in the ‘race for Hoover.'

Duffy, who also had the winning RBI Tuesday night against Memphis, came up immediately after the Razorbacks had scored a pair of seventh-inning runs to even the score five-all. Both were charged to State starter Ricky Bowen, but each was only able to advance and/or come home with wild Weatherford pitches. "That's never what you want to happen, bounce a breaking ball and it didn't work the way I hoped," Weatherford said. "But we were able to bounce back and complete the game."

"It's good to pull it out and get the win," said Duffy. "Aaron pitched great, and so did Ricky."

Bowen did pitch well, despite a three-run second inning. Or maybe because of it as the sophomore righthander came back from his one fragile frame with an excellent effort. "It got a little wild in the second, with the home run, the walk, the potential double-play. But you shake it off and keep going." Bowen was able to put in 6.1 innings with five runs on five Arkansas hits, striking out nine—the most since he fanned 11 Ole Miss batters back on March 16—with four walks.

Weatherford (3-0) worked himself into a decision with 2.2 innings, one hit and three strikeouts. With set-up man John Lalor booked for Friday's start, State went to the hard-throwing righthander earlier than usual. "Coach (Russ) McNickle walked down to the pen before that seventh inning and gave me a heads-up, get ready. I didn't throw as many pitches as I'd have liked and had to get loose as I went."

Arkansas starter Justin Wells (3-2) threw 7.1 innings with all seven State hits and six runs charged to his account. He struck out nine also with a pair of walks, but the same hard pitches that got those whiffs also led to the best Bulldog knocks of the day as 3B Russ Sneed and Duffy each hit a ball beyond the fence.

"I noticed in the stats Wells has given up some home runs," Coach Ron Polk said. "With Sneed and Ryan I think they both got fastballs, and the whole key with Wells is you've got to jump on the fastball early."

Bowen was sharp early himself, striking out the first-inning side. But when Casey Coon's bouncer got through the box for a leadoff single it led to a very different second, even after Coon was forced on Andy Wilkins' grounder. A walk of Jeff Nutt and a dirtball put both runners in scoring positions, not that it mattered as Brett Eibner took a 2-0 offering over the rightfield fence for his seventh home run of the season and a 3-0 Razorback lead.

Bowen wasn't rattled by an opponent's outburst. "I wasn't locating well, Coach said this is what you're doing and I made the adjustment and went back after them, tried to be as aggressive as I could." It obviously worked because Bowen came back with a couple of strikeouts, then left a pair on bases in the third and fourth innings. From there he retired eight-straight.

"He was throwing the snot out of it, throwing like 93-94," said Duffy. "That's pretty effective when you hit your spots. He was had a good cutter for strikes."

Sneed shaved one run off that deficit by going after the first pitch of State's second turn and clearing centerfield for a solo shot, only his second longball of the year. "It's almost like you erase one of theirs, and it really helps you re-focus and be more aggressive," said Bowen. Wells kept it 3-1 into the third but was greeted by consecutive singles from SS Ryan Powers and CF Grant Hogue, both advancing on CF Mark Goforth's bunt.

After going down 1-2, 1B Tyler Moore drove one into the left-centerfield gap for two RBI and a tied tally. Duffy followed with a single for Dogs on opposite corners with one out. Wells might have still escaped as Sneed grounded to his counterpart at third and a double-play was at least feasible. Except second baseman Ben Tschepikow dropped the throw from third baseman Logan Forsythe. Moore scored on the error for a 4-3 State advantage, which would have been expanded if not for a fabulous diving catch by rightfielder Leavitt to rob DH Jason Nappi of two sure RBI.

Wells' wildness put another pair on in the bottom of the fourth, though another dirtball actually worked to his favor as Hogue—on via plunking—thought the ball was getting farther away and was picked off first. Hardy stayed put at second and thus was able to come around for a 5-3 lead as Goforth singled into center.

"Thankfully Russ' home run keeps us in sight of Arkansas," Polk said. "Then we get the three-spot and get a lead, and then our kids are like let's get to Aaron. And we did. That's how we win."

Not without some further dramatics, though. Arkansas was still in striking distance in the seventh when a one-out single and walk put the tying runners on. With the meat of Arkansas' order coming up Polk immediately called in Weatherford for very early relief…only to have the bullpen ace uncork a couple of wild pitches that scored lead runner Aaron Murphree and put Leavitt on third where he could tie it up 5-5 on a fly ball by Tschepikow.

"He threw two splitters that Ryan can't even come close to," Polk said. "Thankfully we get the home run from Duffy." The catcher unloaded on another inning-opening Wells fastball and parked it a dozen feet right of the centerfield wall, his seventh homer of the year. "It was right down the middle, so I swung. It felt good." Wells worked on into the eighth when a leadoff walk and bunt had Nappi on second base. Righthanded reliever Mike Bolsinger left him there.

Weatherford still had to ‘save' his decision, as an out away from victory pinch-hitter Jacob House's drive was mis-read by Hardy for a double, giving order-topper Leavitt a chance to re-tie things. His grounder to first base was covered by Weatherford to end activities.

Just in time, too, because a hit or even a walk or anything would have ended Weatherford's stint right here as he was at 42 pitches. Polk said the closer is burned for Friday. "He might be able to give us an inning but I taxed him too much." Then again, after all the frustrations of this season the Bulldogs were in an all-or-nothing mindset for this game-one. "He's the guy that we want to give the ball out of the pen, everybody knows that," said Bowen.

State out-hit the guests seven to six and played errorless ball while the Razorbacks were charged a pair of gaffes.

Game-two is 6:30 Friday, with righthander Lalor (3-3, 3.41) getting his second start of the season. Arkansas is expected to put lefty Cliff Springston(5-2, 3.94) on the hill. With State eliminated from any post-season opportunity, the theme of the final 2008 weekend is sending the retiring Polk out successfully. Mostly, that is.

"We want it for him, we just want to honor him this weekend," Weatherford said. "And not only for him, for our pride."

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