The fourth-seeded Bears took advantage of some bunched fielding gaffes in one inning, and an unexpected big swing in another, to extend their season and force a second title game at 7:00 Monday. At stake is a super regional berth in Charlottesville, Va., something the Bulldogs could have locked up tonight.
Instead, Coach John Cohen and club are under the gun now to figure out how to handle a Central Arkansas squad whose scrappy strengths seem to dovetail perfectly with Mississippi State exposed weaknesses. “We have another day and another opportunity in a double-elimination tournament to step forward and win it,” said Cohen.
“It’s a tough loss,” 2B Brett Pirtle said. “But we’ll put it behind us because we’re a tough ball club and we’ve done it before.”
The Bulldogs have done this before, rebound from a rough performance and respond successfully. But it was impossible to miss that this one left State shaken and not just by defeat. The manner in which Central Arkansas won was too frustratingly similar to the March regular-season series they also took, two of three.
Actually, it was worse. The Dogs were four-hit for nine full innings by a primary reliever, Ethan McKinzie, who was making only his third start of the season. The righthander looked like an ace against State bats, only once giving up a couple of hits in a single inning…not surprisingly one of which State scored in. Even his five walks weren’t made good use of, with just one of those scoring.
Though, Cohen said, the contact was there to do so. “We hit the ball hard, it didn’t go our way. We kind of stepped away from our identity offensively. And this wasn’t one of our better days defensively.” To say the least, as a four-error evening showed. Only a couple of those mattered but did they ever. And each came from SS Adam Frazier in the third turn.
The other gaffes just pressured Bulldog pitching longer. Though on the whole, they handled the pressure as well or better than expected. In fact, “Trevor Fitts deserves an apology from our entire club and our coaching staff,” Cohen said. “Because he was a warrior today.”
Fitts, also making his third start this season, did put up a fight. He began with six routine outs and was handed a 1-0 lead as well. Fitts (0-1) certainly deserved better than taking the first decision on a loss. He lasted 2.2 innings on the two runs with just one hit, two walks and a strikeout, and would have gone longer given merely routine fielding support. Such as what McKinzie (4-2) received.
Worse still for State, they allowed a second full-route game by UC pitching on Sunday after their earlier shutout of South Alabama. This spares their bullpen greatly for Monday, while two Bulldog relievers had to work.
State should have gotten to Mckinzie for more than one run in the second inning. 3B Sam Frost singled and was able to get to third on a combined stolen base and catcher’s throwing error. With two teammates on LF Demarcus Henderson singled to rightfield for the RBI. Frazier nailed a drive but it went right to the leftfielder’s glove.
His glove was even less lucky in the game-changing bottom of the third. Frazier did field a full-count grounder by Garrett Brown deep in the hole for an infield single, before Justin Treece sent another bouncer his way. Frazier threw wide of second base for Bears on corners. Fitts got a pop-out, then did his job with a made-to-order grounder.
Frazier fielded fine, stepped on second for a force…and sidearmed the throw where 1B Wes Rea couldn’t catch it. Two runners came home, and while it was just a one-run deficit the emotional impact on State was obvious. It also cost Fitts as after a full-count walk and ball-one RHP Myles Gentry came in to end that inning.
State didn’t get another base hit until their top half of the sixth as McKinzie mixed fastballs and changeups that looked an awfully lot alike. Putting bat on ball wasn’t the problem, Cohen said. “When we got behind we went to heavy swing, hard swing, instead of what got us here.” Too much of the good contact ended up in Treece’s glove as he seemed everywhere, negating walks in the fourth and fifth.
A leadoff pass of Pirtle in the sixth worked out a bit better. After his pulled liner to the left line was called foul instead of a double, Rea had to settle for a bouncer that worked like a bunt. With two outs Frost swung at 2-2 and dropped a single in centerfield. Pirtle was waved around and McKinzie cut off the throw anyway. Treece stopped the inning with yet another running get at the bag.
And that 2-2 tie didn’t outlast the inning. A leadoff walk and bunt were followed by a single to center putting Bears on corners with the one out. Scott Zimmerlee took his first pitch to center for the go-ahead RBI. With two outs State moved the outfield defense in on Treece, a percentage play Cohen said as he’d hit just five doubles all season.
Number-six was sailed over Henderson’s head for the 5-2 lead.
RF Hunter Renfroe was the only Dog to reach the rest of the evening, on his leadoff single in the eighth. McKinzie handled that after a mound talk and finished up. RHP Will Cox took care of the last two turns with a couple of strikeouts.
Cohen had a simple message for the squad in a brief post-game meeting. “I felt it was a two-pitch ball game. We don’t convert the double-play, then Treece hits the double because we’re really shallow. He burned us, to his credit he did a great job.”
Whereas Bulldog batters didn’t do much of any job, pressing once they were behind and forcing swings with effort. Generally, Cohen thought Fitts and Gentry were up to the demands. “But we didn’t do the average things we needed to win the ball game.”
Instead State lost a third time in five meetings with Central Arkansas. “They’re a solid ball club,” Frost agreed. Still, “We weren’t focused coming in today. Maybe we were looking ahead and didn’t take them quite seriously. We’re going to get our minds right tomorrow and it’s going to be a good ball game.”
It has to be a good game and outcome if Mississippi State is to walk off the home field a winner in their last appearance here of 2013. Certainly all but the small but vocal corps of Bear fans out of the 10,226 attending left the stadium frustrated, or worse. And quite possibly fearful of what the Monday morrow may bring after their team was so close to advancing. Because for whatever reasons, Central Arkansas has State’s number.
“They have a really good gameplan,” Cohen said. “They do a nice job with the strike zone, you have to throw strike-one. A big part is what is the strike zone like on that day, and whoever locks onto that zone best as a team offensively is going to be better.”
Which means the coach is demanding his offense deliver. Cohen wasn’t ready to name a pitcher against the right-side heavy Bears; in fact he talked more about bullpen options who are available. What he will be thinking about into the morning hours and on is still hitting.
“When I lay my head on the pillow--if I do—I’m going to be thinking about our at-bats.”