Naturally from that trio this one will likely have the most prominent place since it completed Cohen's first win as coach of his alma mater. And yes, the emotions were running high for both coach and club as State prepared for the debut. It came following the first game of this year's BankFirst Challenge, where the NIU Huskies lost their own debut game 6-3 to North Florida, so Cohen had plenty to keep the mind occupied leading up to the scheduled starting time. Still…
"It was really strange walking through that tunnel, to be honest," he said. "You go back to your playing days and all the familiar faces, it's a different experience. But I'd like to think when pitch number-one was thrown we were focused in on what we were doing."
That was evident as after State starter Rickey Bowen struck out three Huskies in the top of the first, the Bulldog offense pushed six scores across the plate in their turn to take total control of the contest. A couple of insurance runs in the eighth completed the evening just as MSU players had hoped. "We've been waiting and envisioning this," said Powers.
"It's been fun in practice but man, tonight was just at another level," said Bowen, the winning pitcher. "It's an honor and a privilege to be a part of that."
Those familiar faces Cohen referred to from his 1988-90 playing days recall his intense approach to the game, and that was certainly the theme all evening as State scratched and scrambled for everything. The big first inning was almost entirely station-to-station offense with some tempo-forcing tossed in. And while a trio of pitchers combined for 17 strikeouts, more than any game at any point last season, the coach didn't think it was an especially well-worked affair either. But the finer points could be set aside for later review. "I'm really proud of the kids," Cohen said.
Such as Bowen, who put in four complete innings with eight strikeouts to the good. He allowed the lone run on a solo homer in the Husky third, and just two other hits but also walked five. The righthander agreed with the head coach that it wasn't a sharp early-season outing. "We're still working out some things mechanically, trying to get the feel back," Bowen said. Forrest Moore worked the middle three innings with five strikeouts, a walk and a hit; and Chad Crosswhite closed it out with two more scoreless turns and four fannings. The 16 strikeouts were fine, but Cohen didn't care for six total walks.
"We didn't throw as many strikes as we needed to. We threw way too many pitches, we missed up in the zone way too often. But our kids did a great job battling."
NIU's Chris Wakefield took the loss in his first '09 outing, charged with six runs on six hits and six walks in 5.1 innings.
State's first offensive inning featured just about everything Cohen was supposed to bring to town, as the Bulldogs manufactured those six runs. They walked on base and ran on around either off contact or their own fast footwork. There was even one very well-struck ball for extra bases, as C.Powers doubled in the first two scores of the season.
They came after RF Ryan Collins opened the evening with a walk, and DH Luke Adkins singled up the chute with one down. Powers watched the first pitch on purpose so his teammates could both steal into scoring positions; the second Wakefield offering he swung on. The drive came down in the right-centerfield gap for the fast 2-0 lead.
2B Jet Butler got just enough of the ball to chink it behind first base and score Powers. A walk of C Scott DeLoach later, 3B Jarrod Parks grounded down the third-base line and past that bag for a RBI-double. CF Mark Goforth got the first of many hit-batsmen to come this year, honestly as the pitch hit an ankle. This filled all bases so that a walk of SS Ryan Powers meant another RBI, and allowed Collins a second chance in the inning.
This time he was swinging for a fly ball and sacrifice that plated R.Powers and staked State to the 6-0 lead. It might have grown even more had Goforth not been called out for leaving second base early on the advance attempt.
"Man, we had a great first inning," Bowen said. "Our offense put pressure on them." And took it off the starter, though he'd begun impressively himself by fanning four of the first five faced. He did load the bags with two down in the second turn and had to get a called K on the top of the NIU order to strand all hands. Another strikeout into the third, #3-slot batter Jordin Hood smacked all of a Bowen offering for a solo homer to get the Huskies on the board.
The Bulldog starter had some trouble finding the zone in the top of the fourth, walking three. Fortunately the first free-passee erased himself by hesitating between the bags on a throw-down and was run-down by Parks for the first out. With two down and two on Bowen went 1-2 before again fanning order-topper Pat Minogue, to complete his evening's assigned stint at 86 pitches.
"Ricky wasn't at his best, he wasn't finishing pitches for whatever reason," Cohen said. "He knows it and he'll be better than he was tonight."
Wakefield lasted 100 himself. And that was all as with one down in the MSU sixth he hit two batters and walked another in-between for loaded bases. Lefty Dave Reynolds coaxed a one-hopper to his first baseman for an easy force at home plate of Parks, then got Nappi swinging on 1-2 to leave the sacks filled. Reliever Sam Kapacinskas was on the hill for the bottom of the eighth with one out when a plunking of Parks and walk issued to Goforth brought in another lefty.
Tom Zelasko didn't get charged with either of the runs he allowed on a single up the middle by R.Powers and fielders choice grounder from Collins for the final MSU margin. "The team did a great job coming out and attacking, that's what we focused on all fall," Butler said. "Our pitchers pounded the zone and I thought we played good defense behind them."
Moore was run out for the top of the fifth and picked up where Bowen had left off, retiring the first six-faced (aided by a caught-stealing to delete a lone runner) before he walked a pair in the seventh. A hit batsman loaded the paths but Moore struck out the cleanup Husky to foil that threat. "Forrest located his pitches on the inner half, I'm really pleased with how he threw tonight," said Cohen. For the eighth Crosswhite took over and after allowing a leadoff double to Reynolds he shot down three-straight on strikes, before sitting the side in the ninth.
State mustered just one more hit than the Huskies, seven to six, but it was what the Dogs did with their contact—not to mention on the bases, with three official steals and a lot more moving on swings—that mattered. "We really like this style of baseball," said Butler who had two of those hits. "And we're looking forward to the rest of the year a lot."
Cohen isn't looking any farther ahead than Saturday's noon game time. "To have the first one behind you is great," he said. "It's a short turnaround, let's go home and get rested and come out with same kind of focus and resolve we had today."
State is expected to put true freshman lefthander Nick Routt on the bump to face North Florida. The second MSU-NIU matchup is scheduled for 4:00.