Dogs Square Series On Mitchell's Strong Arm

Hopefully this was the last bout of cold weather for the Diamond Dogs and fans. More hopefully, Derrick Armstrong stays as hot going forward as he was Saturday. It was the centerfielder's sixth-inning single that put Mississippi State ahead for the first time all day, and in game-two to stay as the Bulldogs took a 5-1 win.

Arkansas had taken the first game of the weather-rescheduled series, winning 4-0 in the afternoon. Even in that one Armstrong was hot, batting 3-of-4. In the nightcap though his third base hit counted for a 2-1 lead that let Mississippi State (19-10, 5-3 SEC) even the series. Arkansas is now 17-9, 4-4.

The Razorbacks certainly will have an eye on #6 each time he comes up after a 6-of-8 twinbill. "I'll take it," Armstrong said. "I've been hitting line drives right at people, and I finally got some holes today."

None bigger, at least metaphorically, than the space his fly ball found in the bottom of the sixth and a 1-1 tie. Arkansas had finally replaced starter Trey Killian after the righthander had given up a run-scoring single to 1B Wes Rea, after two were outs and SS Seth Heck had singled for Bulldogs on corners. Armstrong already had gone 2-of-2 against Killian, but righthander Zack Jackson had no better luck.

"He threw really well but I was just in that zone, and if I got a pitch to hit I was going to try to do something with it," Armstrong said. Jackson came with a slider for a ball, then a fastball. "And I got him and just did something with it. And it found a hole."

A short single usually wouldn't suffice to score Rea from second base, but the big first baseman had been running on contact if not before and had more than enough momentum to turn and take home for a 2-1 lead. Heck had stopped at third, and soon Armstrong too was in scoring position as a wild pitch advanced him.

It counted because after a struggling day in most phases C Zack Randolph lifted a fly ball that for once the wind helped a Bulldog with. This drive faded just far enough towards center to fall beyond the leftfielder's glove for a two-RBI single and 4-1 lead.

"He came up with a big hit, and that says a lot about his character," Coach John Cohen said. "Because the first couple of at-bats were not his best. He put a really good swing on the ball."

But when it comes to character, in all senses of the word, none stood out like Ross Mitchell. The Bulldog starting pitcher ignored any ideas—right or wrong—from game-one and attacked Arkansas in ways their batters couldn't handle. The result was a complete-game victory for the lefthander, his second full-stint success of SEC season.

"I gave up a few hits but I was happy the coaches kept me out there and let me finish the game," Mitchell said. "That's a lot of trust in them."

Such trust is earned. Mitchell (5-1) shook off a first-inning run, of his own making, and controlled Arkansas the rest of the 8.2 inning way with only four total hits, two strikeouts and no walks at all. The one runner who did score, batting first in the first, was nicked by the pitcher for a free base. That was all Mitchell could be critiqued over. Well, almost all.

"Outside of not covering first base (for a two-out single in the fifth) and trying to create a new type of double-play we never work on," Cohen quipped, dryly. "Outside of those two things I thought he was fantastic, you look at the number of two-pitch outs he got." Mitchell needed just 98 pitches to go the whole route and in one minute over two hours.

"I didn't feel as good today as I have the past games, I was having to fight out there," Mitchell said. "But I was able to make it through the game and have a pretty good game."

Arkansas' Killian (1-4) took the loss with three runs on six hits, a walk and a strikeout.

After shutting the Dogs down and out in game-one, jumping to a 1-0 lead in the first turn looked pretty large. After Andrew Benintendi was nicked for a free base he was bunted into position to score. Brian Anderson did that, as his ground ball right to 2B Brett Pirtle took a wicked hop to skip over the second-sacker for a single and RBI.

All Mitchell did then was retire 13-straight, before the fifth-inning grounder up the line that the pitcher thought was foul but stayed fair. Mitchell just stranded the runner anyway with a line-shot snag of nine-hole hitter Michal Bernal, then sat down the next nine Razorbacks to complete eight innings.

But offensively the Bulldog struggles of game-one carried into the rematch for five frustrating frames. There were tying runners on in the first, second, fourth, and fifth and none got past second base as Killian scuffled and procured ground balls or fly balls to stand everyone. His downfall came when the top of MSU's order returned for the sixth and LF Jake Vickerson singled. A grounder by DH Alex Detz worked as well as a bunt.

Rea had been robbed by the hard left-to-right wind in the fourth inning when his shot to leftfield died on the track. Up again, this time he began 0-2 before Killian tried to nibble corners and threw balls. Rea swung on 2-2 for a base hit up the middle and 1-1 tie, followed by Heck's two-out hit and the big contacts from Armstrong and Randolph.

Mitchell got a little more margin in the MSU seventh as 3B Matt Britton walked, stole second and was bunted along by Vickerson who almost outran the throw, too. A fly ball would have scored Britton and Detz delivered, except it also fell in front of the centerfielder for a single and 5-1 lead. This was more than enough to let the starter stay, even if closer Jonathan Holder was warming up late.

Great infield defense from Heck and Britton in the eighth made it go fast, if not easily. The ninth was more challenging as Benintendi and Bobby Wernes both singled. Then came Mitchell's un-scripted double-play as he went to the third base side for a grounder. "I wasn't necessarily thinking three but I saw Britton coming in and go the force play." Fortunately his toss was in time for that, and Britton's cannon-arm made it two with a relay back to first base. Tyler Spoon made it interesting with a deep drive to right but RF Demarcus Henderson made his second tough catch against the wall of the game, this one to end the evening.

State had ten total hits, the three by Armstrong and two from Pirtle. Of Arkansas' four hits, three came from the top trio in their order. The Bulldogs were unable to get their normal quota of walks with just two free passes, but there was also only one strikeout. Cohen noted that even in the first game loss fannings were not an issue.

"But I'm pleased with our offense. It's so easy to say things are not gonna go our way. But we only struck out three times in the first game and one time in the second game and hit some balls really hard. We just couldn't bunch them together." Not until that one key inning, that is. The frame which evened the day.

And, sets up a rubber game Sunday. Mississippi State will put RHP Trevor Fitts (2-1, 3.13) on the mound first, with Arkansas listing RHP Chris Oliver (2-2, 1.74) to start. A win will keep the Bulldogs among the league's leaders after another wild SEC weekend that has kept the standings in a March muddle.

"We needed to come get that win, so yeah, a little bit of pressure," Armstrong said. "But we fought to the end." And tomorrow? "Same mentality. We've got to take the series."

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