Cohen had several statements, strong ones, to make in discussing both the 13-3 outcome Sunday, and the lost weekend as a whole. For their part the Razorbacks (26-6, 9-3 SEC) made an impressive series statement, and their sweep combined with LSU losing a pair at Auburn put Arkansas atop the Western Division and ties them with South Carolina for the overall league lead.
Meanwhile Mississippi State continued a struggling start to SEC season, falling to 3-9 after four series and 16-16 overall. Admittedly the three series MSU has lost have been to top-ten ranked clubs South Carolina, Florida, and now Arkansas. This doesn’t make the losses any easier for the Bulldogs to accept…or their head coach to explain.
“I apologize to our fans for having to watch this,” said Cohen. “Believe me, it’s more difficult for our players and coaches than it is for our fans.”
Game-three was the most difficult of all, and not simply because the margin of Razorback victory was more than in the prior 8-3 and 8-5 games combined. State’s already-shaky SEC offense was humbled by a freshman pitcher, Randall Fant, who Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn wasn’t sure about starting Sunday. The lefthander did give up a first-inning run but steadied quickly and strung together 7.0 impressive turns with just two hits, two walks, and four strikeouts against that lone score.
Cohen gave Fant (3-0) credit for taking care of business, yet made clear he thought the real key to pitching success was bad Bulldog offense. “I thought he was an average SEC freshman lefthander--he’s going to be good--who really picked up momentum when we took horrible swings. He really struggled with command early and we are not good enough right now to be able to have a really tough mental approach to discriminate between balls and strikes.”
Because the Bulldogs weren’t discerning what was worth a swing and what wasn’t, Fant not only was able to hang six zeroes on the scoreboard line. He retired 14 of 15 in a stretch, including the last 11 faced in his stint. Reliever Geoffrey Davenport got to work the eighth, allowing the other two Bulldog runs on two hits and a walk; and Jordan Pratt concluded the series with three quick outs in the ninth.
Mississippi State also put a freshman on the mound in outfielder/pitcher Trey Johnson. The rookie would work 2.2 innings with four runs (three earned) on eight hits without walking or fanning anyone. Half those hits came in the top of the first frame and three-straight to begin, with Zack Cox making it a fast 2-0 lead on a single. Johnson had to bounce a double-play to end the first inning, but a series of three tough ground balls all hit to 3B Nick Vickerson to open the second had runners on corners. Collin Kuhn made it 3-1 with his base hit to score Tim Carver.
A sacrifice fly in the UA third by Travis Sample plated Brett Eibner. After a two-out double, Johnson was relieved by Tyler Whitney to end the inning with a strikeout of the nine-batter. Whitney was able to strand two runners in both the fourth and fifth frames and worked 3.0 with no runs charged on five hits and three strikeouts.
But this couldn’t offset State’s lack of production at the plate. Fant’s first two batters didn’t bode well for a good day as he walked both and let Vickerson steal third base, allowing a sacrifice-fly by 1B Connor Powers that Van Horn said he thought was leaving the yard. It was caught on the track and DH Russ Sneed was caught trying to steal, on a lefthander.
And after 2B Jet Butler doubled to lead off the MSU second, Fant was in control as he stranded a pair on strikeouts.
Arkansas blew everything open in the top of the seventh with six runs. Ben Bracewell had replaced Whitney to end the sixth with a pair on, but chink-singles by Sample and Carver let Arkansas play the bunt game and move both over for the top of the order. A walk of Kuhn wasn’t a big deal, but the two-run single by Bigham was. Even bigger was the two-out, bases-loaded setting for Eibner as his high drive cleared leftfield for the 10-1 scoreboard, a grand slam and his ninth homer of the season.
Chad Girodo ended the seventh with a pop-out and saw out the rest of the game, giving up three in the ninth. Andy Wilkins drove in two with his single and Eibner got one more hit and RBI for his superb weekend in Starkville.
RF Ryan Duffy ended State’s hitless stretch with a single in the eighth, and while he was erased SS Jonathan Ogden and CF Jaron Shepherd were both able to reach. Vickerson doubled-in the lead runner and Shepherd came home on Sneed’s fly ball. Of course Arkansas more than matched that in their last turn, aided by a fly ball that LF Luke Adkins got to but let skin off the front of the glove to load the bases for Wilkins’ hit.
Arkansas finished with 20 Sunday safeties, 17 of them singles; while State had four total hits. That and three errors, as well as incompleted fielding plays, only magnified the margin of defeat. And, the coach’s growing frustrations. Cohen could deal with struggles by a young pitching staff, and even the fielding failing—in which inherited veterans shared the blame with recent recruits—could be somewhat accepted as the inevitable price of a limited roster. “We have two substitutes right now on the bench who can play,” Cohen said. “That’s where we are.”
Though, “We’re not catching balls that are hit right to us in the air, I guess it’s my fault,” Cohen said. “I mean that’s all I can come up with.” That, and lack of offense. State hit .242 for the series, compared to Arkansas’ .361 average. Even allowing that the Razorbacks are leading the SEC in league-only game hitting, it was a sore trial for the coach to watch Bulldog batters sat-down so easily and so often. A telling total was that the 3-4-5 batters in Sunday’s lineup were all seniors, and hit a combined 6-for-31 on the weekend.
“It wasn’t just not getting guys on base,” Cohen said. “We have a ‘great at-bat’ chart in the dugout and I think we had 13 consecutive non-good at-bats. I mean, you can get credit for a great at-bat six or seven different ways on our chart, and we didn’t even have a good at-bat.”
A ratio of 23 strikeouts to nine walks and just one hit-by-pitching only compounded the issues the coach is trying to address, with limited success to show. Cohen said that this morning’s regular pre-game regimen was shorter and easier than normal, partly with the number of unavailable or ill players and partly “to try and give them a breath of fresh air. And obviously that was the wrong route to go, too.” The point being that this coaching staff is not sticking to the same-old but scrambling for any answers available, whether it be changing lineups on the field or the routine off it.
The bottom line, to Cohen? “It’s my responsibility, we’re not doing it. It’s going to have to get better in a hurry because the league doesn’t give a crap whether we can discern between balls and strikes.” But how much better the Bulldogs can get is difficult to suggest. The schedule does ease a bit as after facing a stretch of top-contender clubs the Bulldogs get to host Tennessee (16-17, 3-9 SEC) for Super Bulldog Weekend, then go to Alabama (21-11, 5-7) the next. Any hopes State has of making the SEC Tournament depend on winning these series and, probably, sweeping at least once.
By mid-week Cohen also hopes to know the status of Nick Routt, the sophomore pitcher was expected to be the mainstay of this young staff. Routt has been out for a month now with a strained muscle in the pitching forearm and no clear schedule of return. “I’m getting a lot of jumbo about how far he can straighten his arm out,” Cohen said today. “ Either he can pitch or he can’t, we’ll ask him that question middle of the week. That’s not science, that’s looking a young man in the eye and saying can you and do you want to pitch? It’s all in Nick’s corner. Half of that is medicine I guess and half of that is does he want to pitch, and my assumption knowing Nick is he does want to pitch.”
State does now know that it will be without OF Brent Brownlee the rest of the year. The sophomore injured a shoulder in February and has not done anything beyond pinch-running since. He had surgery, his fourth in college to-date, recently and is done for the season joining 3B Jarrod Parks and 2B Frank Rawdow. Parks was expected to start at third, Brownlee in center, and Rawdow to rotate at second.
Cohen said Sunday he’d hoped the rebuilding of Bulldog baseball might somehow run a little faster than prior experience showed him would likely require. This series saw such early optimism fade away. “Quite frankly, we are exactly where I thought we would be minus the kids that we’ve lost. It’s frustrating, I know we’ll get better, this is exactly where we were at Kentucky the second year. Exactly. I didn’t want that to happen at Mississippi State, but in some ways it’s unavoidable.
“And again it’s my responsibility, and it’s just where we’re at. I’m embarrassed. Not by our players, I’m embarrassed about where our program is right now. There are others that should be embarrassed as well, I’m not going to list them, but that’s where we are. I’m a proud alumni, this isn’t where our program needs to be, I know where it’s going to be. But I’ve been here before.
“I mean, it’s just where we are. And I know our players are frustrated because they care, they want to be better. But I have to assume responsibility. So we’re going to get out there, we’re going to recruit our tails off, we’re going to make these kids that we still have in our program as good as they can possibly be.”