Tennessee left Dudy Noble Field at 18-19 and 4-11, having dropped the Saturday and Sunday games in what already loomed as a must-win series for both sides. Oddly though, Diamond Dogs thought a key to this series was not being quite so, well, serious.
"I think the reason we had good success today and yesterday is we started having fun," said pitcher Luke Bole.
Bole was too modest to claim credit for himself, yet he deserved a fair portion along with his classmates in State's freshman-dominated pitching staff. A day after fellow rookie Chris Stratton tossed a complete-game win, Bole made his first SEC start memorable with six solid innings and a winning decision. The young lefthander worked into the seventh and worked pretty fast, with 94 pitches. He allowed four runs on eight hits, with a pair of strikeouts and walks both, and in the process gave MSU just what was needed under Sunday circumstances.
"He just looked so under control and really did a good job varying his speeds within pitches," reported Powers from his first base vantage point. "He changed the speed of his curveball and fastball and it really kept them off-balance." Plus, Bole prevented any big Volunteer innings by allowing a lone run in the second and two more scores in the fifth, all after State had taken a lead.
Coach John Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson settled on Bole for the rubber-game start after his steady showing in a midweek start against South Alabama. "Wednesday he had great velocity and threw it where he wanted to the first 20, 30 pitches," Cohen said. "That's how you get the opportunity to start." Plus Bole had proven to the coaches that he is ‘finishing' deliveries and locating breaking balls more consistently.
That got him the start; what kept him on the hill was execution and in a few cases just being tough-minded. Bole shrugged off a first-batter single by Tennessee with no harm done; and after Vol Matt Duffy doubled to open the second and eventually scored on ground balls the freshman wasn't fazed. "I just kept rolling over my curveball and pulling big hops, stuff like that." Well enough to retire eight of the next nine faced.
Tennessee starter Steven Gruver wasn't as fortunate or effective, lasting only into the third turn before departing. He wouldn't be the only Vol pitcher replaced as their bullpen would keep dispensing relief candidates like coupons, until no less than eight arms were used in all. Gruver (1-3) still got the decision on eight hits, six runs, and two walks.
In all Vol pitching would allow 15 Bulldog hits…none of which left the yard. In fact Sunday was a complete turn of pace, not to mention wind direction, from Friday and Saturday when the teams had combined for 11 longballs. Nobody got closer to a fence than midway of a warning track this day and that was to a corner. Cohen reminded his batters in pre-game of the changed conditions and to adjust their swings accordingly.
"To the right side carried OK, but it was a line drive/ground day," the coach said. "And we hit a lot of hard ground balls and some line drives. And the middle of our order really carried us, Connor has just been so consistent for us. It's called leading by example."
Powers did just that with three hits, all doubles to tie the program record, three RBI and three runs scored himself. Batting behind him in the fourth slot DH Russ Sneed was 2-of-3 with three ribbies and a run. But it wasn't just the middle-batters doing damage as all nine slots produced at least one run. Fittingly leadoff Dog 3B Nick Vickerson got it all started with an opening double. Powers would drive him in with his first two-bagger, then score on a Sneed single for a 2-0 lead.
Gruver did well to keep it there, leaving the sacks stuffed in the first, and he stranded two more in the second inning. The only point State showed concern about Bole was in the third as he walked the nine-batter to begin, but a fly-out and double-play settled that. By the time he toed the rubber for the fourth he had a much healthier lead to protect.
The UT first baseman let a scooter by LF Ryan Duffy get under the mitt and 2B Jet Butler singled cleanly to center. C Wes Thigpen lifted a short fly behind second that would have been an easy catch..except that stiff breeze was blowing straight-in and centerfielder Josh Liles only got a piece of the ball for a scratch single and full bases.
CF Jaron Shepherd whipped the bat around at the last instant and high-hopped a hit into rightfield for a double and two RBI. And, the pitching change with Dylan Hochevar assuming responsibility of two Dogs in scoring positions and no outs. He didn't relieve the situation much by walking SS Jonathan Ogden, and it took a strong run and great grab by Liles to rob Vickerson of an extra base hit. Thigpen was able to score on the fly.
With bases re-loaded and still one down Powers knocked his second doublet of the day, this time to leftfield, and scored Shepherd and Ogden for the 7-1 margin. Powers said he knew from four years' experience not to challenge the wind at Dudy Noble Field. "I just tried to make sure I hit a little more topspin or just ground balls and line drives. On days like this that's going to win." Lefty Nick Catapano replaced Hochevar and needed a couple of strikeouts to leave the bases full.
"Whenever you get up big like that its easier to throw," said Bole. And for that matter to give up some minor damage, as Tennessee took a pair off their deficit in the fifth. Liles reached on an infield single; as did Cody Grisham, both on grounders Ogden could stop but not throw. Ogden might have triggered a double-dip on Norfork's bouncer but Bole instinctively stabbed and deflected it for another infield safety and this one a RBI hit. With two outs C.J. Polk got a legit single for another run, but Bole was left on the hill to ground-out lefthanded batter Cody Hawn to end the inning with a 7-3 lead.
The Vols changed moundsmen for lefty Will Locante to take on the top of State's order in the fifth. It didn't work out so well as three one-out walks loaded everything up for Duffy who—after a brushback—singled past the frozen first baseman to score Adkins. "You could just feel he was going to take a good swing against the lefthander and that's why we left him in," Cohen said. "It was a huge swing in the game."
So was a bases-loaded lash by Butler that was fair down the rightfield line, his first triple of the year and a three-run hit. Thigpen made it a 12-3 lead with his sac-fly to right. It was D.J. Leffler's turn to throw some b-p in the MSU sixth. Adkins drew a one-out walk and got to third as Powers' hard shot was off the UT third baseman's glove for another double. Sneed collected two more RBI with his single to complete State scoring.
Bole's afternoon ended with a single and walk in the seventh. Kendall Graveman finished loading bases with a walk, so fielder's choice grounders scored the lead runner to trim the deficit a bit. Adkins, now playing left, came in for a short fly-out to end that inning. Tennessee was able to make the margin a little more respectable with consecutive doubles in their eighth for one RBI (Ramsey) and a Liles grounder scoring him from third.
Ben Bracewell made sure nothing like that happened in the ninth, sitting the top third of the order with two strikeouts and a grounder back to the mound. That also completed a day and for that matter weekend where Cohen could see the future of Bulldog pitching. After Stratton's full-stint Saturday, a trio of rookies combined in the series-clincher.
"We had three freshmen arms go out there today and throw 91 miles per hour or better," said Cohen. "That doesn't happen a lot in this league. Each of them has some stuff to work on but I think we have a good foundation. You can tell it's going to happen and I think we saw some glimpses of that today."
Another frosh had started Friday's game, won 15-13 by the Vols. And as proud as the coaches were of what potential was shown by all the young arms, they still had a collective 9.00 era on the weekend. What made this series special from State's perspective was all the offense suddenly coming to the fore with a .377 series batting average and .588 slugging rate. Bulldogs tallied no less than 10 doubles on the weekend with Butler's triple and four other home runs, two by Duffy in Saturday's key win.
Powers had the biggest week though, hitting .692 against Tennessee—and getting his first SEC home run this year—and .706 for the week counting his outing against South Alabama. He added six doubles and that one shot to his season total for a .414 average after 36 games. Powers also now stands alone in fifth place among MSU sluggers with 48 home runs on his career.
Then there were his senior classmates coming through as Sneed hit .636 against UT, Adkins .538. The upperclassmen have had their share of struggles and critiques through the first four SEC weekends but #5 showed they can still set a pace for the whole squad. "Our seniors are carrying the load, they've done a better job taking the bull by the horns," said Cohen.
While the coach, and club, are relieved to be back in the SEC Tournament picture again, it's still a very tenuous position. And one of the clubs State is matched with comes up next on the schedule with a trip to Alabama. The Crimson Tide took a big hit being swept at LSU, including a heartbreaking 14-inning loss Sunday on a walk-off homer. Now they host a Bulldog team that might be warming up in mid-season, for a series that could quite probably prove pivotal in the fragile post-season hopes of both programs.
Cohen hopes that this home series was something of a breakout for his still-developing squad, and they discovered something that can produce a bigger breakthrough—in the form of some SEC road success.
"We've talked a lot about being really close and I think our kids are aware of our RPI," Cohen said. "We talk about just competing and finding a way to get to the conference tournament, which isn't out of the realm of possibility, and I think we can get in a regional. Even as inconsistent as we've been I still think that's out there. Our seniors deserve that opportunity."
And there's a bunch of freshmen ready to help them earn it. As Bole said, winning this series relieved some of the pressures the Bulldogs have been feeling. "But now it's like we're ready to roll. It's a new mentality we have, quit playing for yourself and start playing for the team."