Following the Diamond Dogs' sweep of South Carolina in Saturday's doubleheader to put the Red and Black atop the Southeastern Conference standings, Sunday's contest between the Classic City Canines and the Palmetto State Poultry acquired even greater significance. The importance of the afternoon outing in Athens was heightened further still by the news out of Knoxville that Florida had fallen to the Volunteers in the second series meeting between the two, as that result dropped the Gators to 7-4 in conference action.
In light of the foregoing, Nathan Moreau took the mound in the top of the first inning secure in the knowledge that a Georgia victory would guarantee the Diamond Dogs sole possession of first place in the league. He began the canto by retiring the side in succession on a Reese Havens pop-up, a Whit Merrifield groundout, and a James Darnell flyout.
Even though leadoff hitter Ryan Peisel grounded out to start the bottom of the frame, the Red and Black leapt out to an early lead, commencing with Matt Olson's first-pitch single to right center field. After the Georgia right fielder took second on a passed ball, Gordon Beckham turned a payoff pitch into a base hit, thereby sending Olson to third. When the Bulldog shortstop swiped second, a throwing error by Kyle Enders allowed Beckham to take third and Olson to score.
Rich Poythress drew a base on balls and Bryce Massanari sent a single into right field to score Beckham. Following the Matt Cerione double that plated the Red and Black first baseman, Robbie O'Bryan struck out and Adam Fuller grounded out to conclude a three-run, four-hit inning. A leadoff single by Justin Smoak in the top of the second stanza proved fruitless for the visitors, for, following a Phil Disher walk, the next three Gamecock batters registered outs to strand a pair of baserunners.
South Carolina catcher Kyle Enders collected only one hit in four at-bats and stranded five baserunners on Sunday, which sort of makes you wonder whether he really deserved to have Orson Scott Card write a book about his game.
A one-out walk by Peisel in the home half of the second canto went for naught when Olson and Beckham lined out and struck out, respectively, and no visiting batter made it as far as first base in the top of the third frame. The Diamond Dogs likewise went three up and three down in the bottom of the inning.
South Carolina enjoyed an intermittent yet potent offensive outburst in the top of the fourth stanza. Darnell led off with a home run to left field to get the proceedings underway. After Smoak flied out, Disher put one out in right center field for the second R.B.I. of the inning. After Andrew Crisp flied out, Harley Lail dropped a double into left field. Enders then flied out to conclude the Big Chickens' two-run, three-hit frame.
No Diamond Dog made it out of the batter's box in the home half of the fourth inning and the fifth canto commenced with a Red and Black pitching change. Moreau called it a day after allowing four hits (half of which were homers), one walk, and two earned runs to the 17 batters he faced over the course of four frames, paving the way for Justin Earls to take over the pitching duties and begin the visitors' half of the inning by walking Scott Wingo. The following three South Carolina batters popped up, fouled out, and hit into a fielder's choice to prevent the baserunner's advancement.
Peisel drew a leadoff walk in the bottom of the fifth stanza and Olson grounded out to move him over to second base. After Beckham drew an intentional walk, Poythress dropped a base hit into center field to plate an insurance run. The Bulldog first baseman was cut down on a double-steal attempt and Massanari flied out to keep the score 4-2.
At that point, it was pretty much all over but the shouting.
A Smoak single to begin the top of the sixth canto proved solely of statistical significance, as no Gamecock advanced past first base in the frame, and a one-out base hit by Joey Lewis in the bottom of the inning likewise went to waste when Fuller grounded into a double play.
Still the Palmetto State Poultry refused to go quietly. Enders began the visitors' half of the seventh stanza with a base hit to left field and Wingo followed that up by turning the first pitch he saw into a base-hit bunt. Havens sacrificed both baserunners over and Nick Montgomery was brought in to end the threat. This he did by eliciting a strikeout from Merrifield and inducing Darnell to fly out to center field.
After Peisel's one-out single to center field in the home half of the seventh inning was voided when Olson grounded into a double play on the very next pitch, Dean Weaver became the fourth Georgia hurler of the afternoon and he began the top of the eighth canto by coaxing a lineout from Smoak. Disher worked the count full before walking and, after Crisp delivered a first-pitch flyout, Lail dropped an 0-2 pitch into right center field for a single. The Diamond Dogs once again got out of the jam, as Enders reached base on the fielder's choice that cut down Lail at second base.
All the Classic City Canines had to show for the bottom of the eighth frame was a one-out single by Poythress, after which Joshua Fields took the mound to take care of matters in the visitors' half of the ninth stanza. Wingo and Havens each watched strike three sail by on a 3-2 pitch, while Merrifield fouled out on the first pitch thrown to him. It took Fields just 13 pitches to pick up his eighth save of the season.
Joshua Fields forever.
The hitting was all even at eight apiece, but the Red and Black doubled up the Gamecocks in runs on the strength of five scoreless innings from the previously-suspect Georgia bullpen. Between them, the four Bulldog relievers locked horns with 21 batters, countered four hits and two walks with a trio of strikeouts, and did not allow a run, earned or otherwise. Although Harley Lail and Justin Smoak each went two for four, the first three hitters in the Carolina order (Reese Havens, Whit Merrifield, and James Darnell) together had one hit, one R.B.I., and two strikeouts in a combined 13 at-bats, with no walks.
Although the Classic City Canines' designated hitter (Robbie O'Bryan) was anything but (0 for 2, 2 strikeouts), the first four hitters in the Georgia lineup (Ryan Peisel, Matt Olson, Gordon Beckham, and Rich Poythress) collectively tallied five hits in twelve at-bats, drawing four walks and scoring four runs between them without striking out so much as a single time. The Diamond Dogs stranded only five baserunners over the course of the contest, as contrasted with the Big Chickens' nine.
The Red and Black ran their winning streak to seven straight games and improved to 20-10 overall, including a 9-3 ledger in Southeastern Conference contests. Despite winning their finale against Tennessee, the Gators dropped to 8-4 in league outings over the weekend, while the Volunteers worked their way up to 7-5 against S.E.C. competition. The Classic City Canines' first-place standing attests to the fact that Georgia's difficult early-season slate has started to pay off for a team that was tested out of the gate and thereby prepared itself for the grind of conference play.
A baseball season, as they say, is a marathon rather than a sprint, so it is far too early to become overconfident in the Diamond Dogs' success over the course of their 2008 campaign. Although the Red and Black have yet to lose a league series and they currently enjoy a five-game conference winning streak, Georgia also has series remaining against Baseball America No. 21 Kentucky (25-5 overall, 7-5 S.E.C.), Louisiana State (20-11, 5-7), No. 19 Florida (21-10, 8-4), Ole Miss (20-11, 7-5), No. 8 Vanderbilt (19-10, 5-6), and Alabama (17-15, 5-7), respectively, before the S.E.C. tournament gets underway on May 21. With 30 games down and 25 to go, though, things are looking up for the Classic City Canines.