As the Diamond Dogs headed into the home stretch, I observed that the Red and Black needed to take two out of three games from South Carolina, which the Bulldogs did on Friday and Saturday . . . yet, as Sunday afternoon's contest against the Gamecocks approached, I found myself feeling more anxious than ever.
During Georgia's six-game winning streak, the stakes had been raised considerably for the Classic City Canines. The Red and Black arrived at Foley Field today as the third-place team in the S.E.C. East, half a game in front of fourth-place Vanderbilt (12-12) and three games behind division-leading Kentucky (15-8).
At 12-11 in conference play, Georgia trailed South Carolina (13-10) by a single game, so the Diamond Dogs had a chance to move into a two-way tie for second place in the division with a series-sweeping win on Sunday afternoon. That alone would have been enough to frazzle my nerves, but, from the outset, the Red and Black seemed determined to worry me even more.
Nathan Moreau drew the starting assignment for the Bulldogs and he surrendered a single to the Gamecocks' first batter, allowing Andrew Crisp to reach first base and be advanced all the way to third by subsequent batters before Justin Smoak popped up to end the top of the first inning. Georgia, by contrast, had nothing to show for the bottom of the opening stanza except a base hit by Gordon Beckham, who was left stranded at first.
Unnamed fans present at Foley Field on Sunday afternoon claimed that Mary-Louise Parker was on hand for the game and that she seemed relaxed and ebullient after assuming her new duties. Those same individuals, whose identities were never divulged, maintained that she signed autographs and even engaged fellow fans in a discussion of hot topics surrounding baseball. Reportedly, Mary-Louise Parker opposes the use of the designated hitter, dislikes the sound of a ball being hit by an aluminum bat, and thinks Pete Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame but should not be allowed to work in baseball again, although the story was unable to be confirmed by independent sources or verifiable eyewitnesses.
Jon Willard struck out swinging to lead off the second inning, but the Palmetto State Poultry continued to be aggressive at the plate, as Trent Kline and Neil Giesler each scored hits off of Moreau. The Georgia pitcher retired the next two batters in succession, but I was starting to become concerned, for the Diamond Dogs had allowed three hits in the first two innings yet had failed to leap out to an early lead as they so often have during their recent hot streak.
The Red and Black did little in the bottom of the second frame, leaving Ryan Peisel at second base after his two-out double to left was followed up by a Kyle Keen flyout to center.
The third inning, while symmetrical, was particularly uneventful, consisting in its entirety of two flyouts (by South Carolina's Crisp and Chris Brown), two groundouts (by South Carolina's Michael Campbell and Georgia's Matthew Dunn), and two strikeouts (by Georgia's Jonathan Wyatt and Joey Side).
After the Fighting Fowl went quietly in the top of the fourth frame, the Bulldogs attempted to get something going offensively, commencing with a single to center by Beckham, who belted his second hit of the contest and the Red and Black's third. Josh Morris doubled to left to advance the Georgia shortstop to third, then a Bobby Felmy triple brought Beckham and Morris around to score.
Jason Jacobs followed that up with the first out of the inning, but the Bulldog catcher's flyout was sufficiently lengthy to credit him with a sacrifice as Felmy, too, crossed the plate. Peisel popped up with the bases empty, but Keen was not discouraged, as he put a two-out base hit into left field for the fourth Georgia hit of the inning.
South Carolina's Will Atwood proceeded to plunk Dunn to put two men aboard for Wyatt, who failed to capitalize on the chance thus afforded him. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the Bulldog designated hitter grounded out to the first baseman, the Red and Black carried a 3-0 lead with them into the fifth frame.
Although no one claimed to have seen her inside Foley Field during the game, many observers who would give only transparently unconvincing aliases hinted that Catherine Zeta-Jones put in an appearance in Athens as a show of support for Mary-Louise Parker, at whom she was reported to have smiled and waved in a friendly manner. Whether this photograph actually depicts the event described by purported witnesses of questionable credibility could not be ascertained with absolute certainty, however.
The Palmetto State Poultry fell in rapid succession to open the ensuing inning, as the side was retired on a Giesler groundout, a Reese Havens strikeout, and a Mark Stanley flyout. The contest's second half opened propitiously for the home team, as Side singled to center field to lead off the bottom of the fifth.
Beckham availed himself of the opportunity before him, doubling down the left field line for his third hit in as many at bats. The Georgia center fielder took third base and the bases were loaded for Felmy when Morris drew an intentional walk.
The Bulldog right fielder put a sacrifice fly into center field to score Side and record his third R.B.I. of the afternoon, at which point Atwood was succeeded on the mound by Andrew Cruse. Jacobs flied out, but Peisel managed to put a base hit through the left side to advance Morris and score Beckham.
A Keen single, followed by a Carolina error, brought Morris and Peisel home. Dunn left Keen stranded at second base when the Georgia second baseman grounded out to short, but a four-run outburst in the bottom of the inning sent the contest to the sixth stanza with the Diamond Dogs leading by a 7-0 score.
A former tabloid reporter, who was fired from his writing job for failing to adhere to the standard of journalistic ethics demanded of anyone who produces stories for a publication sold at supermarket checkouts, was overheard in the men's room at Foley Field remarking to Jon Lovitz, who was dressed in the attire he wore while playing his "habitual liar" character on "Saturday Night Live," that Ashley Judd had sent flowers and a congratulatory note to Mary-Louise Parker following the recent Dawg Sports poll vote.
Three batters stood in for the Gamecocks in the top of the sixth frame, none of whom made it beyond first base, and the Bulldogs went back to work in the bottom half of the inning. Side managed to sandwich a base on balls between Wyatt and Beckham flyouts, but the home team went with a whimper when Morris put a pitch in the center fielder's glove to end the inning.
The opening half of the seventh stanza went swiftly, as a Smoak flyout, a Willard strikeout, and a Kline pop-up kept the Fighting Fowl from attaining either of the elusive goals of a fifth hit or a single run. The Diamond Dogs fell just as quickly to conclude the inning, as Felmy popped up, Jacobs grounded out, and Peisel flied out in short order.
To the eighth frame the contest went and I began to get nervous, recalling the late charge mounted by the Gamecocks under virtually identical circumstances the day before. Moreau, perhaps recalling the similar situation on Saturday, responded by retiring Giesler, Havens, and Stanley in succession, putting his team three outs away from a series sweep of South Carolina.
The bottom of the eighth largely was superfluous, consisting of little more than a pinch-hit single by Matt Olson, and the game- and series-deciding ninth inning then commenced. The South Carolina comeback began with a leadoff double by Crisp, who scuttled the shutout when a Brown single brought him home.
Moreau remained in the game to pitch to Campbell. My stomach was churning. I couldn't bear to watch. I covered my eyes with my hands and could only bring myself to peek periodically from between my fingers, so I missed much of what happened next, but, to hear South Carolina tell it, Campbell doubled, Smoak homered, and Joshua Fields took the mound to record his tenth save of the season, retiring all three batters to salvage the 7-4 win.
This series was nerve-wracking, to say the very least, but the Diamond Dogs came away with the sweep to put themselves in position not only to make the S.E.C. tournament but to head into the conference tourney with the momentum that the Red and Black's seven-game winning streak has generated.