Wednesday night might just have shown exactly what. Entering in the sixth inning, Graveman put in four full frames of controlling visiting South Alabama in a 9-5 Mississippi State victory. The Bulldogs improved to 17-16 on the year, while the Jaguars left 24-14. Wednesday’s non-conference game was a rescheduled date of a March rainout.
Which proved to be a well-timed opportunity for Graveman. One of several Bulldog rookies who have been forced into weekend starting and relief jobs this year, the righthander had already experienced enough ups-and-downs in his prior 11 appearances for a full frosh-season. Despite some recent and inevitable struggles, the State coaching staff had maintained high hopes and was looking for the right chance.
Wednesday it came, and Graveman came through. “I kind of found my way out of it tonight, I threw strikes and felt real comfortable out there,” he said. “I’ve been working on a few things with Coach (Butch) Thompson and it seemed to come into focus tonight.” Graveman got the decision as a result, improving to 2-2 on the year. His 4.0 innings produced two Jaguar runs on three hits, three walks and four strikeouts.
“His deal was throwing strikes,” said Coach John Cohen of the kid’s preceding problems. “He threw strikes tonight for the most part and that’s what we needed. He’s one of those kids who is such a great athlete, his arm works so good, he can make a baseball do two or three different things. I really believe he’s going to be a great one because he does so many things you can’t teach.”
Graveman got the win in relief of starter Luke Bole (3.1 innings, three runs on seven hits, four strikeouts) and Greg Houston (1.2, no runs, two hits, two strikeouts). South Alabama starter Lance Brown (1-3) took the loss with five runs on eight hits, a walk and a strikeout. He only worked 3.1 innings and six more Jaguars would pitch at least an out before the evening ended at 9:35. Sending so many men to the mound was a good sign for a Mississippi State offense that has had plenty issues of their own lately.
This night though the Dogs got 13 hits, eight of them from the top three in the order. “It’s nice for a change,” said 1B Connor Powers. “Obviously it’s positive any time you win, but it was encouraging to have that happen for us.” Powers made it happen himself with three hits in four trips, twice doubling the ball. He scored twice and drove in a pair.
“We took some better swings,” said Powers. Notably so the second half of the order, whether the 5-through-9 guys who started or the constantly-revised lineup that took turns over the latter innings. Those slots provided five hits and scored six of the runs. “They did a really good job,” Powers said. “It’s really hard to com off ten bench, step in and make plays and pinch-hit. I’ve pinch-hit a couple of times in summer ball and I’m not very good at it, so its tough to do.”
“I’m pleased we had better at-bats, especially the bottom of the order for the most part,” Cohen said. “Numbers are confidence, it doesn’t matter if you smoke the ball or it just falls in, if you get hits you believe more in yourself. We got some hits tonight.”
Including three-straight to open the game, the third a RBI-single by Powers. A walk of 3B Jet Butler loaded the bases so LF Trey Johnson’s ground ball to second scored the leading runner, and SS Jonathan Ogden was able to make a 3-0 lead with his base hit. A one-out single in the second by RF Luke Adkins was somewhat neutralized as Duffy’s base hit caught the runner on the heel for an automatic out. “Well, we can add to our checklist this year getting hit by a ball,” Cohen said. “It’s another freak play to happen.”
Still it was only two down and a Dog on the paths; and Duffy was able to come all the way around for a 4-0 lead as Powers hooked a double into the leftfield corner. Bole was able to ride that margin for three full turns, though he needed help from CF Ryan Collins with a running, reaching grab to rob Brent Tanner of at least a double and two RBI in the second. A fourth-frame leadoff double by Tyler Vick was another matter. A bunt moved him along so that there was no hurry scoring the first USA run on a Taylor White single.
Two were on with still a lone out as the Jaguars played run-and-hit. And executed nicely as White’s move froze Butler at third sufficiently for a liner by Clint Reynolds to get by for the RBI. This brought the top of the order up, even as Bole advanced Tanner from second with an errant pickoff attempt. Cohen said shortstop Ogden was trying to create an out and made the call. “We just didn’t really need to pick at second base then.” Tanner came home hard on Heisler’s bunt and beat the throw from Butler for a 4-3 score.
And, a pitching change with Houston inheriting two on and one down. He flew-out and grounded the second and third batters in USA’s order to hold the one-run lead. State got one of the scores back in the bottom of the inning as 2B Sam Frost reached on a scratch single and eventually came home as Duffy lifted a one-out fly to leftfield off Phillip Byrd.
Houston left a pair on paths in the fifth with a called strikeout of Tanner to end his stint. Graveman took over for the USA and was hit for a deep two-bagger by Reynolds. Consecutive fly-balls had him on third base when Jake Overstreet lashed a one-hot shot right into Graveman’s lap that was caromed the wrong way for a 5-4 score. The tough-luck tally didn’t faze Graveman though as he got Vick swinging, then hung consecutive 0s on the board.
“We threw a lot of fastballs and mixed in a few early-count breaking balls just to keep them honest,” he said. “There towards the end they were taking a lot so getting ahead was a major part.”
State’s offense changed the game in the seventh, beginning with Powers’ one-out double. Lefthander Brad Hook came to the hill to intentionally walk pinch-batter Russ Sneed, who in turn was run for by Nick Vickerson. “I really wanted Sneed to have that at-bat, that’s the only option we had,” said Cohen. Prior subbing meant new CF Jaron Shepherd was up in the production situation and he came through with a single bounced between first and second basemen.
Powers scored from second and Vickerson got to third, where he would have been anyway when LF Trey Johnson walked to load all bases. With two outs Frost watched four balls without moving the bat, scoring Vickerson; and Thigpen made it a 9-4 lead with his soft single to center plating Shepherd and Johnson.
“That was a really big at-bat there,” Powers said. “That was kind of the separator, it gave us a little cushion.”
USA’s Carlton Paris loaded the bases with a walk and two plunkings, requiring one last mound-move with Jake Leblanc entering. He popped Ogden out on one pitch. South Alabama didn’t go quietly, getting two on base immediately and putting them on corners via a throwing error by Vickerson. With a 0-1 count to Brown, the Jags changed batters for lefty Nolan Earley to make it 9-5 with his single into center.
Graveman halted any other drama with a pop-fly and two ground balls. After his hard times it was a almost a fresh start, so to speak, making a relief role work so well. “I think that might be a strong point for me this season,” Graveman said, adding he should be available for weekend work. “I believe Sunday I’ll be good, I bounce back pretty quickly.”
Adkins joined Powers as three-hit Dogs on the night while Duffy batted safely twice and scored twice. Vick and Reynolds each had three hits for USA, which posted twelve total safeties. Errors meant two of the Jaguar runs were unearned, though as Cohen said outside two fielding mistakes his team defended capably.
And, the coach said, the whole squad seemed better prepared emotionally for a game after a painful weekend sweeping by Arkansas. “They responded to the day-off and we had a very long meeting to discuss what we needed to do, and we had a great practice Tuesday. So I really felt we were going to do something tonight. There is a degree of things happening and going your way, and we need that to happen.”
The Bulldogs will continue a nine-game homestand by hosting Tennessee for a weekend series. Cohen has booked soph righty Caleb Reed (0-3, 4.79) for Friday’s 6:30 game, and freshman righty Chris Stratton (3-3, 3.43) for Saturday with Sunday to be decided.