The Bears of the Southland Conference, now, they saw history by winning a first-ever meeting of the programs. Central Arkansas (23-26) scratched out runs in the second and fifth innings, which was more than enough for pitchers Ethan McKinzie and Bryce Biggerstaff to work with. The pair of righthanders combined for a shutout victory, the first non-conference blanking of a Bulldog team since 2006 by Ole Miss in the old Mayors Trophy game.
For Coach John Cohen, who once worked in the Southland league, joy in the other dugout was understandable. A shutout and shut-down of the home team was not acceptable.
“This is their world series, their hearts are jumping around, they’re touring our facilities before the game and are fired-up,” Cohen said. “And our kids did not meet that challenge. That’s very, very discouraging because we warned, we worked, and our kids didn’t show up.”
Not with the bats, for sure. Mississippi State (31-21) did muster seven hits, not a terrible day by this offense’s standards. But not a single single—and they all were one-base hits—amounted to much. In fact no Bulldog got as far as second base in the evening. For their part the Bears tallied three doubles out of their eight safeties.
“We have some deficiencies offensively we have to work through,” said Cohen in an obvious understatement. “They get their eight hits, we get our seven. I’m very disappointed with our approach, we had seven average fly balls. Which isn’t horrendous but we have to be better than that.”
It wasn’t as if Central Arkansas was knocking the seams loose either, as two of their doubles were assisted by wrong outfielder jumps. For that matter no Bear who reached on a two-bagger scored or drove in a run. Their two tallies came on a soft single through the first base hole vacated to hold a runner on that bag; and on a fielder’s choice grounder.
But this was enough given how State could not connect consistently on Central Arkansas pitching. And that was what frustrated the most. McKinzie (1-1) was making his very first start of the entire season, and brought a 5.96 ERA into the game. All he did was last 6.0 complete innings with five hits, four strikeouts, and most of all a lone walk and no plunkings. Bulldogs simply got nothing free to work with, and aided McKinzie by swinging early and often.
Biggerstaff picked up his first save on 3.0 innings with two hits, no walks, and a strikeout. He too had anxious Bulldogs chasing early offerings. Only SS Adam Frazier had a handle on either as he accounted for three of the team’s seven base hits.
State starter Brandon Woodruff (0-2) took the loss after 4.0 innings. He was charged with the first Bear run along with five hits, two walks, and four strikeouts. That run came in the second frame as Michael Marietta reached on a fielder’s choice for the second out. Woodruff walked him into scoring position, and Blake Roberts bounced a RBI-single past 1B Wes Rea. Rea did keep it 1-0 by gobbling a hotter grounder to strand a pair in scoring positions.
Woodruff survived more doubles in the second, third, and fourth frames without damage, so lefthander Luis Pollorena was handed a 1-0 deficit. After a one-out walk, a Blake Marchal grounder looked like another twin-killing in the making until taking an odd and high skip over 2B Matthew Britton. This put Bears on corners and a ground ball to shortstop sufficed to score the lead runner.
And that was it for offense by both sides. RHP Caleb Reed stranded two runners in that fifth, and was two outs into the sixth with two on bases. Lefthander Nick Routt left them unscored. In the seventh it was two outs, one on base, and two strikes when RHP Ben Bracewell got the mid-count call. He finished fanning Garrett Brown, then finished the game with a hitless 2.1 innings and four strikeouts.
“Benny came in and threw really well,” Cohen said. “He was hesitant in the pen but once he got it underway I thought he pitched really well.” But Bracewell could not put runs on State’s side of the board, nor could anyone in the order. The game ended on a soft liner to second base with nobody on.
Cohen chose his comment carefully, also asking about other SEC scores. And State was not the only Tuesday loser as Florida and Ole Miss were outscored by Samford and Arkansas State respectively; Auburn and Tennessee dropped games as well, and Arkansas was in a scrap with Louisiana Tech at filing time.
But the Bulldogs were the only shut-out squad of that group. And given how utterly important the upcoming regular-season finale with Kentucky (a loser at Murray State) will be in getting State into the NCAA Tournament field, this was a tough non-score to swallow. Especially, Cohen said, with all the advance warnings to take this one seriously and take care of business.
“Anybody in Bulldog Country who thinks we didn’t spend hours and hours and hours trying to get our club fired up and ready to play in this ball game, is wrong,” Cohen made clear. “We did everything, we went overboard because we knew what was happening.” That included a pre-game round of situational swinging in the cage before the usual batting practice. It wasn’t lack of preparation or preaching, just too-familiar failure to put bat on ball against an opponent.
“But you can’t go nuts on your kids, because the biggest three games of the year are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday against Kentucky. We have to put this in the rearview mirror.”