"Valley is a really improved program, that's a credit to Coach (Doug) Shanks," MSU Coach John Cohen said. "They're competitive and have some athletes." Fortunately the home team had a few more athletes to bat, run, and especially pitch with.
Reliever Justin Bussey, the fourth hurler of State's evening, picked up his first winning decision with 1.1 innings of work. Not a scoreless stint even if the tying Devil run did come across on his watch, via a passed ball. But Bussey steadied, aided by substitute catcher Scott DeLoach, and kept the Dogs tied 3-3 into the bottom of the decisive inning.
"You sit and wait for your chance, and when you get called on you have to go out there and compete," said Bussey. Much like Brownlee did in breaking the deadlock.
It was an out into the MSU eighth when 1B Connor Powers took a pitch from Valley's Scott Reid off the shoulder. The homeplate umpire seemed initially inclined to call a strike but Powers jogged on to first and after some debate was allowed to stay, at which point Coach Shanks earned an ejection. Meanwhile Hogue, who had missed the first five games this season with a shoulder injury, took Powers' place on first and promptly showed why by taking second on the first chance.
"I had a lot of time to think about my at-bat," Brownlee said. "And that helped a lot." So did a heads-up from Cohen about staying with the sinking fastballs Reid was using. "He'd been getting under us all night and Coach told me to stay beneath it." Brownlee liked the 1-0 offering and pulled it high and long down the left-field line…and just inside it.
"When Grant was on second I knew I had to do something. He has a lot of speed and I knew anything up the middle or to the outfield Grant was going to score. I just heard the crowd roar and knew I'd done something right."
Reid (0-1) took the loss in relief of starter Chris Mills, who was strong in his 5.1 innings with a run on one hit, three strikeouts and three walks. Freshman David Hays got the start for State but only went 1.2 innings before veteran Greg Houston took over and took care of a career-long 4.1 scoreless frames. Lee Swindle threw the 1.2 innings before Bussey was given the responsibility to win or lose it all.
"I thought our pitchers did a great job outside of some early wildness," Cohen said. "And our relief guys did a good job of challenging the strike zone."
Hayes, a true rookie lefthander, was given the start—though not told about it until gameday—to take on a righthanded-heavy Devil lineup. Hayes got the side in his first inning, then gave up a leadoff single in the second. A nice sacrifice moved the runner along and with two down catcher Cody Pride lined a drive that tailed towards the centerfield gap. CF Mark Goforth tried a dive, though cutting it off might have been wiser since when the ball got under his glove the batter ended up on second with his RBI.
A walk ended Hayes' first State stint early as the velocity and location weren't working so well. "We just felt Houston would be a better matchup," Cohen said. The veteran righty rushed in to ground-out the #9 batter and get State back in the dugout with just the 1-0 deficit. "That wasn't David at his best," Cohen said, "but your first time out is always the difficult one."
For his part Mills made it difficult on the Dogs, notching seven-straight outs before RF Ryan Collins hit his way on only to be thrown out trying to steal third base. So Mills faced the minimum through four full frames.
But he opened the fifth by walking C.Powers, and on full-count to LF Jason Nappi balked…not that it mattered as it was a ball-four anyway. C Ryan Duffy tried to bunt, twice; he popped up the second and while Mills dropped it as he crossed the third-base line he had yet to set foot in foul territory. Thus Powers, who had stayed at second base, was ‘forced' out at third as Nappi came on to the middle bag.
3B Jarrod Parks grounded to the right side for a fielders choice with Duffy out at second, before Collins walked on 3-1 count to load the sacks. Nine-hole hitter R.Powers was able to take a fastball on the shoulder fair and square to force in the tying run.
That took Hayes off the hook, and Houston put three-straight down in the sixth while Lee Swindle loosened. Meanwhile Mills made it into the sixth when a shortstop error and sacrifice bunt by DH Luke Adkins had 2B Jet Butler in scoring position. Reid took over to leave the runner at third base with a fly ball and strikeout. He had a similar situation in the MSU seventh with Parks on third base via his single, steal, and Collins grounder. R. Powers bounced to the Valley third baseman who bobbled, then booted the ball long enough for Parks to make home with the go-ahead run.
It was aggressive, even risky running that made it a two-score cushion. Powers was making a move to second, drawing the shortstop over a step…and leaving just enough of a hole for Goforth to one-hop a hit through. Not just that but the Dog centerfielder kept going for second to attract a throw. As he slid in ahead of the ball safely, Powers had never stopped and was able to beat the relay on his first-to-home dash for a 3-1 lead.
Valley cut their deficit in half with a two-out single by Herron, easy steal, and RBI-hit from shortstop Ford. It finished Swindle's night with Bussey taking over. Ford probably had second thieved anyway but with Bussey throwing a dirtball the Devil got a bonus base as well. A walk of rightfielder Willie Mays brought Sean Bard back up, but it was the fastball off Duffy's mitt that tied the tally with the go-ahead runner on second. And another soon on first as Bard walked. During a mound talk DeLoach donned the gear—"Scotty is our best defensive catcher, he's relaxed back there and a great leader," said Cohen—and position behind the plate. Bussey responded by beating Jeff Squier.
"I threw a fastball up-and-away and got the strikeout," Bussey said. And when he returned to protect the 4-3 lead Bussey stayed with the heat to sit the side. "All fastballs. That's all I did, just go right at them and if they hit me they hit me." They didn't.
State only out-hit the visitors five to four, with that couple of doubles making the real difference. And thieves were loose all evening with Valley stealing three times, State four (successfully). That didn't make up for other offense issues to Cohen.
"Very few of them were good at-bats and that's bothersome. That's got to get better."
Fast, too, as State hosts Nicholls State in a three-game set this weekend. Cohen confirmed that the pitching plans are to start RH Ricky Bowen on Friday, LH Nick Routt Saturday, and pick Sunday's opener based on how the bullpen is used, though he hopes to save RH Chad Crosswhite for the last game.