Things don't often work so according to plans, but this Saturday evening played out as well as Coach John Cohen could have scripted. "We knew if we had any kind of lead Pollo and Caleb were going to pitch this game, because those guys have been so good for us." Certainly they were good enough to finish what Nick Routt started for them with three scoreless innings.
And, to take the advantage offered when Bulldog batters broke through for three runs in the crucial sixth inning. Down 3-2 at the time, State tied the tally on a throwing error by Gamecock relief pitcher John Taylor. Actually they briefly appeared to have taken a lead as two Dogs touched the plate after Taylor, fielding a bunt by C Wes Thigpen, fired it past his first baseman and to the right-side fence. But the ball lodged under the field tarp which after discussion brought the go-ahead runner back to third base.
"The umpire is right on the money, you can't argue with your own ground rules!" agreed Cohen, though the coach did ask for explanation just in case somebody was being generous. Ironically the outcome proved even better for the Bulldogs.
Because 1B Ryan Collins took a Taylor pitch into short centerfield, scoring both DH Trey Johnson and Thigpen for what became MSU's margin of victory.
"Nobody out, two runners in scoring position, I was just trying to get something to the outfield where we could tag-up or get a base hit to take the lead," said Collins of the clutch safety. That hit made a loser of Taylor (2-1) on his 0.1 official innings in relief of starter Colby Holmes. Taylor gave up two hits, and two runs, one earned after his own error.
The margin held up over the final three innings because Reed was ready, too. Stepping in with one out and one on in the top of the seventh he battled through a well-mixed order to only allow a single single, and that an infield variety, in the eighth; while striking out four and walking two. His big moment in fact was after a walk and wild pitch in that seventh put the tying runners in positions to score on almost any sort of hit.
Reed steadied and punched out 4/5 batters Brady Thomas and Adrian Morales. He left that one runner on in the eight as well, and despite a leadoff plunking and walk with one out in the ninth kept the Gamecocks at a safe distance. Again the last two outs were provided by Thomas (fielder's choice force) and Morales (fly ball behind second base). It gave Reed his seventh save of the season, tying him for ninth on that list with such great MSU names as Bobby Thigpen, Jonathan Papelbon, and Aaron Weatherford et.al.
"I know when I take the mound that's the mindset I have to have, that the game has got to be over," said Reed.
Pollorena overcame his own challenges, such as stepping in with two Gamecocks in scoring position in the fourth inning. He did despite surrendering the lead, and that because of a fielding error that opened the door for a South Carolina surge. For his 3.0 official Pollorena (5-2) had one run on his account with four this, a walk and three strikeouts.
"I try to get as many innings as I can because I know Caleb's right there behind me."
And both were behind Routt (3.1, two runs, two hits, two walks, three strikeouts). Having the bullpen loaded and ready wasn't so much a comment on the starter, said Cohen. "Its not that he's doing anything poorly. It's two guys you have to get in a game to have a chance to win."
Both starters looked like winners for two scoreless innings, Routt negating a couple of walks and Holmes a leadoff double by Johnson in the second. The first break came in the third turn with State at the bat and the top of the order back up. Both CF C.T. Bradford and Brownlee singled their ways on, and on full count with both runners moving 3B Jarrod Parks deposited a soft single in rightfield.
Bradford would have scored anyway, but when Robert Beary bobbled the ball Brownlee was also able to come home.
Spotted this lead, Routt immediately gave up consecutive singles to Christian Walker and Thomas—the latter using well the hole opened on the right side by holding the lead runner. A successful sacrifice by Morales pushed both along, and State immediately went to the bullpen. "When Nick starts missing arm-side and getting out of the zone that's our sign for him," Cohen said.
Pollorena should have gotten back into the dugout with a shutout. He lined Peter Mooney out to second, and got a hard but straight hopper to the third baseman. Only Parks couldn't handle it and Walker scored. "That ball ate up Jarrod a little bit but it was in-between hops," Cohen said. On full-count Evan Marzilli walked to load all bases and ninth batter Beary put the Gamecocks in front with a single through the left side.
Pollorena shook off the bad break to line-out the top of the order, then roll through the next two turns with a runner stranded each time. He said his fastball was initially iffy, "But once I found that cutter it was pretty much game over. The first inning they worked me and worked me but once I found my command they became the free-swinging team they are. I tried to let them hit and let our defense work."
Still Holmes was containing State's offense into the sixth, when he plunked Parks to lead off and was lifted for righthander—and drop-downer—Taylor to face lefthander Johnson. The Bulldog DH beat the matchup with a single to leftfield. With no outs Thigpen got another chance to bunt and not only did he lay this down just fine to the right side; pitcher Taylor threw it past his fielder at first. Parks scored on the error and for a moment Johnson thought he had, until called back to third base as the ball had hit the tarp and was thus ruled dead.
Collins made it all moot by slapping a slider into centerfield. "I was just looking away, he was trying to pound it away so I was looking to go with it and he left something over the plate." State could have really piled it on there as with two outs new reliever Bryan Harper walked the rest of the bases full. Ryan Mata got the call and needed one pitch to ground-out Brownlee.
And inning later the bases were loaded again on three two-out walks by Mata, with Tyler Webb taking over and—again—rolling a one-pitch, inning-ender from 2B Adam Frazier. If bothered by the at-bat the freshman infielder didn't show it, handling the first two outs of eighth inning nicely.
Still enough Dog damage had been done. Pollorena got the leadoff out of the 7th, against a pinch-batter for the injured order-topper at that. Scott Wingo reached on a dribbler staying fair along the third base line that Parks darn nearly delivered to first in time anyway. The Bulldogs didn't delay going to the bullpen for Reed, who immediately gave a four-pitch walk to Walker. And, a wild pitch to advance both runners into scoring positions.
He rallied to strike out both Thomas and Morales, each looking and not entirely agreeing with the call(s). Reed also ended the eighth with a strikeout, of Beary. And when he had a pair on in the ninth and pitching coach Butch Thompson came out to chat, there was no thought of using any of the three other relievers who'd readied just in case.
"It didn't even get to that, the conversation was you're doing great," Reed said. "It was a breather honestly. He came out to give me a breather and tell me keep throwing quality strikes."
Walker was 2-of-2 and walked three times for South Carolina which had seven total hits, all singletons. For State, Bradford, Parks, and Johnson all hit safely twice as the Dogs netted eight hits. Naturally the best-struck balls often found gloves, while the chips and chinks found open ground. Bulldog batters weren't picky of course.
"We finally got some breaks to go our way," said Collins. Including what seemed a bad break, too, in that ground-rules call that would have made a one-run lead. It set up Collins to make it a two-run margin for Pollorena and Reed to manage.
"We took advantage of some things, some balls fell for us," Cohen said. "And we did some small things. I was really pleased with the way we handled things down the stretch."
With another win over a top-25 team in the books (State has eight this year in terms of poll-victories, and by some counts has the most top-25 RPI wins of any SEC squad) the Bulldogs now try to pull of something they've yet to score in 2011. As in, a series win over a ranked opponent.
"We took one from Vandy, we took one from Florida. Now we take one from South Carolina," Collins said. "We've beaten some really good teams, now we have to step up. And it would be huge with this tight race in the West."
Cohen said a Sunday starter had not been set yet, listing as options right-handers Evan Mitchell and Daryl Norris or lefty Devin Jones, a former starter who the last ten days has thrown relief.