Friday was rather stressful in Bulldog Nation; all of us here at Dawg Sports spent the day learning to operate the upgraded system (with a few predictable glitches, which we are in the process of correcting and for which your patience is appreciated greatly) and the Diamond Dogs opened their critical three-game series in Nashville by losing a six-run decision to the Commodores.
The first day of the rest of your weekend was not wholly without its redeeming characteristics, however, as Florida lost a one-run game on Friday night and so did South Carolina. These setbacks dropped the Gamecocks and Gators alike to 13-12 in conference play, keeping them both four and a half games behind Georgia (17-7-1) heading into Saturday’s action. With five S.E.C. games remaining for each squad following Friday’s contests, that essentially meant that, barring a complete collapse, the division crown (and, with it, the league title) would come down to a two-way race between the Classic City Canines and the Music City Sailors (15-9).
After Friday evening’s outing, David Perno explained why he left his starter in as long as he did: "Our relief pitching has been limping a bit lately, and so we want to lean on our starters more." Coach Perno had a point, inasmuch as the Red and Black surrendered seven or more runs in eight of the 14 games played between April 15 and May 9, going 2-5-1 in those eight outings while posting a 6-0 record in the other six.
The starter upon whom Coach Perno hoped to lean on Saturday was Stephen Dodson, who put his 5-2 record and 3.88 earned run average on the line against Caleb Cotham, the redshirt freshman who was to be found on the mound in the top of the initial inning. Cotham retired the side on a flyout, a groundout, and a strikeout, after which Dodson took the hill in the home half of the canto and generated a lineout with his first pitch to David Macias. Dominic de la Osa grounded out before Pedro Alvarez also produced a first-pitch lineout to conclude a hitless first frame.
Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez went one for four in the second game of the series, which isn’t going to win him many votes.
All the Diamond Dogs had to show for the top of the second stanza were a strikeout, a groundout, and a flyout, but, after Ryan Flaherty flied out on a payoff pitch at the outset of the bottom of the frame, an error by Gordon Beckham enabled Alex Feinberg to reach base safely. A first-pitch groundout by Shea Robin moved the Commodore second baseman to his accustomed spot on the field, but Andrew Giobbi’s ensuing groundout stranded the baserunner in scoring position.
The visitors’ half of the third canto commenced with a leadoff walk drawn by Robbie O’Bryan on a payoff pitch, which Matt Cerione followed up with a first-pitch single to right field. David Thoms hit into a fielder’s choice on the next pitch and Cerione subsequently was picked off, so, after Ryan Peisel walked, Matt Olson ended the scoring threat with a flyout.
Dodson’s first two pitches in the home half of the stanza each produced outs and de la Osa flied out to end the inning after Macias doubled to right field. Beckham led off the top of the fourth frame with a base hit and, after the first pitch thrown to Rich Poythress produced an out, Bryce Massanari was plunked to put two men aboard. Although Lyle Allen’s ensuing groundout advanced both baserunners, O’Bryan grounded out to strand what would have been the first run of the game at third base.
Consequently, the contest’s first run was scored by Alvarez, who turned the first pitch of the home half of the inning into a home run. Flaherty and Feinberg followed that up with consecutive singles, enabling Robin to bring another run home with a sacrifice fly to left field. The next two Music City Sailors registered outs to conclude a three-hit, two-run canto.
Commodore shortstop Ryan Flaherty went one for four on Saturday and recorded the final out of the game, reminding us once again why he isn’t the player he was when he was the deputy mayor of New York City.
Peisel collected a first-pitch single in the top of the fifth stanza after two outs already were away, but, although Olson thereafter walked on four straight pitches, Beckham struck out on a payoff pitch to strand both baserunners. The Commies went three up and three down in the bottom of the frame. No Diamond Dog made it as far as first base in the visitors’ half of the sixth canto and a one-out walk by Flaherty in the bottom of the inning was canceled out when Feinberg grounded into a double play.
After the three Bulldog batters in the top of the seventh stanza lined out, struck out, and flied out in sequence, Robin led off the bottom of the frame with a base hit. The Vandy catcher advanced to second on a wild pitch after Giobbi struck out and he took third on a first-pitch groundout by Steven Liddle, but Brad French’s ensuing groundout stranded Robin 90 feet from home plate.
An error by Alvarez in the top of the eighth inning allowed Beckham to reach base with two men out, but Poythress grounded out to leave him there. Alex McRee took the mound in the home half of the canto and immediately surrendered a base hit to Macias and a walk to de la Osa. However, the Georgia reliever thereafter extracted a lineout from Alvarez and coaxed a double-play groundout from Flaherty to keep the score 2-0.
The Diamond Dogs at long last undertook to do something about that in the top of the ninth frame, beginning with Massanari’s first-pitch single to center field to lead off the stanza. Adam Fuller replaced the Georgia catcher on the basepaths and the Red and Black pinch runner took second on an Allen single. After O’Bryan lined out, Joey Lewis loaded the bases with a single. Miles Starr reached on the fielder’s choice that scored Fuller then Peisel tied the game with a base hit.
Usually, a guy is more likely to get a tie on Father’s Day weekend than on Mother’s Day weekend, but I’ll take it.
Although Olson reached on the fielder’s choice that ended the four-hit, two-run inning, the Classic City Canines’ heroics in the top of the canto proved adequate when Dean Weaver, after surrendering a first-pitch single to Feinberg in the home half of the frame, garnered outs from the next three Vanderbilt batters to force additional stanzas.
Beckham began the top of the tenth inning with a base hit and Poythress promptly brought him home with the double that gave the Diamond Dogs their first lead of the afternoon. This brought Mark Lamm to the mound as the sixth and final Commie hurler of the day and the ‘Dore closer balked the Georgia first baseman over to third before striking out Fuller.
After Allen’s ensuing sacrifice fly plated Poythress, O’Bryan was thrown out at first to bring Joshua Fields to the mound for the home half of the frame. Since Georgia held a two-run lead, striking out the first three Vandy batters in order would have been inadequately dramatic, so, naturally, the Bulldog closer began the stanza by walking French on four straight pitches.
Fields let Macias work the count full before inducing him to fly out and, after persuading de la Osa to chase strike three, the Red and Black hurler walked Alvarez to bring the winning run to the plate in the form of Flaherty. Fields, of course, struck him out to cap the dramatic come-from-behind victory that extended the Classic City Canines’ division lead once more to three games.
Coach Perno hit the nail on the head in his postgame comments after Friday night’s debacle: Georgia needed strong innings from the starter to take the pressure off of the bullpen and that’s exactly what the Red and Black got from Stephen Dodson, who worked seven solid innings while allowing five hits and two earned runs. This enabled the three relievers to work one inning apiece and Alex McRee, Dean Weaver, and Joshua Fields responded with a trio of scoreless cantos in which the Bulldog hurlers struck out four and gave up just a pair of hits.
The results are evident in the box score, as David Macias’s two-for-five afternoon and Alex Feinberg’s two-for-four outing included no R.B.I. by either Vanderbilt hitter; in fact, the first five batters in the Commodore order batted in just one run between them. Meanwhile, despite Matt Olson’s hitless performance on Saturday, the trio of Ryan Peisel, Gordon Beckham, and Rich Poythress combined to go five for 14 with two R.B.I. and a walk. It wasn’t much, but it was timely and it was enough.
The Diamond Dogs notched their 18th conference win to give themselves some breathing room in the division race. With four S.E.C. outings remaining on the slate, the Classic City Canines have the opportunity to match the school record for victories in league play, which was set by the 2001 team that won the conference with a 20-10 mark.
While there was some satisfaction to be taken in South Carolina’s loss to Arkansas in the second game of their series, such scoreboard-watching has become superfluous; events have rendered such results as Florida’s win over Alabama ultimately inconsequential. The Red and Black will leave the Music City on Sunday afternoon in sole possession of first place in the S.E.C. East, but a win tomorrow would clinch a conference crown.