Not only did the junior shortstop record his first college homer, he put in a perfect evening at the plate by singling in two other trips and taking a plunking that set up his second run-scoring chance. In the process Powers raised his batting average over 40 points in a single outing. At that pace Coach John Cohen can consider moving Powers up a bit in the order. In fact he already was.
"It's funny, (assistant) Butch Thompson came up to me in BP and said man, that guy's approach is so much better," Cohen said. "He's not going to hit a lot of home runs but he's a guy who is really focused in the middle of the field and has some big hits for us already."
"Since Hawaii I've spent a bunch of time in the cage with the coaches," Powers said. "There's been a few minor adjustments and I'm feeling a lot better."
Other Bulldogs came through big and/or timely hits as well, essential after trailing at the mid-way point and struggling against the first few Blazer pitchers. While Powers put his team ahead, it was a three-run triple by CF Grant Hogue in the sixth that broke the evening open. That hit, like Powers, also was set up by problematic UAB relief work that walked a lot of Dogs on base. In fact six of State's scorers reached on free passes, but it took those knocks to make them matter.
Farrell (2-1), the fourth UAB hurler, took the loss in 1.0 innings of recorded work with three runs on two hits and a couple of walks. In all seven Blazers would see time on the mound and while they limited State to six hits they walked eight and hit one.
Cohen also made liberal use of his staff by working four pitchers. Righthander Drew Hollinghead got the start and longest stint at 4.0 complete frames, allowing two runs on three hits with a couple of walks and four strikeouts. It was #3 thrower Lee Swindle (1-1) who had the best timing by being on-record when Powers flipped the scoreboard. Swindle worked 2.0 innings with a run on two hits with a strikeout and two walks. State pitching also issued eight walks, contributing to a 3:14 length of contest.
Hollinghead took no damage from a first inning walk or scratch single in the second and retired six-straight going into his fourth. That's when a leadoff grounder to deep short put Blazer rightfielder Brint Hardy on first. He looked to run and Hollinghead held him in place, but he also hung a 2-1 offering to cleanup batter Cody McMurray. The leftfielder yanked it over his defensive place of business, a dead-pull shot that hooked inside the foul pole for a 2-0 Blazer lead.
Still Cohen was content with the starter. "We were going to be happy to get three or four out of Drew, if he could throw his breaking ball in the zone he cold get some outs. He kind of hit the ceiling there in the fourth inning but I was pleased with what he gave us."
The Blazers were shuffling moundsmen early and often. Starter Shay Crawford and first reliever Blake Huddleston kept State scoreless through three with only a couple of singles allowed, and those were erased on the paths to keep it at the minimum. But this meant Trey Vice entered to meet the top of MSU's order, and he proceeded to walk the first three faced before Farrell could be rushed to the hill to face 3B Russ Sneed. The Bulldog made good contact but shortstop Jonathan Merritt made a better snare on the third hop for a force at second. The relay was clearly late but first base ump Kevin Bradley was calling out before the ball arrived. Hogue scored and Cohen shared his thoughts with Bradley for a while. Farrell ended the inning with a pop-out.
MSU lefthander Jared Wesson took ove for the top of the fifth and soon was in serious trouble, loading the bases with one out on a pair of walks around a hit. McMurray didn't have to swing once to make it 3-1 as he walked to force in Merritt, and righty Swindle inherited the one-out, bases-stuffed situation. He fanned Digger Towe and coaxed a fly to rightfield from Andrew Manning to keep the deficit at two runs.
Which made the top of the fifth the turning point. Again consecutive leadoff walks put Dogs on, and this time when Ryan Powers squared to bunt the outside pitch went off the catcher's mitt for a couple of free bases. With the bunt off Powers could swing away and he surely did, it over left-centerfield and putting the home team in front for the first time at 4-3. "I was lucky enough to find barrel and it kept going," he said.
State was ahead if not yet in control. The Blazers made good contact on Swindle in the sixth, including a leadoff-drive by Luke Stewart that reached the fence. RF Nick Hardy one-hopped a throw to second in time to catch Stewart trying to stretch a double. Even a single errored into an extra base in leftfield by sub Mark Goforth didn't hurt as that runner was left at second.
With one down in the bottom of the sixth the Bulldogs, you guessed it, drew consecutive walks, though lead-man 2B Jet Butler had taken second on a wild pitch already. Both he and Connor Powers got to advance unchallenged as Collin McMurry hit Ryan Powers this time to load all posts with two downs. It was his exit as well with righty Nick Graffeo entering to…do little better as he walked new LF Ryan Collins on 3-1 to push Butler home. Order-topper Hogue preferred swinging. His drive to right tailed towards the line and while UAB's Hardy made a strong effort he could only get a bit of glove on the ball.
Three runners crossed on Hogue's first career triple giving the Bulldogs a 8-3 margin, more than sufficient to secure the win. The Blazers chipped one off the difference in their seventh. With leadoff man Crawford on via walking, B.Hardy ducked under a high-and-tight Swindle pitch…that hit the bat squarely and fell fair for an accidental sacrifice. A wild pitch and walk weren't so amusing and righthander Devin Jones took Swindle's spot on the hill with Blazers on corners. Towe lifted it long enough to centerfield for the sacrifice RBI and Stewart grounded to first for a 8-4 final.
Jones put in 2.2 scoreless innings with two hits, a walk, and one strikeout. The Bulldogs didn't slap a lot of safeties but made the most of what they could collect. "That's our strategy," said Powers, who had have of State's safeties. "Put non-stop pressure on the defense and I thought we did a good job of that. It was a full-team effort with a lot of pitchers we used today."
It was also a fun effort for MSU veterans coming at the expense of the coach who'd recruited them to State before resigning, then signing-on as a volunteer aide with another of his former aides, UAB Coach Brian Shoop. "It was good to see him back in town," said Powers. "And definitely a plus to get the victory over him."
""It's always exciting to see coach because he's just one of those people," said Cohen, an All-SEC outfielder for Polk in 1988-90. "He's like your grandfather…I shouldn't say that, he's like your uncle! He has a great sense of humor and knows what to say, there's nothing he hasn't seen. I know it's got to be a lot of fun for the UAB guys."
Now Cohen's concern is making something good and hopefully fun happen as Mississippi State heads east for a weekend series with Georgia. The Bulldogs opened their SEC season by taking two of three at home from South Carolina, while the UG Dogs were somewhat upset in dropping a series at Alabama. In Cohen's tenure at Kentucky he played Georgia often and hard and knows what to expect in Athens.
"They're very, very talented. They had great arms a year ago and have some of them back. They were 14-0 before they got into conference play last week so they're good and especially good when they play at home."
For now all the pitching planning State can do is book Tyler Whitney (2-0, 1.12) and Nick Routt (2-0, 1.90) for the first two games, and play those out before tabbing a starter for Sunday. Whoever gets the ball when, though, has to do better jobs in controlling the game and eating innings than has been the trend the last couple of weeks. Cohen is worried that his staff isn't ‘attacking' opposing batters as needed to succeed in league games over the long haul, and there've been far too many walks issued to-date.
"You can't give away bases and that's what we're doing," Cohen said, adding that this has been stressed so much already he's almost to the point of dropping the topic for a change. But then, "I'm not the ‘hoping it goes away' type of personality," the coach said.
"We're trying to create a different climate of competition and the kids competed better today obviously against a club I think is going to be very good in Conference USA."