Late Stumbles End Diamond Dog Season

Hunter Renfroe

The formula worked well enough, just enough, for seven weeks, and brought the Bulldogs from league cellar to NCAA participant. Unfortunately it did not suffice to extend Mississippi State's season any farther. "You can't put as much pressure on our pitching staff and defense as we do every day," John Cohen said. Because sooner or later one would be the last day.

It came Sunday afternoon in the Tallahassee Regional. With a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning, the near-complete reliance on relief pitching and steady defense to offset minimal scoring ended Mississippi State's season. The Samford Bulldogs tagged State's bullpen ace for a tying run, and scored the margin of 3-2 victory on a throwing error.

With their win, the second of the weekend over MSU, Samford remained alive for an evening rematch with host Florida State. The MSU Bulldogs concluded the campaign 40-24, having lost twice to the Birmingham-based Bulldogs. This time wasn't a shutout setback featuring four home runs by the winners, though.

Because Samford didn't need to knock anything out of Dick Howser Stadium. Instead they converted late-game opportunity on contact that was still stung but kept closer to the ground, and all with two outs, and at the expense of Mississippi State's sure-thing closer. In fact, RHP Jonathan Holder had not allowed a run, earned or otherwise, in 23 freshman appearances.

But the middle of Samford's order knew the rookie righty was going to throw hard strikes, and were ready to hack. On 0-2 count centerfielder Phillip Ervin punched a single up the middle too hot for SS Adam Frazier to snag; then slugging rightfielder Brandon Miller flattened his own behind-count swing to line and not lift.

The drive was past shortstop and into the gap for a RBI-double and tied scoreboard. "Give them credit," said Holder of his first charged run as a collegian. "He jumped all over it and put the ball where he wanted it. He did what any good hitters would do and took advantage of it."

Still State, comfortable in tight games after a two-month stretch of them, could have gotten to the eighth with a tied game even as designated hitter C.K. Irby stung another fastball. It was pulled hard to the left side and 3B Sam Frost got it on the first fast hop. But Frost, who already had some sketchy throw-overs in the regional, skipped this one to and past 1B Wes Rea's big mitt.

"I just kind of got sped up a little bit," said Frost. "The ball was chopped and thought I had to rush. I had time, I just didn't have a good grip on the ball and just spiked it." Miller came home from second base for the go-ahead run. Holder stranded a pair of SU Bulldogs but the damage had been done.

Or from another perspective it was done far earlier in the afternoon, and almost as self-inflicted. Mississippi State was able to put ten runners on bases in the first four frames, and only bring two of those all the way home. This was nothing new of course, nor had strandings by the bunch prevented winning much more often than not.

But even the Bulldogs knew they had been pressing luck for a long time. When they failed to maximize early opportunities, especially in the first and second frames when two were on with no outs each time, the pitching-and-defense got stretched beyond breaking at last.

"We just didn't execute when we needed to," said C Mitch Slauter, a reliable bunter who had two sacrifice attempts bounced into outs of Rea both times. Instead this one stayed in Samford's striking distance too long.

SU reliever Joseph Burns (4-1) got the win on a well-timed relief stint with no hits and two strikeouts. He set it up nicely for clutch-swinger Irby to close with a one-hit, one-walk ninth inning, leaving the tying and go-ahead Bulldogs in scoring positions for his tenth save of the season. Holder (2-1) took the loss on the two runs with three hits and two strikeouts.

State gave freshman Jacob Lindgren the starting chance, only his second this year and both coming in tournament time. The lefthander put in 4.0-plus innings with a lone run on eight base hits, a walk, and three strikeouts. A string of three relievers kept Samford at the one run into that fatal seventh. But they could not help the offense do any real expanding.

And the opportunities to strike didn't just come early, but often. Frazier made an immediate point by taking the first pitch from Samford starter Kyle Putkonen into leftfield for a single. He stole second and, along with a walked LF Demarcus Henderson, was bunted over. CF Hunter Renfroe made it a 1-0 lead with his grounder to deep shortstop.

But a ground ball left two unscored that inning, and the second turn was much more frustrating. Rea doubled, also on the first pitch, and made third base on an infield single by 2B Matthew Britton. Squeeze bunting had worked twice Saturday against UAB and Samford was allowing the right spacing to try again. Slauter pushed it too hard for a field-and-flip home ahead of Rea for an easy tag. Again another pair went unscored.

Lindgren did not seem concerned as he left one runner on in the first inning and another at second base in the next. Consecutive two-out singles in the third did no harm either, and when Lindgren returned it was with a 2-0 margin. LF Luis Pollorena opened with a single and got to third as Rea executed the hit-and-run perfectly. 2B Matthew Britton didn't get a bunt down on two tries; swinging away he singled in Pollorena. Still it wasn't a really productive inning because Rea was tagged shy of third base on another bunt try.

The failure loomed larger immediately as Samford got their key run of the day, one score in the bottom of the fourth. Back-to-back hits by Miller and Irby and a one-out ground ball had them both positioned to score. Nine-hole man Tommy Corbin made it a 2-1 game with his single to center, and only a typically strong and straight Renfroe throw-home to out Irby prevented a tie for the time being.

Putkonen lasted into the seventh and a leadoff nicking of Frazier. After he was bunted over Burns entered for two quick outs. For State it was lefthander Ross Mitchell working the fifth and most of the sixth before RHP Ben Bracewell took over mid-count for a walk and pop-out. An out into the seventh LHP Chad Girodo was matched with and flew-out Saxon Butler, which was Holder's cue.

And Samford, as they had Friday in hitting ace starter Chris Stratton, came up expecting stuff in the zone. Everything was struck very well, though close enough to defenders to have Cohen wondering what-if. "That one ball on the backhand side that is hit really hard, and gets under Adam's glove by inches. Sammie's ball gets by first base, if we handle that a little bit differently it kind of changes our fortunes."

Instead it all became misfortunes. The Bulldogs still had an excellent chance to at least extend the game as with one out Irby walked Frost on, and Frazier's fly ball fell fair for a double. Almost anything would have re-tied the tally and Cohen instructed Henderson to lay off low sliders and just make contact. He couldn't, going down on three strikes with the last a not-checked-enough swing.

"Demarcus went to a little bit of effort there," the coach said. A fly ball by senior Brent Brownlee to rightfield ended the game and season. Frazier, Rea, and Britton all had two hits out of State's total nine. Samford had a dozen safeties, with two-each by four batters.

Bulldogs looked a bit dazed that the pitching, defense, and a little scoring system finally failed when it mattered most. Especially, as it had worked all last week in a six-day run to a most unexpected SEC Tournament title. One obvious question, had that extended stretch in Hoover taken a toll here? "Absolutely not," insisted Slauter, who more than any Dog had a right to talk fatigue. "We had a good week of preparation. We just didn't come in with our best stuff this weekend."

Only two seniors, Brownlee and reliever Caleb Reed, graduate off the squad. A few other Dogs who have dealt with injuries for most of three months now have a summer and fall to heal. One, 3B Daryl Norris, did not play in Sunday's finale; and OF C.T. Norris attended wearing the sling after May surgery for his shoulder problem. Stratton of course expect to have his named called Monday in the opening round of June's Major League draft and turn professional.

But otherwise the pitching staff returns the rest of the key contributors, several whose roles were figured out midway of this season. All of Sunday's position starters are underclassmen, as compared to a year ago this time when all but two super regional starters were seniors. For the first time since his summer 2008 return to campus, Cohen will actually have both a balanced pitching staff and veteran lineup roster to work with. And that doesn't include a dozen signees including at least a couple coming in expected to swing the sticks.

It did not make anyone feel better immediately after defeat, Cohen said, but… "I think we have the basis for a really good future in our program. That doesn't help us right now." Particularly not following one last low-scoring contest with so, so many stranded Dogs. "That's my responsibility, I'll wear all that that we're not a great offensive club," Cohen said. Still he sees everything else trending in the right direction at last.

"We're already there pitching, for the most part we're really close defensively. We're just not a very good offensive club yet, when that happens I think we have the chance to be among the elite program in this country."

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