And, struggling to understand why. "I really don't know what to tell you guys," said 1B Connor Powers. "They played a lot better than we did."
Maybe not a lot better, at least not on Sunday. But the Lions did perform well enough in sufficient situations to complete the sweep after previous 4-1 and 8-5 wins. And after trailing for most of the first seven innings, it was Southeastern slapping State in the face for a pair of eighth-inning scores that the home team could not answer.
"I'm disappointed for our kids," said Cohen. "They've got a nice ball club, I know Jay (Artigues) has been there a while and this is the club he's been waiting for for a long time. Hats off to them. But, we're better than what we played this weekend."
Going into the eighth Mississippi State was positioned to salvage something from the weekend, as freshmen relievers Kendall Graveman and Ben Bracewell had given up just one run in four combined frames. Bracewell entered in the seventh and protected a 5-4 State lead with a double-play. But in the eighth consecutive singles by the bottom to in Southeastern's order put the tying and go-ahead runners on bases. A pop-out bunt try and fly ball had Bracewell an out away.
Then Jeff Harkensee hit safely to centerfield and while CF Trey Johnson's throw looked in time the calls was safe, for a tied game. A full-count walk loaded the bases and moved Martin over to third where on a 1-0 count—and with a lefthanded batter at the plate—he made his move on the freshman righthander.
"The last thing (pitching coach) Butch (Thompson) told him is we're going to let you throw out of the windup here, but I want you to stare at the runner on third base," Cohen said. Except the rookie did not do as told and Martin was able to take advantage. "It's a freshman deal and he loses complete control," Cohen said. "But that happens to freshmen."
What happened in MSU's last chance though was mostly to veterans. SS Jonathan Ogden put the tying runner on via his leadoff single, and LF Luke Adkins advanced him with a bunt off Lion closer Chris Franklin. 3B Russ Sneed's pop-fly behind second glanced off the infielder's glove though Ogden had to ckeck up as it seemed certain for a catch. Still State had the tying and winning runs on and the heart of the order up in Powers and DH Ryan Duffy.
Powers, who'd slugged a two-run homer in the third MSU inning, got a 1-1 offering he wanted and just under-cut it a touch for a foul-tip instead of the winning shot over leftfield. On 2-2 Franklin was both up and away seemingly but umpire Terrence Mobley's mobile strike zone—which had infuriated both dugouts all afternoon—happened to be right there this time.
"He made a good pitch on me," said Powers. "They gave me a pitch to hit earlier and I fouled it off, and made a good pitch late. Give them credit." Duffy grounded to Franklin on 0-1 to end the game and give the closer his second save. Josh Janway (1-0) got the win by throwing 4.2 innings of scoreless relief with three this and six strikeouts. All State's scoring came off starter Ryan Boudreaux with 3.1 innings, seven hits, three walks and no strikeouts.
Bracewell took the loss in his first college decision, throwing 2.0 with two runs, three hits, a walk and a strikeout. State started Corey Collins and got 2.2 out of the righty with three runs, two earned, off six hits with a walk and three strikeouts. Graveman had a solid outing and stood to be the winner based on 3.1 innings with five hits, a run, two walks and four fannings. But events didn't play out that way.
For only the second time this season State did not give up any first-inning scoring; instead they led after one frame at the expense of Lion starter Ryan Boudreaux. After Adkins singled, Sneed drove the ball over left-centerfield for his first homer of the year and a 2-0 lead. Boudreaux did well to keep it there as he loaded the bases on a pair of singles and walk, before LF Ryan Collins rolled a double-play grounder. Those missed chances would loom larger later.
In the top of the second Collins was tagged for three-straight singles with Chad Gough-Fortenberry drving in Cody Cougler. Strikeouts kept it at 2-1, until the third inning when a couple more singles had Lions on corners. Justin Boudreaux's ground ball scored the tying runner, and a Couglar double brought in Graveman. A grounder was fielded nicely by Ogden but thrown so Powers had to leave the bag, which let Gough-Fortenberry collect another RBI with his base hit.
The Bulldogs did answer with their own two runs in the bottom of the inning. This time it was Sneed reaching on a walk and Powers smashing a drive that beat the wind to clear left-of-centerfield for a 4-3 State lead. An inning later new 2B Sam Frost, subbing in after starter Nick Vickerson missed a run-and-hit call, singled and worked on over to third base. Janway was summoned from the bullpen only to give up a first-pitch single to Ogden that dropped in front of a cautious leftfielder for the 5-3 margin.
Graveman had his hands full in the top of the fifth though. A one-out walk didn't seem too bad at first as he fanned Gougler. But a off-the-handle blooper dropped in centerfield kept the inning going and on full-count Gough-Fortenberry watched one go by just low to load the bases. Southeastern sent a lefthander to pinch-hit and Livingston also worked the count full. Graveman came back with a late-breaker that dropped below the bat for a strikeout.
But an out into the sixth the top of the Lion order dropped consecutive singles into the same centerfield spot they worked so well all day. With runners on corners a chopper to first base scored Cass Hargis. The score could have been tied up at that point as Cryer singled to, yes, centerfield, but this time Johnson's throw-home produced an out call from Mobley as the tag came down right as Boudreaux seemed to slide across. Lion protests changed nothing, but two innings later the decision went their way to even the score and set up Martin's bold move.
Of course aggressiveness was probably the way to go in this matchup. The Lions out-hit the Bulldogs 15 to 11 which made the final score seem low, with twenty totals runners stranded. And Cohen was certainly weary of watching balls dropped between the second base bag and the charging centerfielder.
"They made contact 22 times and 15 found grass in the outfield. I mean the law of averages on that are pretty much against you." Yet Southeastern beat those odds consistently enough by swinging freely and running hard, putting the pressure on State's young pitching—eight of nine innings were handled by first-year arms and Jones is a sophomore—and uncertain defense. Only one error was charged the Bulldogs and the glovemen did make all of the routine plays with a couple of nice ones tossed in.
Still Cohen saw a team playing just too tight for their own good, and senior Powers agreed. "We looked tense, I'm sure you guys see that. You just have to relax and play." But that's easier said than done in the current context. Cohen was not excusing his veterans either, such as the ninth inning. "You have two seniors in a row with great opportunities. Those at-bats are four years in the making and I feel horrible for Connor and Duffy. But the game is right there in your face."
And it slapped State right there, too. The trick for Cohen is keeping the right balance of teaching pressure with letting this revamped team play through these early-season issues. Even the first four wins were closer than necessary and putting up a lot of runs in those successes might have wrought some false impressions of the type team this needs to be. Or become. Even Sunday's pair of two-run shots were misleading in the bigger picture to the coach.
"You want to have a balanced situation where you can run, and hit it out of the ballpark. And right now we're not there, the middle of the lineup is filled with guys that can't run and in this ball park you cannot depend on power. They swept us and hit one ball out. You have to be able to bunt and steal bases and move runners." Which made leaving unscored Dogs on third base twice, at opposite ends of the game, that much more painful. Each time it was a veteran that did not deliver at the plate.
The real sign of offensive insecurity though was the number of miss-takes or missed swings on first pitches. That, of course, is something that coaching can only assist so far; good experience is the sole way to know how to attack the pitcher's first offering, or not. And experience can only come with both failures and successes. Problem is that SEC season is not very far away and the learning curve only steepens. State hit .290 for the weekend with 15 walks and 22 strikeouts.
"When you know you've got it going you can have real trust and know when the great time is to take 0-0 or take a quality swing," Cohen said. "But you give momentum to the other club on a 0-0 swing that's not good. We're in limbo right now, not sure what to do on 0-0 or not sure when the count presents itself. And we work really hard, nobody takes more ground balls than we do or does more instruction. We're really hard on them because we have a very high expectation."
Expectations that won't diminish at all as the Bulldogs go into March. Still Cohen and staff are searching for the right emotional approach this third week of the schedule. Yes, the coach repeated, the team is playing tight after looking free-and-easy in the opening weekend when they twice won games in the last inning.
"Maybe it's my fault because we do put pressure on them in practice to be successful. And look across the way, it's a loosey-goosey, just whatever happens, happens type of club we're playing against." Interestingly, Cohen added that he is almost glad things happened this series the way they did—if his team had to lose, that is—because the Bulldogs won't forget how much it hurt watching a Southland squad celebrating at Dudy Noble Field.
"I want it to sting a little bit, so they know things are not always going to go their way. We'll see if we can battle into next week, see if we can play Tuesday with the weather." The forecast is looking somewhat iffy for the 4:00 game with South Alabama this midweek. State hasn't named a starter but both senior Tyler Whitney or freshman Luke Bole are available.