It was a script State has seen followed far too often already this season, the Bulldogs battling on even terms into the middle innings only to have young pitching wear down, shaky defense open the door, and lack of scoring seal defeat. True, all three series setbacks have been to teams ranked in the top-ten at the time. This doesn't make another such loss any easier to accept.
"My team didn't win," starting pitcher Chris Stratton said. "That's all that matters. We have to find a way to get some Ws."
Arkansas has made a habit of getting Ws the hard way this season, both games played at Dudy Noble Field so far serving as fine exhibits. After giving up a pair of fifth-inning runs the Razorbacks were trailing 2-1 through six, and State and Stratton could easily have gotten into the bottom of the seventh no worse than tied. All it took was an over-aggressive decision by a young infielder to set things up for Arkansas to do what the do so well.
"I can't tell you how many times we've come from behind," UA Coach Dave Van Horn said. "So it's not like we were in a situation that we hadn't been in, we felt we can come back."
Also along the same lines as Friday, half the contest was controlled by good pitching as both State freshman Stratton and Razorback Brett Eibner matched three shutout innings. Eibner, also an outfielder and designated hitter, would work five complete with two runs on seven hits, a pair of walks and ten strong strikeouts. The Bulldogs had chances to beat on him some, but didn't take advantage of two first-inning singles or a pair on with one out in the second; or a leadoff double in the third.
"He's very confident on the mound," State DH Russ Sneed said. "You know you're going to have to beat to hit him. It's nothing overpowering, he just came right at us with fastballs and ended up with ten strikeouts. And he doesn't walk anybody, he gets both sides of the plate and mixes in the slider. It's tough to lay off those elevated fastballs, they look sweet."
Sneed did hit Eibner, for that third-inning drive off the centerfield wall that was good for two bases. But he thought he could get another on a head-down steal and was thrown out. "A complete bone-head mistake," Sneed said. "It can change a game, but in that situation it was the wrong time to do it with Connor Powers and Ryan Duffy coming up." Both of whom flew-out deep.
Stratton meanwhile shook off a pair of first-inning walks with a strikeout, of Eibner ironically, and ended the second with a double-play. Lone runners in the third and fourth were no problems either. "I'm really proud of what Stratton did today, I think he's showing he's going to be a great one," Coach John Cohen said.
The coach was just as proud to only allow one run in the Razorback fifth as the inning began so badly. 3B Jet Butler couldn't handle a roller from Travis Sample, and LF Duffy hade a more damaging miss-read in leftfield as he started inward on a fly-drive by James McCann and reversed course too late to prevent a double and runners in scoring positions. Butler redeemed himself by a diving stab to rob Collin Kuhn of a hit and hold Sample as well; then successfully charging Bo Bigham's chopper for an out at the plate.
But the inning was still alive and given the chance Zach Cox punched a single up the middle that scored McCann from third to put UA on the scoreboard. Fortunately for State the Razorbacks could make mistakes, too. After two strikeouts Sneed walked, giving Powers a third chance at Eibner. He fouled away a 2-2 strike, then reached out to bloop one off the end of the bat in short rightfield and nigh to the line. Sneed kept coming all the way from first, and while a good throw would have gotten him Cox‘s try was enough up the third base line that Powers could take third on the double-and-error. On full count Duffy singled to center for a 2-1 Bulldog lead. Butler followed with a double to left-centerfield that Duffy rounded third only to realize a coach, trying to hold him almost literally, right in the path. Before he could get back he was tagged to end the inning.
"We have two big baserunning blunders because kids are trying to make something happen," Cohen said. "They're seniors and they just want so desperately to win. So they try to do something extraordinary instead of average."
Stratton got two outs into his sixth before a single by Tim Carver, then another base hit by Sample that Duffy bobbled to allow both runners the added base. Stratton's 103rd pitch was a called strikeout of nine-batter James McCann to strand everyone. Normally that would have been enough tosses for one freshman day. But State's staff has to stretch everything available and Stratton returned for the seventh, only to plunk order-topper Kuhn. That brought the change with frosh lefty Chad Girodo entering for a fly-out of Bigham, then a slow roller to 2B Sam Frost.
The infielder rushed and pulled SS Jonathan Ogden off the bag to keep the throw from sailing into leftfield, leaving all safe. "We had a double-play ball at second base that found another freshman," Cohen said. "That play really hurt." Because it opened the gate for a big Arkansas inning. Andy Wilkins singled on the first pitch for a tied game and Cox got around to third. Girodo was immediately lifted for Kendall Graveman, who walked Eibner to load the bases.
Monk Kreder delivered the key hit, a single over second base to score Cox and Wilkins for a 4-2 lead. Butler made another slick scoop of a grounder that made Eibner halt mid-path and head back for third, where Graveman came over a step too late for an out. A walk of Sample forced the lead runner across anyway, and summons for Greg Houston to solve the bases-loaded, one-out mess with one pitch. Ogden began the 6-4-3 double play nicely but State was behind 5-2 now.
Sneed cut into the deficit with his home run an out into the bottom of the inning, at the expense of Jeremy Heatley who had entered in the sixth. A two-out single and walk brought in another Razorback reliever with righty D.J. Baxendale. Cohen played the match game with lefthanded pinch-hitter Trey Johnson, who struck it on the nose and lined it on a string to first baseman Kreder's mitt.
And Arkansas got that run back on a single swing by Kuhn with a liner over leftfield. An errored grounder and clean single later Luke Bole took the hill. With one out Eibner singled past third base scoring Bigham. C Wes Thigpen gave up a passed ball so Cox was able to take third and score on a fly ball by Kreder chased down by new CF Jaron Shepherd.
State got a pair on in the eighth as Frost walked and Shepherd singled, before Sneed missed strike three. Baxendale still had to do some ninth-inning work though as Powers singled and with one out Vickerson lofted a drive that carried leftfield for a two-run homer. RF Ryan Collins reached on a single-and-error but was left at second unscored as Thigpen flew-out to the track.
The Bulldogs did come away with more hits, 14 to 12; both sides left a dozen stranded runners and walks were even. It was errors, official or mental, that allowed Arkansas to seize the advantage in the final third though, making a winner of Heatley (3-0) with Baxendale getting his seventh save. Girodo (1-2) took the loss. Four Razorbacks had a pair of hits with three RBI for Kreder; while Sneed, Duffy, and Collins all hit safely three times for MSU but with just two RBI amongst them.
Stratton had given all a rookie could this time, but "It was obviously a tough day for some of our other arms that came in the game," Cohen said. He began to talk about the game, but his thoughts and soon words also were obviously on the larger picture. And, the future, as he noted that assistant Lane Burroughs was not present but on the road recruiting. "He's at two different ball games today and there are no other Division I scouts there. That's us rolling the dice saying it's an absolute priority for the future of this program to be about having quality, big-time Division I players."
Cohen does see a collection of such personnel here, in the form of all the young pitchers being worked under such demanding SEC circumstances. Put another way, youngsters like Girodo and Gravemen are having to try their talents ahead of an ideal schedule, and Cohen said both will be "great" but that they can't be protected this season. "For a bunch of reasons," he added, referring to expected weekend centerpiece Nick Routt not being available for at least another week with a forearm strain.
"People play freshmen, but they strategically put them in situations they can be successful. We can't, we don't have the luxury of doing that." Which included having a walk-on rookie, Frost, trying to play at a SEC level right now despite a .188 average. Were soph Frankie Rawdow not out for the season with injury this wouldn't be such an issue. The pre-season loss of expected starting third baseman Jarrod Parks has rippled through the infield also, while expected starting centerfielder Brent Brownlee has barely seen the field between illness and injury both.
"These are the days where it really hurts," said Cohen. "Because we literally only have three substitutes we can enter in a ball game. So we're really playing guys out of position, out of necessity. That's where some of the errors are coming from.
"But that's the way it goes. Our kids don't give up, we compete. And when we have the necessary ingredients we're going to be a very good ball club."
And the schedule won't stop either, as State returns to the field Sunday for a 1:30 chance to salvage a split. After the game Cohen was leaning towards starting OF/P Trey Johnson (0-0, three appearances, 6.23 era), with a reasonably well-stocked bullpen available. Arkansas plans to start frosh Randall Fant (0-0, 3.60).