The Mississippi State skipper was justifiably frustrated after watching called strikeouts either derail or end outright the final three innings and let Ole Miss seal their 5-3 victory in the fourth annual Governor’s Cup. The Rebels (20-6) stranded five of the six Bulldogs who reached second and third base over the last three frames, and fittingly fanned three-straight MSU batsmen to end the evening.
“We had a lot of bad at-bats down the stretch,” Bulldog 1B Connor Powers said. “That was really where we lost the game. Especially when you have just as many errors as hits, that really doesn’t help either.”
The senior first sacker was correct noting the fielding gaffes, which contributed to a three-run second inning for the Rebels that Mississippi State (14-11) never could entirely overcome. In fact Ole Miss’ margin of victory were unearned runs scored in the second and seventh frames. Still Cohen’s club had sufficient chances to overcome their own charity, most obviously in the seventh and eighth innings as each time Dogs were on third and second bases with only one out.
Just once was State able to make anything of these opportunities, and that on an out as OF Ryan Collins produced a RBI with a ground ball in the eighth. Nothing else came of the eighth as Reb reliever Brett Huber struck out C Cody Freeman. Huber had taken over in the inning from Eric Callender who had worked out of a two-on, one-out threat with a strikeout of SS Jonathan Ogden and grounder from pinch-batter Ryan Duffy.
The ninth was somewhat less dramatic as after Huber walked LF Jet Butler to lead off Matt Tracy entered to shoot down pinch-hitters Trey Johnson, Wes Thigpen, and order-topper 3B Nick Vickerson. Tracy scored his first save of the career, after he and Huber combined for 2.0 official scoreless, hitless innings and five total strikeouts.
“We’ve got to find guys who can handle a two-strike approach,” Cohen said. “We’re really searching for that, just the skill level that you’ve got to have. And obviously we’re not displaying that now. We spend hour and hours and hours and hours on that. That’s why it’s really frustrating.”
Mississippi State was frustrated by more than the finish though. Rebel David Goforth made his first career start an outstanding one, working well into the sixth inning with a couple of runs on three hits. The righthander didn’t overpower anyone, with a single strikeout, but he was too efficient for the Bulldogs for over half the affair.
“He was throwing strikes,” said Powers, who hung those two runs on Goforth with his two-RBI homer in the sixth inning. “A good job by him. He was spotting up and throwing a lot of strikes.”
Mississippi State also ran a first-time starter out, giving true frosh C.C. Watson (2-1) the ball. He would work 2.1 innings with three runs, two of them earned, on four hits, two walks, and a strikeout. It was about as many innings as the MSU coaches had expected from the rookie, who was followed by another classmate as Luke Bole got the longest State stint at 3.2 innings with a run on four hits, walk, and strikeout.
Tyler Whitney and Corey Collins completed the pitching work, though around an odd ninth-inning interruption as reliever Ben Bracewell hurt himself taking warm-up tosses.
“We pitched OK,” Cohen said. “We didn’t pitch very well.” Or as well as hoped. The coaches were particularly surprised when Watson, routinely a 87-90 mile per hour thrower, rarely got out of the low 80s on a warm evening. “I have no idea what’s with that,” Cohen said. “This can be a pretty big stage for a freshman to get his first start, and he’s throwing a baseball 80-82. So we’re going to have to find out what is going on with that.”
Watson got around a runner on second with one out in his first inning. In the second though a leadoff walk and single resulted in the first Rebel score as Taylor Hightower bounced a one-out single up the middle to plate Alex Yarbrough. Kevin Mort’s hit to rightfield shouldn’t have meant a run as RF Luke Adkins’ throw was easily in time and on target, hitting Freeman’s mitt…only to bounce off for a catcher error.
David Phillips thus got home safely and Hightower reached third, where he was able to score on a Tim Ferguson fly ball. It took a long and strong throw by Ogden to end the inning with the margin just 3-0.
Watson got an out and walk into the third when Bole was called in for his turn. It wasn’t his fault things began badly as Yarbrough grounded right to Vickerson with the double-play set up nicely. Except Vickerson overthrew the middle-base leaving Rebels on corners. Bole erased the gaffe with a roller to second that was converted into a double-play.
Meanwhile Goforth was rolling along almost unchallenged, facing the minimum through three with only a walk against him erased on a double-play. His no-hitter ended two outs into the fourth when Powers sailed a drive that would have cleared college fences but only reached this pro park’s warning track. The first baseman made third base, his first triple since the 2007 freshman season. The shutout continued though as DH Russ Sneed’s fly ball was shorter, and caught.
Ferguson led off the Rebel fifth with a double, and on one down Bole earned a balk on a fake move at second. So Ferguson was able to tag and score on a fly ball from Matt Smith for the 4-0 lead.
With one down in the Bulldog fifth Freeman walked to get the Ole Miss bullpen busy. Butler flew-out and while Ogden hit it on the nose his drive was right to the centerfielder. An inning later though half of Goforth’s lead vanished on one big swing. 2B Sam Frost was on first via a single with two outs when Powers got every bit of a 1-1 offering and carried it over dead-centerfield. “It was a fastball, he was trying to go down-and-away and missed up, I think,” Powers said. It was his ninth homer of the season. And, the end of Goforth’s evening as righthander Callendar came in to strike out Sneed.
Whitney took over for the top of the seventh, and with a one-out walk and single got a routine roller to second base that Frost let go under the glove. UM’s Smith came around from second for the 5-2 lead. State had a great chance to undo that damage in their half of the frame as with one out Freeman singled, and Butler punched a grounder inside first base for a double. Ogden laid off a low off-speeder that was called strike three, leaving it up to pinch-hitter Duffy to make something of the situation. He was up 3-1 before grounding right to the first baseman.
A leadoff Vickerson single in the MSU eighth brought righthander Huber to forestall any rally by the top of State’s order. He walked Adkins on four pitches, struck out Powers on seven, and walked Sneed to stuff all sacks. Collins grounded to the shortstop, too slowly for a double-play but the Rebs were willing to concede Vickerson’s scoring for a second out. With the tying runners in scoring positions Freeman worked the count full before striking out.
“I saw seven or eight of the same pitches in a row and ended up striking out, on my part that was a really bad at-bat,” said Powers. “That was one of the situations we could have done a better job.”
Whitney lasted into the ninth when he was touched for consecutive one-out singles and runners on corners. Bracewell came to the mound yet during warm-up tossing felt a hamstring tighten up. “He felt he couldn’t go,” Cohen said. So Collins was rushed into action, producing a pop-fly and grounding-out pinch hitter Taylor Hashman.
Huber saw the bottom of MSU’s order in the last chance, or a revised one as Cohen pinch-batted Johnson after Butler drew a leadoff plunking. Ole Miss countered with Matt Tracy for the left-on-left matchup, though the pitchers wasn’t bothered by Butler taking second. He mowed down three-straight to end the evening with a fair portion of the 7,322 crowd staying around for the trophy presentation.
State managed just six hits all evening, two by Powers; while Ole Miss mustered 11 safeties with Miller and Mort going 3-for-4. The Rebels played errorless ball while State was charged four times.
But it was those five strikeouts down the stretch and all the unscored Dogs that had Cohen’s attention. “There’s no question that’s something we’ve got to do better. We’ve been addressing it for months now.
“But we’ll get there. Every phase that a coach has to go through to turn it around, we’ll do. There’s not a question of our kids’ effort, they’re doing the very best that they can. I think we’re getting the very most that we can out of them and they’re working at it.”
Powers agrees. “The coaches are doing a great job. But the players just have to play better. It’s as simple as that.”