“I sound like a broken record,” the coach said. “Our kids are battling. They’re competing. It seems we have that kind of meltdown the last two nights.”
In Saturday’s case, they came in the fifth and sixth innings as in the one frame Mississippi State (20-22, 5-15 SEC) starting pitching ran down; and in the second defense again broke down. The results were nine of the total Rebel runs and a lead Ole Miss (32-13, 13-7) didn’t quite lose.
The scheduled 6:30 game was delayed by afternoon downpours to a 7:15 start, and what water did not drain played some part in the form of cautious outfielding allowing some extra bases taken on splashdown safeties. Weather also limited the crowd to 1,404 but those who came saw a wild one played out over the better part of four hours.
Even in a high-scoring shootout there had to be a turning point, and it was in the top of the sixth after State survived a five-run Rebel burst in the previous inning by tying it back up 7-7. With bases loaded and one out, MSU freshman lefthander Trey Johnson was handed the serious situation, and the rookie did part of his job rolling a grounder to 1B Connor Powers. The force at second was made and SS Jonathan Ogden delivered the throw that would have ended the inning. Johnson was certainly on time to receive the relay.
Except he got ahead of his feet, missing the bag as Matt Snyder arrived and Tim Ferguson scored the go-ahead run. Zach Miller made it 9-7 with his single, and worse was still to come. Because new reliever Devin Jones also got a grounder to the right side that 2B Jet Butler bobbled before stopping, which would have done no harm had he been alert to Snyder rounding third. The Rebel designated hitter was surprised to be ignored but took advantage and came home. Piling on the irony, another grounder to Butler was made-to-order for the easy out except he bounced an overhand toss past Ogden just a few steps away.
Quick as that it was a 11-7 scoreboard and a numbed bunch of Bulldogs as, much like so many games before when one small breakdown cascaded into an avalanche of errors. And, a defeat.
“The most noticeable thing is the meltdown at second base,” Cohen said. “I feel horrible for Jet, he just kind of fell asleep on the first one and on the second one was just really unsure of himself. You’re putting seniors out there who have been there before and you want to hope for the best.”
Of course the preceding frame had been even bigger for the visiting team, and at the expense of freshman righthander Chris Stratton. Easily the best starter on State’s available staff, he had a 5-2 lead going into his fifth inning. Five-full was the goal for the rookie, but Stratton couldn’t get quite there. A leadoff walk, bloop single to a wet centerfield, and RBI-by Ferguson got the rally going in earnest. A bunt pushed two Rebels into positions for scoring and with two outs Snyder did just that, punching a single past first base for a 5-5 tie.
Another base hit was enough for Stratton, who worked 4.2 with seven runs on seven hits, five strikeouts and three walks. Four of those fannings came to begin the evening, though in retrospect this got the kid’s pitch count up early as well. “He’s a freshman, and he’s acting like a freshman,” said Cohen. “Realize too that strikeouts are horrible for a guy to start out games with, you’re talking five or six pitches to get a strikeout and you’re into late-teens, twenty pitches. It’s tough for him to navigate through five innings right now.”
Then again senior Greg Houston did no better as his first two relief offerings were hit safely for runs by Yarbrough and Kevin Mort. Houston (5-1) would return for the sixth and as a result take the decision on 0.2 innings, two runs, four hits.
It wasn’t a good evening for either starter as usually-reliable Rebel Aaron Barrett lasted just 3.2 innings with five runs, three walks, and four strikeouts. He only gave up two hits but that wasn’t the problem; this time out Barrett was too wild to bat against. He hit three Bulldogs and wild-pitched four times. Dirtballs, around a passed ball, accounted for State’s first-inning run with 3B Nick Vickerson advancing three bases without anyone swinging.
Ole Miss took a 2-1 lead in their second as Mort squeezed-home Zach Miller, and Hashman drove in Yarbrough. State matched that in the bottom of the third as Barrett walked C Wes Thigpen and plunked Vickerson. A grounder by RF Luke Adkins tied the score and a passed ball plated Vickerson. Barrett escaped that inning with a called strikeout but in the fourth gave up a two-out, two-run single to Vickerson for the 5-2 lead that didn’t last.
Sneed did get a sacrifice fly scoring Powers in the fifth, and Butler’s single made it 7-7. Briefly. Even after going behind 11-7 the Bulldogs nearly answered in full as Adkins bounced a two-run single over the third baseman. Sneed made it 11-10 with another sac-fly before Trent Rothlin got Butler to strike out on an inside offering. That was as much offense as the Bulldogs had left in them though, with nine-straight outs to run out the evening. Ole Miss added a bit of insurance in their ninth with a RBI-double by Ferguson. It was the only Rebel extra-base hit of the affair.
But they out-hit State decisively, 14 safeties to seven, with Miller and Hightower getting three hits each. Matt Crouse, the third of five Rebel hurlers, picked up the win (5-1) on just 0.2 timely innings and despite three runs on three hits. Brett Huber got the State side in the ninth to earn his seventh save.
Vickerson’s fine night of three hits (two doubles), three runs and two RBI went for nought.
State used six pitchers in all, as Cohen held nothing back under the circumstances. “Knowing the weather could be bad (Sunday) we wanted to use everybody we possibly could today to have a chance to win the game. What’s the expression, tomorrow is promised to no one so we wanted to put our best guys out there tonight to give us a chance to win the game.”
The chance wasn’t used though and now State hopes there will be a chance to at least salvage a split. But much more weather is expected this weekend making Sunday’s game-three a question. Still State would put freshman lefty Luke Bole on the mound first, and while the Rebels did not name a starter righty David Goforth is the leading candidate.