Depending upon whom you asked, the 7th-, 17th-, or 13th-ranked Diamond Dogs came into Tuesday afternoon's home date with East Tennessee State in possession of a 23-12 ledger after winning eight of their previous ten outings.
Nevertheless, despite boasting league-best records against the Eastern Division (8-1), the Southeastern Conference (12-3), and the top 25 (13-7), the Red and Black had lost the same number of games at home (6) as they had outside of Athens . . . and some of those setbacks included embarrassing outings against the likes of Memphis, Kennesaw State, and Winthrop, for crying out loud.
In short, the Classic City Canines could not afford to take the Buccaneers lightly, irrespective of the encouragement to be drawn from the fact that E.T.S.U.'s 9-26 record included marks of 0-4 at Auburn and 0-2 at Georgia Tech, as evidenced by the Bucs' 10-9 victory over Tennessee in Johnson City. Although the Red and Black appeared unfocused for much of the contest, the Diamond Dogs overcame their own inattentiveness and claimed a one-run victory.
The starting assignment went to Stephen Brock, who walked Danny Petro after the leadoff batter, Troy Mendez, began the top of the opening inning by reaching on an error by Gordon Beckham. Following an Anthony Russell pop-up, Paul Hoilman reached on an error by Adam Fuller, who threw out the Buccaneer catcher at second base. Derek Trent's ensuing home run plated a trio of runs. Although Bart Roark added insult to injury by tacking on a meaningless single, Ben Allen flied out to wrap up a three-run, two-hit, two-error frame for the visiting team.
I haven't seen such a cavalcade of mistakes since Bill Cosby made "Leonard Part 6."
After the Red and Black went three up and three down in the home half of the stanza, East Tennessee State resumed its error-aided assault in the top of the second canto. Jacob Fabry led off with a single and took second on a Michael Demperio error. Chris Rankhorn, the ninth batter in the Buccaneer order, put one out to left field to give the visitors a 5-0 lead.
That marked the end of Brock's brief stay on the mound after he had faced nine batters, recorded no strikeouts, allowed four hits (half of which were home runs), and given up five runs, two of which were earned. Stephen Ochs took over for him and promptly got Mendez to ground out before surrendering a single to Petro. Russell hit into a fielder's choice and Hoilman went down swinging to conclude a three-hit, two-run, one-error inning.
The Classic City Canines managed to get on the board in the bottom of the frame, which began with a double to center field by Rich Poythress. Although Bryce Massanari flied out, the Georgia first baseman managed to take third on a passed ball, enabling Lyle Allen to bring him home with a base hit. The Bulldog left fielder thereafter took second on an error by Matt McGahey and advanced to third on a Joey Lewis groundout, but Matt Cerione flied out to end the home team's turn at the plate.
Trent led off the top of the third canto with a base hit, but he was the only E.T.S.U. batter of the stanza who did not register an out. The Diamond Dogs were retired in sequence in the home half of the frame. Rankhorn got the top of the fourth inning underway with a base hit and Mendez sacrificed him over to second. Following a Petro flyout, Russell drove a home run to left field. Although Hoilman grounded out in the next at-bat, the Bucs had built a 7-1 advantage on a two-run, two-hit canto.
Despite batting ninth on Tuesday, E.T.S.U. shortstop Chris Rankhorn went two for three and batted in a pair of runs, reminding us once again why Rankhorn was one of the most popular characters from Marvel Comics' Tales of Asgard.
While Poythress drew a one-out walk in the home half of the fourth frame and made it as far as second base when Massanari was thrown out in the next at-bat, the Red and Black first baseman drew no nearer to home plate before the third out of the inning was recorded. Will Harvil took over the pitching duties when the top of the fifth stanza began and he sat down each of the three Buccaneer batters he faced on a groundout, a strikeout, and a flyout, respectively.
After Georgia went three up and three down in the bottom of the canto, Fabry started the visitors' half of the sixth frame with a double to center field. Rankhorn sacrificed the E.T.S.U. center fielder over to third and, after Mendez grounded out, a Petro single scored Fabry. When Russell went down swinging, the Buccaneers held a commanding 8-1 edge over the home team.
A leadoff walk by Ryan Peisel got the bottom of the sixth stanza off to an encouraging start, however. When Demperio drew a base on balls, as well, Darren Caldwell took over on the mound and promptly surrendered an R.B.I. single to Beckham. After Poythress drew the third walk of the canto, the Georgia catcher struck out swinging but the Bulldog left fielder plated two runs with a base hit to his accustomed area of the outfield.
A Lewis walk loaded the bases for Cerione, who flied out once Dustin Plumlee assumed the hurling duties for East Tennessee State. Matt Olson flied out, too, to strand three in what nevertheless was a three-run, two-hit inning for the Diamond Dogs. Hoilman led off the top of the seventh canto with a base hit and advanced to second on a wild pitch by Steve Esmonde, but, after Trent walked, Roark reached on a fielder's choice and the ensuing batter grounded into a double play to strand a runner in scoring position.
Buccaneer designated hitter Bart Roark went one for four and failed either to draw a walk or to bat in a run, but his trip to Athens nevertheless was successful, as his Roark Enterprises business partner, Corporal Randolph Agarn, managed to sell several Hekawi tribal souvenirs to those in attendance at Foley Field before their return to Fort Courage.
A one-out single by Demperio in the bottom of the stanza was followed up by a Beckham double to move the Bulldog second baseman to third. A base hit by Poythress plated a pair of runs before Massanari grounded into a rally-squelching double play. Even so, though, the Classic City Canines had pulled to within two runs of their guests, who obligingly flied out, grounded out, and struck out in sequence in the visitors' half of the eighth frame.
Following a leadoff walk by the Georgia left fielder in the initial at-bat of the bottom of the canto, Lewis dropped a single into center field to put runners at the corners. Cerione reached on a fielder's choice (batting in a run in the process) and Olson's ensuing single was aided by a Trent error, which sent the new Bulldog right fielder to third and enabled Cerione to score an unearned run.
The next two Bulldog batters put the ball into play and produced outs in the process---one of them saw Olson thrown out at home---but the home team headed into the final scheduled stanza with the score tied at eight runs per side. Esmonde coaxed groundouts from each of the E.T.S.U. players he faced in the top of the frame before Ben Andrews became the sixth Buccaneer pitcher of the night as the bottom of the inning commenced.
Beckham began the proceedings with a single and immediately thereafter stole second base. The next three Classic City Canines to enter the batter's box between them generated a pair of flyouts (the second of which advanced the Georgia shortstop to third) and an intentional walk. This brought Robbie O'Bryan to the plate as a pinch hitter, but he never got the chance to be the hero . . . because Andrews uncorked the wild pitch that brought Beckham home and ended the game with the Red and Black taking an improbable 9-8 victory.
A walk-off wild pitch? I haven't so completely failed to see a surprise ending coming my way since being blindsided by the discovery that "St. Elsewhere" took place completely inside Tommy Westphall's mind.
I'm not going to do a whole lot of crowing about this one. The Bucs out-hit the Diamond Dogs (11-10) and Georgia committed more errors than East Tennessee State (3-2). Winning pitcher Steve Esmonde went three innings without allowing a hit or a run, but his three predecessors on the mound turned in sufficiently less than stellar performances before him, particularly when coupled with the miscues of their teammates, to require perfection of the Bulldog closer.
Solid afternoons at the plate by Gordon Beckham (3 for 5, 1 R.B.I.), Rich Poythress (2 for 3, 2 R.B.I., 2 walks), and Lyle Allen (2 for 3, 2 R.B.I., 2 walks) were counterbalanced by the lack of similar success by Ryan Peisel (0 for 4, 1 walk) and Bryce Massanari (0 for 5). The Red and Black stranded seven, including five in the last four frames.
The loss was East Tennessee State's 27th of the year, so the Classic City Canines hardly came back to beat a top-notch squad. Nevertheless, the fact remains that, however unfocused the home team may have been in the early going against an E.T.S.U. club the Red and Black rather clearly took for granted, Georgia trailed by an 8-1 margin after five and a half innings but won by going on an 8-0 run in the final three and a half stanzas. That has to count for something, even against the Buccaneers.
At the end of the day, it was a win by a Bulldog squad that has now started its sixth straight five-game week. That schedule undoubtedly has been wearying, so the Red and Black ought to be cut some slack for a sub-par outing in which they found a way to emerge victorious. Fortunately, after facing Georgia State on Wednesday and traveling to Baton Rouge for a three-game set with L.S.U. this weekend, the daily grind will ease up a bit for the Classic City Canines, who are slated to play just three midweek games (Kennesaw State on April 22 and Georgia Tech on May 7 and 13) between then and the start of the S.E.C. tournament on May 21.