Nor did top-seeded Mississippi State allow the Bears to pull off yet another of the upsets that highlighted day-one of the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs used three sixth-inning runs to break a deadlocked game and make that margin hold up. Barely, as tying and lead runners were on bases when RHP Jonathan Holder coaxed a fly-ball ending an intense evening.
An official 11,102, the 17th-largest crowd in Dudy Noble Field history, had to wait around for that last out. But as winning pitcher Kendall Graveman said, “People have waited numerous years to get a Regional here, and for that we thank them. Maybe it did get our adrenalin going a little bit. But there are moments you need them.”
Those and likely more will be back Saturday. Mississippi State (44-17) advanced to a 7:00 winners bracket battle with South Alabama (43-18) which beat Mercer in Friday’s first game. Central Arkansas (39-21) and Mercer (43-17) meet in a battle of Bear teams at 2:00 with one going home.
For Coach John Cohen, the proceedings had much more drama and even trauma than necessary. The Bulldog defense ate four fielding errors along with some other misplaced pitches that contributed, directly or not, to most of UCA’s scoring and many more dangerous situations. “Sloppy” was Cohen’s candid call.
“But with the four errors we kept battling and found a way to win.”
The biggest battlers were Rea and Graveman. The first baseman made three, count ‘em three defensive plays that ranged from the merely outstanding to the truly great. And at the plate Rea was just as big, with both his base hits plating teammates for tying RBI at the time(s).
Yet it was starting pitcher Graveman meriting most praise, which few would have thought after he committed two errors on the same fourth-inning play that had the Bears back in front 2-1. He was also scuffling with an interesting strike zone at times, and a Central Arkansas order which happily walks or gets hit rather than hitting to reach. It was a serious situation for a senior who hadn’t picked up a winning decision since early April.
What, Graveman grumble? Or crumble? “I’m a competitor and I wanted to try to make things happen,” Graveman said. He did. Whether it was getting those gaffes out of his system, or a remarkable in its own right double-play to keep it a one-run game, Graveman responded with his best stuff in weeks. He worked an out into the seventh inning for 6.1 total turns, with two runs (one earned) on just four hits, two walks and five strikeouts.
He also left with a lead and improved to 6-5 for the season. “I really don’t think about my stats, if we’re winning ball games,” said Graveman. Bear starter Caleb McClanahan (10-6) took the loss with all five Dogs runs on 11 hits. He walked two and struck out none.
Central Arkansas wasn’t at all intimidated by the hostile setting, having won a series here in early March including a decision against Graveman. State’s starter was working hard early too, as the low strikes weren’t recognized and he had to leave stuff up more than he prefers. Two walks around a single had the bases loaded with just one out. Graveman got a second with a called strikeout, then on 3-1 count Scott Zimmerlee chipped a very slow one-hopper to shortstop. SS Adam Frazier had to hurry the throw and nearly sent it wide, but Rea used all his 6-6 frame to get it while falling down and keeping a toe on the sack.
“The play of the game,” Cohen called it, though even more amazing feats were ahead from Rea. In the meantime the big Dog got to be a hitting hero in the bottom of the frame as well, and with bases loaded. DH Alex Detz worked a one-out walk, and RF Hunter Renfroe reached as his grounder to shortstop was fumbled. 2B Brett Pirtle barely made contact with a dribbler that might have gone 15 feet, but the Bears waited too long to see if it would roll foul.
It didn’t and all were safe. Rea sliced a 1-0 offering to the right side and past a diving second baseman. Because it was close there everybody had to wait for the ball to clear so only Detz scored.
Rea also made a nifty step-and-stick on a sizzler to rob a double in the third, which kept the inning from becoming really dangerous. Because an infield single, groundout, and base hit by Blake Marchal tied it up with two down. Graveman had to strand two more runners.
But in the fourth defensive breakdowns crippled the home club. First it was Frazier handling a roller a bit too casually, dropping it for a leadoff reach. The bunt to the right side was fielded fine by Rea, only the covering Graveman just dropped his throw. Worse, after colliding with the runner, Graveman tried to get Garrett Brown going for third base and overthrew everyone. Brown scored and Justin Treece made second base. “That was kind of a crazy inning,” said Cohen in marked understatement.
“You can’t go back and re-do it,” said Graveman, whose maturity showed shortly. A better-handled bunt had Treece on third when leadoff Bear Forrest Allday ripped a shot directly at Graveman. He not only snared it out of the air but double-off the other runner to keep his team within the one run.
Which was enough for State to match in their fifth turn, though not without making it hard on themselves. A leadoff single by Detz was erased as the Bulldog had no chance on his steal try. It hurt worse as Pirtle’s fly to leftfield was, simply, missed. It got through Ethan Harris—“I lost it in the lights, I don’t like to make excuses but that was it”--for a three-base hit per the rulebook. Rea made it count too with a first-pitch single past shortstop for a 2-2 tie.
Having seen McClanahan before, and looked at a stat sheet, Rea said the key was aggression. “He’s only walked ten guys in 116 innings so we knew he was going to go after strike-one. I don’t know about everybody else but in my mindset I knew he was going to try to get ahead of guys and then go to the off-speed stuff. I jumped on stuff early and it worked out.”
Nothing worked out as well as a Dog defensive gamble in the sixth, after Pirtle booted a routine grounder and Zimmerlee stepped into a pitch to reach on plunking. It was an obvious bunting situation and after ball-one Cohen called for a wheel-shift. Rea timed his charge perfectly with Garrett Brown’s bunt coming right to his glove. Rea fielded and fired for third where Frazier was covering for one out, and the shortstop relayed all the way across to first for a fabulous twin-killing. A line-out ended the inning with the 2-2 tie intact.
“That was huge, a great coaching call and a huge momentum shift obviously,” CA’s Marchal said. “They just totally turned the tides there and basically put us against the ropes.”
And this time State took the momentum into their offensive half of the inning. Frost worked a leadoff walk and was bunted along by Ammirati. LF Demarcus Henderson was able to drive a liner that just cleared the second baseman, so close that Frost had to hold up and made only third base again. But the Bears unwisely threw for home anyway and Henderson smartly moved into scoring position as well.
Frazier did his duty with a pulled grounder to the right side with only a play at first base as Frost crossed and Henderson advanced to third. Detz plated him by legging-out an infield single to shortstop. And when Renfroe bounced a double into the left corner, Detz—running already on full-count—came all the way home from first base for a 5-2 margin. A pitching change, too, as lefty Blake Clayton took over. He was lucky to escape another run as his wild pitch rattled around long enough for Renfroe to be waved around third base and make home in time. Only, Central Arkansas cleverly threw an appeal toss to third base and umpire Heath Jones punched the fist. Replay showed Renfroe did drag the bag.
The sixth run would have eased a lot of later stress. Graveman got the number-nine batter in the seventh to end his stint with a win in the making. “Man, the first inning they did a good job taking marginal pitches. After that I decided to start shoving it in strike zone. For me to get ahead in the fifth, sixth, seventh innings, and I got on a roll.”
LHP Chad Girodo struck out the next two before stranding one in the eighth. The ninth was obviously Holder’s time, only the closer wasn’t sharp on the curveball.
He walked a pair on around as many swinging strikeouts, then gave another base-on balls to load everything up. His first pitch to Ethan Harris skipped Ammirati’s mitt, too, for a free run and the tying scorers in positions to do so. Harris fouled off a 0-2 strike before flying-out to end it.
Holder extended his season-saves record to 17, and he is now just three shy of the career record of 29 already as a sophomore. Detz went 3-of-3 with two runs and a RBI, and reached four times total. It was the 11th-straight game, and 14 of the last 15, that Mississippi State notched double-digit base hits.
“I felt we played a good baseball team tonight,” Cohen said. “And I felt we didn’t handle the baseball very well, we were sloppy defensively. To Kendall’s credit he did an amazing job of putting it in the rear view mirror and kept competing and shoving it in the strike zone.”
“I thought we did a pretty solid job of that, though John got into a little of an issue late. But overall, you just get through it.”
Now that they’ve gotten through the first round unscathed--unlike five of their conference cousins who went down to opening day defeats—the Bulldogs should hopefully settle down for Saturday’s rematch with the Jaguars. The teams met in Mobile back on April 2, with State winning 6-4. Rea had the two key RBI in that victory, though winning pitcher Brandon Woodruff isn’t available after an elbow injury.
So LHP Luis Pollorena (6-3, 4.30) will start for MSU, which will be the visiting side after a coin toss. South Alabama will use righthander Matt Bell (6-1, 3.52).