Entering the afternoon affair at AutoZone Park with his team trailing 5-4, Bussey hung six scoreless innings on the host Tigers. The shutout-stretch gave Mississippi State enough chances to catch up and ultimately go ahead on a solo home run in the top of the eighth by substitute batter Ryan Duffy. The Bulldogs (24-27) concluded their non-conference schedule and took a second win this season against Memphis (21-29), and improved their lead in the all-time series to 49-21.
It might have been difficult to convince Tiger batters that Bussey (2-2) has struggled for much of this transfer year at State. Because of the 23 officially-faced in the six complete innings, Bussey allowed only two hits—singles in the fourth and the eighth—without walking anyone. He also fanned six Memphians, or two more than his total strikeouts the rest of the season.
“He was phenomenal,” said Coach John Cohen. “He didn’t have great velocity but he had the ability to throw that second pitch in the strike zone, and make the strike zone bigger. He hasn’t been able to do that all year but maybe he’s starting to find it now.”
Bussey’s own relief at this late-year performance was obvious and understandable. “I got ahead with my slider a lot and finally got my changeup how I wanted it to work. And kind of put my fastball in every now and then.” Which was the right way to attack the Tigers, particularly with a AAA-size ballpark for the pitcher to work with and a defense that made almost every play…including a couple of special ones in the roomy outfield.
The win was welcome in several aspects to Cohen, who had reason to worry his team might still be riding a weekend high after taking a series at rival Ole Miss as well as looking ahead to the schedule-ending series at home with LSU. That made the Memphis trip a trap of sorts, even in a professional park atmosphere. Yet all worked out for Mississippi State when it mattered.
“We just needed a lift out of our bullpen, we desperately needed that to happen,” Cohen said. “We hit three home runs and defensively we were pretty solid. I thought our kids held it together because of the emotional weekend, they had a workman-like effort and I’m really pleased with it.”
The best workman at the plate was DH Cody Freeman, who slapped a pair of balls beyond leftfield for half of State’s RBI. “I was feeling good at the plate today,” Freeman said. “Both of them were fastballs, they left them belt high. I had two strikes and shortened my swing up a little bit and caught them out-front.”
With a compacted midweek to work within, State was going to use bullpen arms all game. Three right-handers got to work, beginning with Greg Houston who put in 2.1 frames. He absorbed all five Tiger runs on six hits, striking out one. Drew Hollinghead completed the bottom of the third for the starter with a hit and nothing else. Both Houston and Hollinghead had single strikeouts, but more meaningful was that they—nor Bussey—did not walk anyone.
Memphis’ Ryan Fraser (3-5) took the loss, putting in a five-inning stint as the second Tiger to toss. He split the six runs with starter Ryan Holland, though Fraser gave up twice as many hits (6). Memphis also issued seven walks, and if only one free-pass produced a run-scorer it still kept the pressure on the host defense. Holland in fact loaded the bases in State’s first inning on walks, escaping with a called strikeout.
He wasn’t as lucky when the Bulldogs came after him in the second. With 2B Jet Butler on second, having walked and been bunted over, CF Grant Hogue was able to rope a single past the flat-footed Memphis third baseman for the opening run. Hogue stole third, his 29th theft of the season, but may as well saved the effort. Because Freeman unloaded a no-doubt shot over leftfield for a 3-0 lead. Holland had to strand a couple more Dogs in scoring positions to keep it there. Those two strandees would have been better scored after Memphis also made good second-inning contact.
Beginning, with one out, on a line-shot over left by first baseman Trey Wiedman. Consecutive singles later Houston rolled a grounder right to SS Frank Radow that was mishandled into just a force of the middle runner at second base, allowing Jacob Wilson to score from third. Houston was able to get back into the dugout with a one-run lead by catching Chris Newson leading too far off first.
Houston’s stint ended in the third as after getting the nine-batter he was tagged for consecutive doubles and a single by the top of the Tiger order, driving in the tying and go-ahead scores. Hollinghead had been warming for a while but a wild pitch and RBI-gapper by Shawn Ablett made it 5-3.
Fraser had entered in State’s third and stranded a pair himself. A leadoff single put Hogue on the paths and he made second on a fly ball. Hogue was running for third as 1B Connor Powers lifted a deep but routine enough fly to center; so after coming back to tag-up he made another run for the next base…and didn’t stop. The Tiger shortstop hesitated on the relay just long enough that Hogue was able to slide in under the catcher for a run and a rather unique ‘sacrifice’ RBI for Powers.
“We work on that a lot and haven’t done it as much as we’d like to, it was probably the second time we’ve done that,” Cohen said. “You have to have a good runner, no question. And with two outs you’re going to take that chance.”
Freeman made his fourth trip to the plate in the sixth with two outs and no ons after a Tiger twin-killing. So he was only able to drive himself in with another shot to leftfield, this one clearing both fences on the fly. “The first one I didn’t have a clue it was going out, the second one I kind of had a thought!” The tied scoreboard also put Bussey on-the-record, and whether coincidence or not his stint turned a bit tense. He struck out the leadoff man in Memphis’ sixth but did it with a wild pitch that let Wilson reach, then plunked Cole Shelton. A bunt advanced both runners into scoring positions.
#9 batter Daniel Kaufman thought he’d at least broke the tie with a fly ball to right, but RF Ryan Collins timed his approach and catch perfectly and was able to fire a strike home. C Scott DeLoach made the easy tag for the tough double-play. However the real defensive play of the day was by LF Brent Brownlee as with one down in the Tiger seventh he galloped into the gap, dove flat-out and extended his glove…and came down with a drive off the bat of Tyler Huelsing.
“I threw a fastball-away and he hit a pretty good ball to Brownlee, I didn’t think it had a chance of a play on it,” Bussey said. “Brent came out of nowhere and made an unbelievable play.” Cohen called it a game-changing play. “I think he might be the best defensive outfielder in the Southeastern Conference.” Yet it was great Dog fortune Brownlee was even in the field for that play, because in the top of the inning with two outs Duffy was in the on-deck circle loosening for a pinch-hit role.
Fortunately Butler struck out to end the top of the seventh. “I’m sitting saying do I send Brent to the plate or Duffy, which he doesn’t get to the plate,” Cohen said. “Brent gets left in, he makes the great play, and then Duffy steps in and has the at-bat. And what a great job to focus that lone and when he gets the chance make the most of it.”
Because Duffy got a 2-0 offering from Fraser he could drive five rows deep into the rightfield seats for the 6-5 score. Tiger righty Worth Tate ended the inning on fly balls that stayed in the park but the Dog-damage had been done. Bussey was able to leave a pair on bases in the eighth, then sit the side in the ninth to complete his big outing.
“Justin was the best he’s looked all year,” Freeman said. “He was working the strike zone and pumping the bottom half.”
Freeman ran his home-run total to six for the year with the two shots, while Duffy is at nine longballs. Hogue’s second-inning theft gave him the second-best season total in MSU history, behind only the 38 of Dan Van Cleve in 1985; and ties him with Dave Klipstein (1980-83) for fourth on the career list at 54.
After being entertained by the local alumni association chapter, the Bulldogs returned home to prepare for their last weekend of the 2009 season. State cannot qualify for the SEC Tournament while Louisiana State will come in playing to take the conference championship. Still MSU players feel they are finally playing the sort of ball they ought to have all spring, and if they cannot carry it into the post-season there is always 2010. “Hopefully we’ll turn it around here at the end and put together a halfway-decent season,” Freeman said.
“This win I think helps give a good jump-start on the weekend against LSU,” Bussey said. “It’s a big win going into a weekend like this against a good team and you want to do everything you can to beat them and I think this helps give a good jump-start on that.”