March 18, 2013 12:00:38 AM
STARKVILLE - Tempers flared early between Mississippi State University and Louisiana State University baseball programs surrounding one pitch that hit the backstop in the second inning.
It may have been just one pitch of 91 that came from the right hand of MSU senior starter Kendall Graveman but it was the one that left LSU coach Paul Mainieri incredibly upset during and after the Bulldogs 10-2 victory Sunday at Dudy Noble Field.
With MSU up 2-0, Graveman opened up the second frame by throwing a fastball behind the head of LSU first baseman Mason Katz. Katz, who ducked out of the way of the pitch, was currently 3 of 7 in the series with three home runs and five RBIs before digging into the right-handed batters box Sunday. Graveman had watched Katz put up those numbers over the last two days of the weekend and decided to as the senior leader of the MSU rotation said "set a tempo" to the Southeastern Conference leader in home runs and slugging percentage. Therefore, on the first pitch Graveman issued a purpose pitch behind the head of Katz for ball one causing Mainieri storm out of the dugout to immediately argue that Graveman be ejected from the game.
"You're going to penalize a kid because he's playing the game right way, he plays the game hard and he's swinging the bat good so we're now going to throw a ball behind a kid's head?" Mainieri said after the game Sunday. "That's different from pitching inside and wanting to work both sides of the plate and keep a kid uncomfortable. To throw it behind a kid's head, I can't respect people who do things like that, and I'm sorry, I just never will."
Home plate umpire Jay Asher immediately after the pitch hit the backstop pointed at Graveman and issued an official warning to him and both dugouts to try and regain control of the game.
The warning wasn't enough for either Mainieri or Katz, who were both still emotionally stewing over the intent of the brushback pitch from Graveman. Asher told Mainieri he knew after umpiring in the field the previous two days it was a purpose pitch, but that Gravemen didn't try to hit Katz intentionally.
"If that's what they need to do to have themselves feel good about themselves, they can do it," Katz said, still clearly emotional about the pitch. "I did nothing disrespectful to them when I hit home runs. I didn't run down the line yelling at our dugout saying anything. I did it with class. That's the way we play the game in Baton Rouge. That's the way coach teaches us to play. If you're going to throw behind a kid for having a good weekend, then that's classless."
Katz went on to strike out swinging in that second-inning at-bat and completed a 0 for 2 day at the plate that included a walk before being pulled for a pinch hitter in the eighth inning.
"I knew it was on purpose," Katz said. "I've heard from many people that I know on their team that it was on purpose. The pitcher wanted to throw it. It was all on his call and that's just the way he is. It's a classless move."
After the game, in which he got the victory after allowing just one run on six hits in six innings, Graveman had a two-word explanation to reporters mixed in with a sly grin and chuckle.
"That slipped," Graveman said.
When asked why he threw the pitch behind Katz's head, Graveman (2-1) seemed defiant about his mentality on the mound against a hitter that had gotten comfortable against MSU pitching over the past two days.
"I think it sets the tempo for the game," Graveman said. "I didn't hit the guy. It wasn't like I did anything out of the ordinary. It was ball one. So what? He's ahead in the count 1-0. If he wants to say it's classless or whatever it is, we set a tempo and we like to live by that tempo. Sometimes you have to change a little bit of momentum."
MSU sophomore first baseman and co-captain Wes Rea said he didn't know beforehand Graveman was going to throw behind Katz but credited that action with giving the Bulldogs a boost in a much needed blowout win in the Sunday finale.
"That's kind of who we are," Rea said. "I think sometimes when you lose two games like that you could think they're scared so I think Kendall set the tone there. He set the tone by saying we weren't going to be scared and then we didn't play like that. He set the tone for us the whole day. He might not have even meant to do that. Whatever - he set the tone. We're not going to play scared. That was big for us."
The Dispatch MSU Sports Blog requested a comment from MSU head coach John Cohen on the matter to which he replied "no response" except to praise his senior right-hander for reversing the momentum of the weekend with the Bulldogs second quality in the month of March.
"Kendall is a very competitive young man and I think he felt a little weight on his shoulders to get us going and I think that's what he did," Cohen said. "I think he did a great job of controlling the zone, challenging hitters and can't say enough about his performance. I don't know what it is about LSU but he has pitched very, very well against that ball club."
It wasn't long ago these two head coaches had words with each other in the 2012 Southeastern Conference tournament in what would be a dramatic 4-3 win in 10 innings for MSU to send them to semifinals of the event in Hoover, Ala. In that instance Mainieri was convinced Cohen batted his MSU club out of order after a double switch was executed but was corrected by the umpiring crew that no wrongdoing had taken place.
As he left Dudy Noble Field Sunday, Mainieri reminded MSU fans that his No. 7 Tigers (18-2, 2-1) took its seventh consecutive series from No. 13 MSU (19-4, 1-2) in a highly coveted SEC opening weekend for both clubs.
"I could understand why they're frustrated," Mainieri said. "I mean, we beat them every year and they get tired of getting beat by us. To me, there's no place in college baseball for doing that."
All of the Dispatch MSU Sports Blog readers: feel free to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/matthewcstevens for up-to-date Mississippi State coverage.