Polk Era Ends With Long Day At Dudy Noble

Give the Diamond Dogs credit for attempting to send their skipper out with a bang. Sadly, the final game of Coach Ron Polk's Mississippi State career played out too much like the entire season, both ending more with a whimper. And their last game of 2008 also turned into the longest of the whole year, as well as just maybe the most frustrating of all.

Arkansas reliever James Mahler threw strike-three past a swinging Bulldog 3B Russ Sneed to leave the bases loaded and finish a four-hour Saturday marathon at Dudy Noble Field. The Razorbacks' 15-10 victory on the last day of SEC regular season salvaged a split, though with both Ole Miss and South Carolina also winning today Arkansas (33-22, 14-15 SEC) fell short of a conference Tournament berth.

Mississippi State, eliminated from any post-season possibility last weekend, ended up 23-32, 9-21 SEC. And, more to the historical point, brought down the curtain on Polk's MSU Bulldog tenure. After 29 years coaching State in two stints (1975-97, 2002-08) and a two-year span at Georgia, Polk retired as the winningest coach in Southeastern Conference history in any sport with 1,221 victories in 31 league seasons. His 1,375 total college wins ranks him 7th all-time in NCAA records.

Which was why the coach wasn't nearly so bothered by the last one getting away as was his players. "It was a big day, we had big expectations for Coach Polk's last game," said 1B Tyler Moore. "We just blew it with errors. Myself, I had two errors that scored probably three runs. That's just the difference in the ball game, it was so big on momentum."

Momentum took some big swings through the 4:02 contest, as Arkansas bolted to leads of 4-0 and 9-2 after the first two innings. Then State scrambled back with a combined six runs in the fifth and sixth frames to gain a 10-9 advantage with Aaron Weatherford ready to seal the last-day deal. It didn't happen as Weatherford and Forrest Moore gave up the last five Razorback runs, again with mis-plays and missed pitches setting the end-game stage.

"We didn't play a good game at all as a whole," said State starting pitcher Justin Pigott. "They played bad, too. It was a real sloppy game, and we had our chance. Without a doubt we had our chance."

‘Sloppy' was a kind description of a game with seven total errors, five charged to the home team, and a variety of other unofficial gaffes that started and sustained big innings for both sides. In fact there were more runs than hits (24), and ten of the scores were unearned. Of the eight runs assessed to Pigott only three were earned.

"We didn't play well," acknowledged Polk. "We make an error to start the game, that kind of set the tempo."

Perhaps the overall tempo was set in the hours before Polk's finale, especially the scheduled 13-minute pregame ceremony that inevitably ran long with on-field salutes, a video presentation, and a brief address by SEC Commissioner Mike Slive…who also violated NCAA rules on tobacco products at college sports events by presenting Polk ten premium cigars. Rolling the 2008 Buick given the retiring coach on and off the field took more time so that the game, and regional telecast, started late.

Senior Pigott, making his last college start, said he enjoyed the preceedings but "I think maybe everybody taking it all in, we kind of lost focus on the game." It showed on the first ground ball by leadoff Hog Chase Leavitt, thrown away by 2B Jet Butler for a two-base error. Pigott's dirtball advanced the runner into position to score on a fly ball by Logan Forsythe, caught a step foul of rightfield.

Pigott walked Casey Coon, who came in on a double from Tim Smalling. The real damage though was done by Brett Eibner as he lofted a drive that cleared centerfield for a two-run homer. The second inning went even worse with a walk, base hit, and plunking to fill the bases with no outs. Forsythe's single made it 5-0 and finished the State starter. "I left everything I had out there," said Pigott. "It wasn't much I guess. Normally I make the adjustment, sometimes you just can't make the adjustment. Today was one of those days."

Michael Busby took over the full-paths, no outs situation and rolled a grounder that was good for an out and one RBI. Except 1B Moore mishandled the relay and Leavitt also came in. A two-out walk of Eibner and wild pitch set up Casey Nutt to drive in two more teammates for the 9-2 lead. State had gotten on the board as Moore briefly cut the deficit in half with a two-RBI home run into the Left Field Lounge, his 14th longball of the season.

"We said we're not giving up, because it's this man's last day and he wants to see a good game of baseball," Moore said. And in State's third turn the first baseman singled in CF Mark Goforth while CF Grant Hogue, who'd doubled his way on, was plated on a sacrifice-fly off the bat of C Ryan Duffy. Razorback starter Dallas Keuchel held the line at 9-4 at the half-way point.

"I thought Dallas threw very well, what a great off-speed and changeup mix he had," Polk said. "But we had opportunities, thankfully because of bases on balls." Some opportunistic hitting, too, as Moore lined a leadoff double off the fence in State's fifth inning. A wild-pitch later Keuchel walked Sneed and with one out Butler's grounder got through shortstop to score Moore. With two outs DH Jeff Flagg poked a safety into rightfield scoring Sneed. Keuchel was behind Goforth 3-1 with Dogs on corners but got a fly ball behind shortstop to keep a 9-6 margin.

Meanwhile first Busby, then Jesse Carver, didn't allow Arkansas to expand any lead. Senior lefthander Carver got the ball with two outs and two on in the UA fourth and struck out Nutt, then retired seven of the next eight faced. When he came back in the seventh, it was with a lead.

Because State jumped on reliever Stephen Richards for four runs in their sixth. Hogue led off taking a pitch on the arm, while Hardy and Moore walked to load bases. Arkansas designated hitter Eibner inherited the jam after ball-one to Sneed, striking out the four-hole hitter on a called K. Eibner looked to have rolled a double-play as Duffy grounded right to the charging second baseman.

But Tschepikow first tried tagging Moore as he passed by, missing; and compounded the gaffe by throwing wide of first base. Hogue and Hardy scored as Moore got to third base. Butler followed with a bouncer in front of the catcher, who instead of going to first for an easy out threw for the middle-bag…late, leaving all hands safe and still one out.

Eibner poured more fuel on State's fire by throwing eight-straight balls, though the fourth actually plunked Powers for the tying RBI. Flagg never unlimbered the bat watching four more misses to force in Duffy for the first Bulldog lead of the day, 10-9, with the MSU bullpen got busy. Arkansas righty James Mahler came in to halt the assault with strikeouts.

When Weatherford did enter it wasn't in a save situation though, despite Carver's best efforts. With two outs and Aaron Murphree taking off from first Ben Tschepikow chipped a sinker just beyond shortstop Powers' glove. Order-topper Leavitt didn't have to swing for a tie game; State gave away the run as Tschepikow made a late-break steal. Catcher Duffy tried to get him at second. His throw hooked too far right of Butler's glove and Murphree evened the tally at ten-apiece. Tschepikow even kept on coming and was easily tagged a stride short of home.

"First-and-third we're going to throw back to the pitcher," explained Polk. "Ryan couldn't get a grip so he throws the ball into centerfield."

Weatherford entered anyway to maintain the tie, only to turn in his most out-of-character performance of the junior's presumably-last college campaign. He issued a walk to begin, Leavitt stole his way into scoring position on the first chance, and Forsythe's batted him home. But again the Bulldogs made things worse for themselves as Moore cut the too-late throw for home and tried to get Forsythe running for second. His relay went back into centerfield and Forsythe never had to stop going home-to-home for the two-run cushion.

"We're already warming Aaron and we bring him in because we're not going to burn him in the bullpen," said Polk. "He made some good pitches, made some average pitches." Even a good pitch could go bad as Duffy couldn't handle one heater and the passed ball made it 13-10. Rookie Forrest Moore took the final Razorback runs as Leavitt doubled Tschepikow to third and a mishandled relay let the runner score. Sean Jones' down-the-line double made it a five-run margin, before Greg Houston replaced Moore and rolled a double-play.

The Dogs did go down swinging in the last chance, as pinch-hitter Andy Rice reached on a leadoff walk and Goforth singled only to be forced by a remarkable stab and glove-flip from UA shortstop Smalling. A two-out walk of Moore, likely intentional, left it up to Sneed to continue the last game. On full count he missed Mahler's slider.

Mahler (3-1) picked up the win in well-timed relief, throwing 3.2 innings with only a hit and two walks against him and eight of the 15 Razorback staff strikeouts for him. Weatherford suffered his only loss of the junior year, falling to 3-1 with three runs on two hits allowed. In fact, for the first and only time this year Weatherford was himself relieved in a decisive setting.

Leavitt and Nutt each had three of Arkansas' 14 base hits, and leadoff Hog Leavitt scored four of the five times he reached base. Moore was a three-hit, three-RBI, three-run Dog on the last day, while Hogue had three hits and scored twice while Duffy and Flagg both drove in a pair of partners.

It obviously wasn't the way any Dog wanted this day to play out. "But we battled back," said Polk. "A lot of teams would have folded the tent."

Instead Mississippi State closed the last chapter on a volume that has been over three decades in the writing. In his final media meeting as Diamond Dog #1 Polk said the expected things, other than the comment he will "buy a computer" now. He repeated his wish that former player and longtime aide Tommy Raffo be promoted to the top job, and slipped in a couple of shots aimed at the NCAA. That there will be a team meeting tomorrow before the varsity is turned loose for the summer. Then, he left for the Baseball Office complex to take off the uniform one last time.

Except there was one thing he did not say on his last day as State's skipper, which was almost—but not quite—missed the crew of reporters and camerafolk recording the last official act of Ron Polk.

He did not say "that's baseball."

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