Mississippi State broke out of an offensive slump to score a 7-3 victory over #12-ranked Alabama in a series-opening contest at Dudy Noble Field. The Bulldogs, who also snapped a four-game losing string, improved to 29-15 overall and 10-11 in Southeastern Conference play, while the Crimson Tide slipped to 33-15. Alabama lost its Western Division lead, as LSU’s comeback win over Kentucky ties the Tide and Tigers at 13-9 SEC. Alabama has the tiebreaker in that matchup.
The Bulldogs weren’t as worried about events atop the league as just staying in the eight-team lineup for the SEC Tournament. Friday’s victory kept State in that eighth slot, still a half-game ahead of Auburn and Arkansas, both game-one winner, then Vanderbilt's loss at Georgia let the MSU Dogs climb a spot. It was also MSU’s fifth-straight win over Alabama going back to 2003.
And much as in last year’s sweep of the Tide at Tuscaloosa, this series-starting win marked a return to life by Bulldog batsmen as they collected a dozen base hits in eight encouraging innings. The seven runs were practically an explosion from an offense that the previous weekend scored just five times in 27 innings. Friday the Bulldogs not only exceeded that total but nearly matched the 15 hits tallied at Oxford.
The consensus of club and coach alike was that a week free from play allowed them to get in some much-needed work, which shone from the scoreboard. “We had a really, really, really productive week swinging the bat, good B.P. sessions all week,” said catcher Thomas Berkery, who had three of the safeties and three RBI on a double and home run. “The clutch hit has been costing us. We finally got it and that’s what it takes to win on Friday night.”
Two of those driven-in runner were the same Dog as Jeffrey Rea who had three base knocks of his own batting in the top slot. “We all knew coming in from last weekend we had to step it up,” Rea said. “Our pitchers have been giving us a chance, we just hadn’t been hitting like we should. It was great for us not to play a game during the week, to get your feet back under you.”
The break definitely seemed to help the top of State’s order as the first four batters combined for nine of the dozen hits. They also produced the timely contact that had been missing, most notably in the crucial opening two frames after Alabama rang up a pair of quick runs on one strong swing by leftfielder Gabe Rice. His two-run homer in the top of the first inning could have sent the Bulldogs down the same troubled track as last weekend.
“Going in we were 5-5 the last ten games,” Coach Ron Polk said. “But it felt like 0-10 because we were playing from behind. And we were behind again.”
But this was not an ‘again’ evening for Alan Johnson, though the State starter initially wondered. “I was like man, it’s another Friday night all over,” said Johnson. “I said I had to figure something out because if I don’t I won’t be pitching on Friday night much more.”
His job remains safe because the senior righthander recovered to put in seven complete innings and earn the decision. Johnson (3-5) gave up just three more hits in his stint with a run in the fourth inning, walked three and struck out six. He worked long enough to allow righty Saunders Ramsey to take care of the last two frames and preserve the margin of Johnson’s victory.
Righthander T.J. Large (6-4) took the loss for Alabama, lasting only four outs with five runs (all earned) and a pair of walks against him and one strikeout.
Johnson got into fast trouble, as with one out Allen Rice beat the throw to first base on a dribble to the shortstop. A wild pitch moved the runner along, though it didn’t matter where he stood. Because with a 2-2 count Scott lined a hooking drive that somehow stayed inside the rightfield pole, his 11th home run of the season. A pair of walks, around a called strikeout, had two more men on the paths and got the Bulldog bullpen busy.
“I had to get it in gear,” Johnson said, and he rolled a groundout and went to the dugout trailing 2-0. By the time Johnson returned it was to protect a lead, and he sat the side. “It felt good after the first inning. It was a different mentality, the last two starts I was laid-back and tonight I had to get it in focus.” Johnson and catcher Berkery also played some inside-ball. Suspecting that recent foes have been picking up State’s pitching locations and patterns, they constantly changed the signs during the game and threw more first-pitch strikes.
Whatever the reason, State allowed only one other run the rest of the evening. A double-play erased a leadoff walk in the third while the fourth inning was more worrisome as he had a pair on, by walk and hit batsman, with one down. A grounder up the middle erased the middle runner but couldn’t be turned in time, and with the #9 batter up Cale Iorg went for the steal. Berkery’s throw got into centerfield and Zac Welch came home from third base for a 5-3 score. Johnson struck out Greg Paiml to keep it there after four.
The Tide tried to nibble another run off the margin with a ground-rule double one out into their sixth, only to see Easley suck in a line-shot to prevent the score and Johnson roll an inning-ending grounder to his shortstop. The starter left another runner on third base in the seventh by striking out DH Rice.
With a four-run lead Ramsey came in to get the last six outs. He did issue a leadoff walk to open his stint, which was erased as Kateon sucked in a liner and doubled off the runner. A two-out walk didn’t hurt either.
Yet State had gotten good enough pitching in most of their recent setbacks to compete; offense was the missing ingredient. So when Rea greeted Large with a clean single up the middle in the very first at-bat everyone in the Bulldog dugout perked up. Rea got to second on a wild pitch and made third on a Berkery fly ball.
Large issued a walk to rightfielder Brad Corley and after fouling off a 2-2 changeup first baseman Brad Jones dropped a single in front of the rightfielder for State’s first run. It was the kind of clutch hit to spark an entire order, and while Corley was thrown out trying to take third on a dirtball Large wasn’t getting away so easily. Jones stole second and a full-count wild pitch added another base while Large was walking Brian LaNinfa. With men on the corners Ed Easley worked the count full before lining a double that fell maybe two feet inside the leftfield line, and the Bulldogs were in front 3-2.
“Coach (Tommy) Raffo is always preaching that two-out hits win ball games,” said Rea. So do one-out knocks. A pop-foul began Large’s second—and last—turn with one out, but the starter followed that by hitting Jeff Butts in the back and nailing Rea in the helmet. State might have played the short game here; it was even better when Berkery drove a slider that fell on the warning track in right-centerfield for two more Bulldog RBI, a 5-2 lead, and a pitching change. Veteran lefty Brent Carter inherited a one-out, one-on situation, and after Corley got his first hit in ten days by blooping a single barely behind the middle-infielders the Tide reliever rolled a twin-killing.
Carter settled things down for three scoreless innings, though he had to strand five runners in the doing with four singles and a walk against him. Double-plays twice ended MSU innings, and Carter had sat six-straight before giving up a Rea single in the bottom of the sixth. He got to second safely, credited with a steal though the first baseman dropped the pitcher’s throw. That gave Berkery a chance to swing away and Carter accommodated him on 1-1.
“He wasn’t going to throw me three fastballs in a row and the changeup is his pitch, so I was looking for it,” Berkery said, and that’s what he saw. What all saw was a line-shot that cleared the leftfield corner for his sixth home run of the year. The two-run shot expanded State’s lead to a much safer four-score cushion, key against an Alabama team that already had rallied in 21of their victories. “Coach Polk told us a lot of their wins were coming from behind,” said Rea.
A bigger lead also helped decide which reliever to throw in the last two frames, as did having three righthanders immediately coming up. “If it was closer we’d have gone with a power-pitcher, Brett Cleveland or Mike Valentine,” Polk said. “Now we’ve got them for tomorrow, and Ramsey can come back Sunday.”
Friday saw the early return of Joseph Hunter, sidelined three weeks by a broken thumb. The centerfield didn’t start but took his position for the top of the fourth inning, a move Polk said was partly made to improve outfield defense to protect the lead. “He has to wear a splint and it doesn’t affect him as much hitting as throwing,” Polk said. “But it was good to get him in the ball game, get him some at-bats. Now we can start him tomorrow feeling at least he’s seen the ball.”
For the Tide, Carter became the UA career strikeout record of 289, ending the evening with 292. But he couldn’t affect the outcome. “Give our kids credit, we got to Large in the first inning,” Polk said.
State batters also deserved credit just for putting their recent woes behind and getting back in a swing of better things, especially with so much riding on this series in post-season terms. “It was a big confidence-builder,” said Berkery. “It was tough for us last weekend and it was great to bounce back.”
Now the Bulldogs try to keep the sticks hot for the rest of the weekend. Saturday’s game (moved to 6:30 to accommodate afternoon graduation ceremonies) pits Bulldog righthander Todd Doolittle against Alabama lefthander Wade LeBlanc.