But during the intervening month Jackson State has won 14 of 17 games and is a half-game out of the SWAC lead. The Tigers came in on a nine-game tear, and Tuesday night played the way a confident club should. Though the Bulldogs did play some things better than they have been doing of late…and did one fatal thing worse, as JSU's top tandem of pitchers combined for a three-hitter.
"They did everything at a heightened level tonight, and I don't think we struggled with anything," Cohen said. "I just think it's one of those deals. We're scoring a lot of runs in the Southeastern Conference and on a Tuesday we hit balls right at Jackson State."
Of course Cortney Nelson has been getting a lot of batters to hit balls to his supporting defenders…or just striking them out. The Tiger southpaw was superb against a SEC foe, working six complete innings with the one run on two Bulldog base hits. One of those was by Powers, as he slugged a leadoff home run in the sixth inning for State's only score. The senior also had a double in the eighth to account for two-thirds of MSU's plate production.
Nelson didn't strike out any Dogs and walked five, but on this unique night saw that trio of twin-killings made behind him. Quintavious Drains earned a solid save, his first this year, with 3.0 full innings of one-hit ball with four strikeouts and no walks. Further irony: the pair pitched in Starkville a month ago, though Drains started and Nelson relieved, allowing seven earned runs, 14 total runs, and 14 hits. They looked nothing like that this time around, and clearly had upped their game in the rematch.
"They were going to throw their #1 and #2 at us, which is to be expected," Cohen. "They pitched fine, every line-drive we hit was going to be caught. That's part of the perfect storm."
Had the Bulldogs batted with less authority and more luck, Kendall Graveman could well have come out the winner. The freshman righthander didn't just give State a good start, he went the full eight innings with six hits and three runs, no walks, and three strikeouts. Most any other such outing would have earned a W; instead Graveman went to 2-3 because two of his three runs were unearned. Even that was pretty reasonable by recent State defensive standards. It was the second complete game for a Bulldog pitcher this season.
"Kendall gave us quality innings, we defend very well. Offensively it doesn't happen for us. That's just where we are," said Cohen. "If you're doing a checklist of here's what they're going to have to do to beat us—turn double-plays, have some balls fall and us hit balls hard right at people."
State got a pair on in their first turn, with a leadoff bunt single and hit batsman. A double-play foiled anything further. A second-inning walk meant nothing, and a leadoff pass in the third was wasted by three fly-outs to leftfield…though Powers sailed his right up to the fence. Though he would issue some free passes Nelson didn't allow another hit for the next four full frames.
It took Jackson State to break scoring ice in their third, after Graveman had shrugged off a leadoff bunt-hit to retire six-straight. Charles Epperson singled into left, was given second as Graveman balked, and took third on a successful sacrifice by the #9 batter. Chad Hall bounced one to the right side that would have scored Epperson anyway, though he was able to outrun the ball for a scratch single.
Nelson was comfortable working with that modest margin though he almost got himself in trouble in the fourth. LF Jet Butler reached as the pitcher overthrew first for a two-base error and CF Ryan Collins walked, but Ogden grounded to his counterpart. Nelson sat the side in MSU's fifth, only to have his hitless string snapped three pitches into the sixth when 1B Connor Powers crushed a solo shot over left field. With one out and DH Russ Sneed on base via walking, Butler tried to follow Powers' suit. His big fly came up barely short of the leftfield wall though, and Sneed was so sure it was gone he was already around second base. The throw-and-relay caught him before getting back to first for the double-play.
Jackson State was able to respond in the bottom of the frame. With one out Willie Wesley singled to right, and on a successful steal was able to take third on Freeman's throw into centerfield. Plunking Cortez Cole meant a long mound meeting where the chance of a bunt was likely discussed. But Braneric Holmes still executed his sacrifice nicely for the go-ahead run, and Cole kept going to third. When Graveman's dirtball got a few steps away Cole came home; Freeman recovered and Graveman was in position for the tag only to lose the ball for a 3-1 deficit after six.
The two-run Tiger lead was a good time to change pitchers with righthander Drains getting the bottom-third of State's order. The top portion did little better though with two outs Powers got a liner under the second baseman's glove and stretched it to second base. Sneed flew out on full-count to center. Drains retired the ninth-inning side to seal it.
Powers' home run was his 51st as a Bulldog, tying him with Jon Knott for 4th on the career list. And his 199 career RBI matches Will Clark for 7th-most. But then one home run wasn't going to be enough. Butler's ball would have left any other park State has or will play at this year…just not the TP. He and other Dogs would have been better served chipping in the sort of singles Jackson State managed and making things happen on the paths.
"That's how the game works," said Cohen. "But I'm not going to say ‘that's baseball' because you have to make your own breaks. You have to force people into making mistakes and we're not as capable of doing that right now as I want us to be."
State stays in town for a Wednesday evening game with Southern Mississippi. Cohen had not set a starter but did not plan on riding one pitcher for many innings. "It will probably be more guys than one, we're fortunate we had a freshman give us the distance tonight so we didn't have to get into our bullpen. We have to play Friday-Saturday-Sunday."
The losing streak, as well as evaporated hopes for a post-season, have taken a toll on everyone involved. Yet there are still games to be played and State will report to the Park on time Wednesday to try to end their skid. "We've got to defend and pitch like we did tonight. We've got to have balls we hit on the nose fall. All of our kids are into it, preparation is outstanding, we had a great lift yesterday. We're doing everything we can possibly do, it's just not happening for our kids right now. We'll practice our tails off in the morning and then go play a team that's playing very well in Southern Miss tomorrow night."
Cohen also said freshman closer Ben Bracewell's Monday MRI showed he will need post-season surgery on his throwing bicep to correct a pre-college condition aggravated during the first season. Outfielder Ryan Duffy did not play Tuesday after injuring his lower abdomen diving for a fly ball Sunday.