Injury-plagued MSU falls to USC 9-1

MSU skipper Ron Polk was worried about the matchup between his injury-ridden pitching staff and the potent USC offense coming in to this weekend's series. He had good reason. The Gamecocks had a hit in all eight innings they came to bat and tallied 13 hits and 9 runs off the Bulldog pitchers, winning the SEC series opener 9-1 Friday night.

On a beautiful night for baseball in Columbia SC, two of the titans of SEC baseball squared off to do battle in front of 4810 fans clad in garnet or maroon. The sky was dark and clear with a full moon shining down, and it was still 70 degrees at the mid-point of the game. Like any athletic contest, the night only ended beautiful for one team.

Mississippi State head baseball coach Ron Polk has more wins than any coach in any sport in the history of the SEC. He took his 2007 club to the pinnacle of college baseball, the College World Series, but this year returned a team that lost almost every starter off of that CWS club either to the major league draft or graduation. "We started the season with as young a ballclub as I've ever had," he said. Polk is not known to be one to make excuses, but he was realistic after his club's 9-1 loss to South Carolina as to where his team fell short. "We're banged up right now. We started the season with five guys on the front and back covers of the media guide, and four of the five have been injured. It's not easy."

Carolina starting pitcher Mike Cisco was, pardon the pun, a bulldog on the mound this night. He took a shutout into the eighth inning before yielding a run, extending his record to 4-0 on the year. Mark Goforth hit a double in the top of the 8th off of Cisco, ending the night for the USC junior right-hander, who walked off to a standing ovation from the partisan home crowd. His final numbers on 106 pitches in seven and 2/3 innings were five strikeouts, five hits, and one walk. His only earned run of the evening came when Goforth scored on a RBI single by Hogue. Cisco threw 67 strikes on the night.

Cisco credited the teamwork he had with catcher Kyle Enders as key to his victory. "I think the thing that led to success tonight was matching pitches up against their hitters. Endo (the team's nickname for Enders) did a great job behind the plate, and it felt like I was right there with him the whole game. I thought we made some pitches in certain counts that kept them off balance and I think that's what worked tonight."

Polk said, "Cisco I thought pitched very well. That's the best I've seen him throw." USC's Ray Tanner said, "He's been good for us all year and he did it again tonight. We got some two out runs in the first inning. We had two outs and two strikes and ended up getting three runs after that. I thought that was big."

The coach in the visitor's dugout thought it was big too. "We didn't get a call in the first inning on Smoak," Polk said. "I thought we had him struck out, and that would have been a zero spot on the board. I'm not criticizing umpire Jack Cox, he has a tight strike zone, that would not have changed the win or loss, but at the same token it put us three down on the road."

Enders was sharp at the plate as well as behind it. The Gamecocks took advantage early of the Bulldogs' inexperienced starter Jesse Carver, putting three runs up in the first inning. South Carolina broke ahead 3-0 in the bottom of the first inning, Whit Merrifield drew a walk, and then stole second base. Justin Smoak drove a 3-2 pitch from Carver for a single to left field to score Merrifield. Enders then sent a no doubter sailing over the left field fence. It was the second straight game with a home run for Enders.

SC skipper Tanner said of Enders, "He's an unheralded player on this team. He's a guy as a coaching staff we knew this guy was going to help us. Not only can he catch, but he's a tough guy to strike out. He can drive in some runs for us. It's almost like when you look at our team, size it up and do a scouting report, you figure out the marquee players. You sort of take a deep breath and don't think much about him, and he can hurt you. He's done that all year for us." Enders had two hits and two RBI on the night, in addition to a terrific night behind the plate.

Polk did not bring two of his best pitchers, and a third will not start. The regular Friday pitcher for the Bulldogs Justin Pigott and key reliever Aaron Weatherford did not make the trip, and regular Saturday starter Chad Crosswhite will be replaced by junior college transfer Lee Swindle for the second game of the series. Mississippi State starter Jesse Carver went five innings and allowed seven runs on nine hits to suffer the loss. He is 1-1 on the year. He struck out four and walked four in the game. MSU walked seven batters on the night.

MSU got a base runner when Cisco gave up a walk in the top of the second, but that was it. Phil Disher hit a solo shot over nearly the same spot on the left field fence as Enders did an inning earlier, his fifth round tripper of the season. MSU got their first hit of the game in the top of the third on a single by Grant Hogue. He then stole second. He now has successfully made 14 of 15 stolen base attempts on the season.

A pair of two-out base hits accounted for two more runs in the fourth inning as Merrifield and James Darnell connected on RBI singles to score Justin Hopper and Reese Havens. Disher recorded his second RBI of the night in the fifth inning with a single to score Crisp, after Crisp had stolen second to get into scoring position. Five of USC's first six runs came with two outs.

It seemed USC had an answer every time MSU began to threaten. In the top of the 6th, USC got a twin killing on a 1-6-3 double play, and then had another twin killing to end the MSU half of the seventh.

In the bottom of the 7th, Crisp was hit by a pitch to start the inning. MSU then got a double play of their own in the bottom of the 7th, when Lail hit a rocket right at the 3rd baseman who threw to first, and then first baseman Tyler Moore tagged Crisp out coming back to first.

After a MSU run in the top of the eighth, the Gamecocks scored twice in the bottom half on a sacrifice fly from Smoak and a single from Crisp. Gamecock reliever Parker Bangs closed out the game for the Gamecocks with 1.1 scoreless innings of work with a pair of strikeouts.

Disher and Merrifield both had three hits on the night. Smoak, Enders and Disher all finished with two RBI. Crisp now owns an 11-game hitting streak. USC batters have now hit at least one home run in 17 of the 18 games for Carolina.

The series is an important one to both clubs, as they both came into the series with a losing 1-2 record in the early SEC standings after the opening weekend of SEC play. Mississippi State has won only one series ever in Columbia, in 1998. Carolina improves to 13-5 and 2-2 in the SEC, while the loss drops Mississippi State to 9-10 and 1-3 in the conference. The two teams meet in game two of the series on Saturday afternoon at 4 pm.

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