#3 Arkansas broke a 3-3 deadlock with a bases-loaded fielder’s choice grounder in the top of the 11th inning, and padded the margin with two-run hits for a 8-3 lead that held up to take Sunday’s rubber game. Barely, as Mississippi State scored twice in response and had loaded bases with one out. The Razorbacks needed a couple of fly balls to finish the 4:13 contest, which had begun at noon yet ended after every other SEC Sunday game was final.
Arkansas left 22-3 and 5-1 SEC for the Western Division lead, while the Bulldogs are 16-9 and 2-4. Still it was close enough a call to leave State’s John Cohen shaking his head in frustration after the short-handed squad dropped a second hair’s breadth series.
“Our kids competed their hearts out today. I really feel our kids are giving everything they possibly can to keep us in games and give us the best chance to win. It’s just not happening right now.”
That game-three in the series went down to the wire and farther was a change, as State had won 11-2 on Friday before Arkansas evened things Saturday 8-0. Both teams had their fair share of Sunday what-ifs in regulation play to boot. In the end it was a deeper Razorback bullpen and healthier batting order that made the difference.
“This is a club that can win the national championship,” said Cohen. “They’re going to compete for the league championship. And we’re so stinking close to being at that level even with virtually no experience on the field.” The well-known injuries that have sidelined five of State’s opening day starters are the largest reason for that, and when Sunday’s lineup was set there wasn’t a single Dog in the order who had ever taken a swing against UA starter Randall Fant.
Of course Fant didn’t get out of his second inning, and it was the fourth Razorback pitcher of the day (three more would get to throw) who could have ended everything in the ninth inning with a 3-2 lead and two well-hit outs. A single by SS Adam Frazier kept the last chance going, then substitute 3B Sam Frost followed suite for runners on corners.
On 2-2 DH Trey Porter was able to fight off a ground ball to shortstop that ought to have ended it, but Frost was running hard and somehow got to the bag ahead of the force. “I think the shortstop thought the second baseman was going to over the bag, once he realized he wasn’t there he stumbled a little. And I just beat it out.” Which allowed Frazier to cross the plate on a safe call. CF Hunter Renfroe popped to the catcher to force extra innings.
MSU reliever Caleb Reed left a go-ahead runner on second in the tenth with a strikeout, and UA’s Colby Suggs did the same with two strikeouts. But a leadoff double by Bo Bigham in the top of the 11th changed everything. Reed more or less walked Dominic Ficociello intentionally for a force potential. A successful bunt negated that and brought freshman Brandon Woodruff in to face a righthanded pinch hitter.
Joe Serrano chopped a grounder to the left side. Frost fielded going to his left making for a tough throw home with no force possible. New C Nick Ammirati was pulled off the plate anyway as Bigham scored. “It took a funny hop on Sam,” Cohen noted. “That was huge, we get that out and it changes this ball game.”
Instead a bases-loading walk and lefthander coming up meant another pitching change with lefthander Chad Girodo given the chance to face Jimmy Bosco. His stint lasted one pitch, roped to left-centerfield for a two-RBI double. Tanner Gaines gave up another two-run hit, to Jacob Morris, as Arkansas batted-around in the 11th.
The Bulldogs didn’t fold. Instead they took advantage of new reliever Trent Daniel for a couple of singles and two walks forcing in 2B Matthew Britton with one out. Cade Lynch got the quick bullpen call and after a single by backup C Nick Ammirati cut it to a three-run deficit got a short fly to shortstop and longer one to centerfield.
All of which made Suggs (2-0) the winner based on throwing a scoreless tenth inning. Lynch got his second save with the last two outs as Daniel took the two runs. Razorback pitching wasn’t up to snuff overall, as nine strikeouts were matched by the same number of walks and ten State hits.
Reed (0-4) took the loss, though State’s senior closer was hardly operating under game-ending circumstances. He entered in the sixth after Arkansas tied the game 2-2 to strand a pair, then worked another four-plus innings with 91 pitches thrown. He allowed five hits with three runs charged, walked four and struck out four.
It wasn’t just the length of his labors that took a toll on the righthander. “To be honest I didn’t have any fastball command, I felt like. I felt I threw it just enough in spots to keep them honest with my slider. I think that’s what they were ready for.” They must have as three of the five hits off Reed went for doubles and other Razorback batters could out-wait him for walks.
“Caleb had a great effort, he didn’t have his best stuff,” Cohen agreed. Starter Kendall Graveman was touched for eight of Arkansas’ 15 hits and the first two runs, with two walks and two strikeouts.
Fant might not have been familiar to a revamped Dog order but after stranding a walked Porter in the first State hit him for consecutive singles in the second. RF Demarcus Henderson bunted but still reached as the throw to third was late, loading all bases. 3B Brayden Jones didn’t have to swing, he was nailed in the shoulder to force in the first Bulldog run. Arkansas immediately yanked Fant for righthander Nolan Sanburn.
He did the job with a first pitch rolled off 2B Matthew Britton’s bat for a double-play and one run. Mississippi State didn’t make maximum use of the inning as consecutive walks loaded the bases before Sanburn got a called strikeout.
The game very easily looked to have hinged on State’s half of the fourth as Jones doubled and Britton walked. That brought up the top of the MSU order, and a new pitcher in Brandon Moore. Frazier tried to bunt until the count went full, and after fouling off two balls he lashed a line-drive…
…directly into Ficociello’s glove. The first baseman was standing there to hold the runner, so he took one step to the base before throwing to second for a triple play. “If that ball goes two or three inches to either side we’re scoring and probably winning the game,” Cohen said. “But it’s not happening.” It was the second triple-play at State’s expense in as many weeks.
Graveman was able to leave all bases loaded in his fourth inning and strand two more in the fifth. He was an out into the sixth before giving up a single and walk. Derrick Bleeker ended the shutout with a single to centerfield scoring Reynolds, Bosco tied it up with a base hit that had the go-ahead runner on third base with still one out.
Reed struck out Jake Wise on a full count and stranded two Razorbacks in scoring spots on a fly ball to leftfield. But the top of UA’s order was up in the seventh and Tim Carver lined a double over the third baseman’s glove. A ground ball had the lead run on third base and it would have scored anyway on a deep fly to center. Renfroe lost track of the high drive that landed right in front of him for a double and 3-2 lead.
State had a great chance to tie it in the eighth with bases full and two outs. Henderson fouled off three strikes before grounding hard to the shortstop. Carver very nearly over-ran the ball on an odd hop but recovered for a touch grab and flipped force.
Carver batted seven times for Arkansas with three hits, but it was the last four in their order that did the most damage with two hits apiece and four of the RBI. Bosco drove in three of those in six trips. Frost was the unlikely hitting hero for State with three singles in as many turns, but nobody else had more than one safety. Both teams left 14 unscored runners so the offensive frustrations were mutual.
Though Arkansas could shrug it off easier after taking the game and series. Yes, Frost acknowledged, the Bulldogs are playing without their leading hitter and three other position starters. And yes, they once again took a top-ten team down to crunch time in a March SEC series. That is encouraging as far as team attitude and even adaptability under these awkward circumstances.
“We just have to find a way to get things done. We had a bunch of runners left on base. The triple-play, that was just baseball, not much we can do about it. But you have to keep swinging the bat and having good at-bats.”
Their coach, too, applauded the effort, adding that if this team was going to yield to adversity they would have lost 10-0 Sunday or the like. “But these kids are competing their tails off and are right on the brink of being very successful. That’s why when everything starts going our way this is going to be a very good baseball team.”
State has a Tuesday chance to get back on the winning ledger by hosting Alcorn (6-17, 5-4 SWAC) at 6:30. Then they are back on the Western Division road for a weekend at Auburn.