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Sunday was a great day to be in Athens. It was a sunny spring day in the Classic City, and it was a packed house at Foley Field. The home crowd, anxious for the sweep, was feisty, and that feistiness was exhibited by David Perno in his frequent trips to converse vigorously with the home plate umpire.
My son, Thomas, and I were in the crowd; consistent with my apparent tendency to purchase tickets on the back row, we were seated in Section 105, Row S, Seats 1 and 2. To our left was the door to the press box, through which grizzled reporters with oversized cameras and red-and-black-clad college girls bearing promotional items came and went. (One such item was a Domino’s pizza, which Thomas went down front and cheered for until he was given one for free, thus sparing me the expense of a ballpark hot dog.) To our right was a stoic professional scout with a stopwatch and a spiral-bound notebook who was evaluating center fielder Zach Cone.
Although Coach Perno repeated on Sunday the error he made on Saturday of leaving his starting pitcher in the game an inning too long, the game went the home team’s way, as the Diamond Dogs secured the SEC series sweep over Mississippi State.
Following a scoreless opening inning, the Magnolia State Mongrels got on the board first in the top of the second stanza on a bunt single, a hit batsman, a sacrifice, and an RBI groundout. The Classic City Canines hit the ball hard and produced three baserunners in the first three cantos, but it was not until the bottom of the fourth frame that the host squad broke through with a score. A one-out walk drawn by Cone and a two-run shot to left field by designated hitter Brett DeLoach gave the Red and Black the lead.
Long outs and stranded baserunners defined the fifth and sixth frames until starter Craig Gullickson was lifted after surrendering six hits and one earned run to the 25 batters he faced. Blake Dieterich took over on the mound, delivering two and one-third innings of scoreless relief, surrendering two hits and no walks. Meanwhile, the hometown Bulldogs added an insurance run in the bottom of the seventh stanza, beginning when second baseman Levi Hyams drew a leadoff walk. Outfielder Peter Verdin sacrificed the runner over to second, enabling shortstop Kyle Farmer to bring him home with a base hit.
In the eighth canto, the Athenians extended their lead. Catcher Brandon Stephens got things going by leading off with a double and advancing to third on a wild pitch. Although the next two Georgia batters grounded out, Verdin sent a single to short to push another run across home plate.
Tyler Maloof came on to pitch the ninth inning, securing his eleventh save by extracting a flyout and a pair of groundouts from the trio of Mississippians he faced. With the win, the Diamond Dogs improved to 14-14 overall, 9-9 against ranked opponents, and, most important of all, 6-3 in SEC play. Despite their rocky start, the Red and Black could make some noise in the East this season, and it no longer appears outrageous to believe this team might not just make it to Hoover, but actually win a couple once it gets there.