"I think if we have fun like this it's going to help us out, too," Freeman grinned.
Fun, indeed. Because when pinch-runner Shepherd touched the plate it completed a most monstrous comeback. Trailing 10-2 midway of the eighth, Mississippi State scored eight times in the bottom of that inning to tie the visiting Bulldogs. They capped the rally in the last inning with Freeman's single to leftfield off Cooper Moseley, giving the host Dogs the rubber game.
"You don't get to be a part of something like this very often," said Greg Houston, just before being doused by (orange) sports drink. "I'd like to be part of something like that every game…well, maybe not to come back from eight runs down! But to win games like that is a special thing for a team."
Special because it not only gave State (14-10, 2-4 SEC) its first series success of the season, but the first series win over Georgia (9-15, 1-5 SEC) since the 2002 season. So if the home Bulldogs wanted to bark for fun, Coach John Cohen was not going to interfere. Far from it.
"We literally practice celebrating. We want our kids to enjoy this experience." Besides, Cohen added, "To take two out of three from anybody in this league at this point in time is a big, big weekend."
Ironically Cohen was the only Bulldog not immediately on-hand to celebrate the winning run, having been banished by umpire John Whitaker in the top of the second inning for a loud "Come on!" shout from the dugout at a missed strike call. Thus the head coach had to watch from pitching coach Butch Thompson's office as his team first fell increasingly farther behind, then when State suddenly rallied against a vulnerable Georgia bullpen.
"I highly recommend Maroon to the Max to any of our fans who don't have it!" Cohen said. "Getting to listen to Jim Ellis is pretty good, though we were four seconds behind so I could hear the crowd before I heard what is happening." Ironically his former coach and predecessor, Ron Polk, arrived in town for his weekly mail-run just in time to catch the eight-run eighth, and came to the dugout after the victory to share in the celebrating.
Of course most of the rubber game looked as dreary as the overcast Sunday skies for the home team, as Georgia starter Michael Palazzone pitched lights-out. After giving up a pair of first-inning scores to State, the righthander settled in and hung six zeroes on the scoreboard's bottom line. Palazzone certainly didn't look like a 2-3, 9-plus ERA moundsman against State in his seven complete innings.
"He'd been pitching poorly this year, and he really pitched well," said Cohen. "From a centerfield angle he's getting both sides of the plate, he's burying his breaking ball and elevating his fastball and we just didn't handle him." Fortunately Palazzone could not complete the afternoon and had to turn things over to a relief staff which hadn't been much up to the task all the young season.
The two big Dog innings affirmed it. "Once we got past him into the bullpen good things started happening," said CF Ryan Collins, one of the only State batters to enjoy any success against Palazzone with a 3-of-5 day.
The good things began almost immediately. Ben Cornwell was handed the eight-run cushion to protect and failed beginning with a one-out walk of DH Russ Sneed and run-and-hit single by Collins for Dogs on corners. LF Jet Butler bounced one to the left side that the charging shortstop could not come up with as the ball ricocheted around allowing Sneed to score. It was just one run but Georgia immediately yanked Cornwell for John Herman. C Wes Thigpen greeted him with a blooper that fell a foot inside the rightfield line to plate Collins.
The biggest blow came from SS Jonathan Ogden as he lined a three-run shot over leftfield that suddenly had State within 10-7. "It was breaking ball a little bit elevated and that's what he hits the best," said Cohen. "We're fortunate we got the right pitch at the right time. And we kept taking good swings over and over again." Southpaw Justin Earls got the hasty summons, but Freeman doubled off the centerfield wall to bring the top of MSU's order back up.
3B Nick Vickerson singled directly to the rightfielder so Freeman had to stop at third. It was no problem though as RF Adkins whipped a double to right-centerfield for two more RBI, the tying Dog at second, and yet another Georgia bullpen call. This time successful Saturday closer Moseley, who got a ludicrous high-and-outside strike one on 1B Conner Powers. The Bulldog first baseman stalked off in open frustration until Whitaker waved him back to the dish. There, Powers lined one barely over the leaping second-sacker's reach that allowed Adkins to come home unchallenged for the tied tally. Moseley needed a strikeout to keep it at 10-10 and end State's biggest offensive inning of the season to-date.
But he also had to come back out to throw to MSU in the ninth after Houston sat the UG side in the top of the frame. Butler didn't waste time singling the first offering into rightfield and with one out Shepherd was put on first base to run. He stole his way into scoring position with two outs, and when Moseley and the Georgia third basemen weren't paying attention he dashed over to the final corner unchallenged. Freeman was as startled as anyone.
"I saw Jaron move so I decided to keep as still as I could," he said. "The pitcher never looked up so it worked well." Very well indeed when Freeman read the count right and figured a slider was coming from Moseley. "He'd beat me with a fastball up the previous pitch, it was full-count and he left the slider up. that's what we're taught to look for, is up." Georgia's leftfielder came to get the safety but didn't waste time on a play as Shepherd scored.
Moseley left 0-1, while Houston got his third win in as many decisions. He'd entered to get the last out after Georgia scored twice in the top of the eighth to stretch their lead to that seemingly-safe 10-2. It didn't seem so big at the time but getting a swinging strikeout of sub-third baseman Todd Hankins to strand two UG Dogs proved crucial.
"I was just trying to get people out, keep us in the game and give them a chance to win," he said. "I used mostly fastballs but I was throwing some off-speed early, and I got a strikeout on a changeup and a fastball." He had no hits and a walk against three Ks in the 1.1 inning, winning stint.
By all rights Palazzone should have been a winner with 7.0 innings, two runs on five hits with four walks and nine strikeouts. The scores came in the opening inning as Powers grounded-in Vickerson and Sneed sailed a solo home run over leftfield. Palazzone left two others on bases and then went into shut-down mode.
"We got to him a little in that first inning," Collins said. "We strung a couple of hits together, then he started changing his patterns and using his breaking ball more and giving us fits. He went pretty deep in the game." 98 pitches deep, specifically, though as Cohen noted the hits and walks did ultimately mean Palazzone could not come back out for the eighth at all.
"Wherever the glove was, he found it. Thank goodness we got him into a pitch count and got to face some other guys."
State got 3.0 innings out of freshman starter Chad Girodo, with five runs charged on six hits, a walk and three strikeouts. He would likely have gone unscathed in the Georgia second if 2B Sam Frost had not been undercut—probably legally as the runner was coming right to the bag—trying to turn a double-play. Instead Colby May was able to reach base and score on a leftfield-line double from Carson Schilling. A missed strike call later Cohen was thumbed, though his ire arose as much from dubious zone-work the previous two games.
"Obviously there's some things you can control and some things you can't," Cohen said later, duplicating some Saturday comments. By SEC policy the coach won't be suspended for this first ejection. Still he wasn't around to watch UG cleanup batter Zach Cone slug a three-run homer in the third inning. When the #s 7 and 8 batters reached to open the Georgia fourth Caleb Reed took over pitching only to have a hot hopper to third base stuff the sacks with one out. Peter Verdin's sacrifice fly made it 5-2, and in the top of the sixth Levi Hyams hit a two-out double for one RBI.
Reed hung in there until the eighth when hits by Jonathan Taylor and Peter Verdin scored runners. Tyler Whitney was called-in only to allow two more RBI-hits for the 10-2 lead, which was Houston's cue to take charge. "Houston came out and really pitched well," Cohen said.
Well enough to get that ice-cold shower. "I'll take this every game if we can win like that!" he said. Collins, doing radio duty, missed such on-field shenanigans and wasn't complaining. "Especially with the Gatorade, I mean with it being this cold. But it was a great win today."
Collins and Butler both had three-hit days for State, while Hyams was 3-of-5 with two RBI and two runs for Georgia. Both sides had 15 hits and while the visiting Dogs played errorless ball the home team had three charged errors. None of which ultimately proved as damaging as the lack of quality relief pitching for Georgia.
"I thought the team did well today fighting back from what, 10-4 maybe?" said Freeman. "10-2 actually. It's big. We've been struggling and just to win a series, especially against Georgia, that means a lot to the players and staff and everybody. I think it means a lot to the fans, actually."
Presumably more of those fans will turn out now for Tuesday evening's 2010 edition of the annual Governor's Cup game in Pearl against Ole Miss. Though not a SEC contest, it has more than enough meaning for both programs that they want to win badly…without abusing the pitching staff any more than necessary. Having gone through just about the whole mound roster this weekend Cohen frankly said he didn't know who would start at Trustmark Park.
"We'll throw the six or seven guys like we have the middle of the week. I don't know what the other school will do but I'm sure they'll get into some version of that as well. But it's a great opportunity for our kids to not have a lull in the middle of a week, to compete against a good team."
And, maybe, do some more celebrating? Freeman hopes so. "The Governor's Cup is a special thing, getting to play Ole Miss for a trophy. They won it last year and we want to take it back this year."
State is the designated home team for the 6:30 game.