"It's where we are as a program right now," Coach John Cohen said. "I've been on both sides of this and seen where it can go. I'm confident where we're going to be but I know our kids are very frustrated right now."
Nowhere more than on the mound, where six State pitchers combined to allow 16 base hits. That would have been sufficient for a Southern Mississippi victory; it was the other Bulldog pitching problems that turned a win into a romp.
"When a team isn't pitching well, everybody can sense it," Cohen said. "We walked eight and hit two, boy it's hard to keep a team under ten runs when you do that." Impossible as it turned out. Six Eagles had multiple hits and eight of the order-starters collected at least one safety.
The decision ended up hung on freshman lefthander Trey Johnson, the fourth Bulldog to throw on a night when neither team was going to ride any pitcher very long prior to their conference weekends. Johnson wasn't charged with the most runs or hits; just the ones that turned a 3-2 Mississippi State lead after five innings into a 5-3 deficit that would later explode on the remaining two hurlers. Johnson (0-2) was responsible for three runs on two hits in his 0.2 inning, with three walks and no strikeouts. It was those three free passes that really changed the game.
The winner only had 0.1 of a frame to his credit but then again Paxton King (2-1) was right place, right time. He allowed just one hit and no runs, despite two walks.
State went with usual Sunday starter Luke Bole to begin and the freshman lefty scuffled through his 2.0 full frames, allowing a run each inning on three hits with a couple of strikeouts. The Eagles got on the board first with a sacrifice-fly from Adam Doleac, the first of his three RBI. In the second inning with two outs Bole drew a fly ball into no-man's land that LF Ryan Duffy and SS Jonathan Ogden battled for. Duffy nearly plowed over his teammate and dropped the ball scoring Joey Archer.
USM starter Jeff Stanley had no big problems in his 2.0 innings, leaving RF Luke Adkins on third base with a strikeout and flyout in the first. The first Eagle reliever, Mandella Mingo, wasn't as effective as Ogden greeted him with a solo shot pulled over leftfield, his fourth homer of the season. State didn't stop there as 2B Sam Frost singled his way on and reached second on a balk call. 3B Nick Vickerson's bullet was off the first baseman's glove for a single, advancing Frost to third where he could tie things up on a sac-fly by Adkins. 1B Connor Powers was more or less intentionally walked, but DH Russ Sneed drove the first pitch midway of the centerfield warning track for a successful sacrifice and 3-2 lead.
MSU's Matt Lane took over for the top of the fourth with a side-sitting, then had a real adventure in the fifth with a leadoff single, walk, and well-executed bunt. He got ahead of Mark Ellis and forced him to ground to Powers with nobody advancing. Lane was left in to face righthanded hitter Archer, who was so close to clearing the bases with a liner that hooked just outside the left line. It was Lane's turn for frustration as he put it across the plate on 1-2 that wasn't rewarded. But Lane escaped on a fly ball to left that Duffy was so intent on getting he overran a step and had to jump to get.
State had a chance to expand in their fourth with two on and an out. Ogden singled, and USM pitcher Geoffrey Thomas was called for a balk after the ball was out of the hand; thus Frost's single stood up. But Ogden was thrown out trying to steal third and Vickerson watched strike three. An errored Powers grounder and walk of Sneed weren't used in the fifth either. With two on, two out and Duffy up lefty King got the call and ended the inning with a fly-out. He was still on the official record when the scoreboard changed.
It was Johnson's turn in the sixth and he got in fast trouble with a walk of the #8 batter, a bad-bounce bunt for a single, and a four-pitch walk to load all bases. The freshman was left in to cope with his own jam and rolled a very, very close double-play off Walker that still brought Graves across with the tying run. Johnson was 2-2 on Doleac before giving up a short single behind second base for a 4-3 deficit that put him on the decision hook. A hit batsman loaded the bases before Corey Collins was called on.
"Trey walks there guys and that's really the game right there," Cohen said. Because while Collins did strike out Dillon Day, the third strike was a dirtball that Thigpen couldn't stop. B.A. Vollmuth scored and it was still bases-full for Archer, who nearly doubled the lead. Frost made a lunge and dive and sucked in the liner to strand three, but Mississippi State was down 5-3.
"It was big that we don't block the ball, and we work on every day with our catcher," Cohen said. "That's not like Thigpen. But it's a different thing that happens to us every night."
CF Ryan Collins led off MSU's half with a double into the right corner, but Ogden—two-for-two at that point—was bunting and bounced it directly to the pitcher for an easy out at third base. State still was able to get a pair on and Adkins foul away full-count strikes before walking. It was Jay Myrick's call to face Powers and on 2-0 the Bulldog first baseman made strong contact…right to the shortstop. "It was a good swing," Cohen said, "Connor hit the daylights out of it. It's typical of what's happening, their shortstop had 16 errors on the year and all of a sudden he becomes a Gold Glover!"
Pitcher Collins couldn't keep the deficit at two as Tyler Koelling tripled to the fence and, with the infield drawn-in, scored on a Kameron Brunty single. Walker's infield single put runners on corners because Brunty wasn't watched closely enough. Thus he could score on an infield single by Vollmuth, nicely-stopped by Frost. But the second baseman let Ellis' hopper clank off the glove for a two-run error and 9-3 margin.
Greg Houston replaced Collins with two on and still just one out. Consecutive singles added two more runs and even Houston's first out—a fly ball to center—was good for a sac-RBI and 12-3 scoreboard at the stretch. Doleac made it a ten-run game with his RBI-triple in the eighth, and scored as Ellis doubled off the fence in left.
"We're just trying to the weekend with Greg," Cohen said as the senior stayed out for the last 2.2 innings with three runs on five hits. Collins had been tagged for the big damage with six runs on four hits. MSU pitching did get seven strikeouts against a free-swinging foe, just not enough to offset all those free bases. "It's eight walks and two hit batters, that's kind of the nature of what we've been doing pitching-wise," Cohen said. "These kids are going to have to grow up, we're just going to have to be better.
"I thought our at-bats were pretty good, we didn't punch-out much." That was true as State only had three strikes and just one of those a called-K. "We walked seven times ourselves, I think our execution was pretty good offensively. Defensively, we get a couple of errors that are hit 120 miles per hour off the barrel." Even so they were makeable plays that a contending team will turn. And the Bulldogs didn't. This after a two-hour morning practice at Hinds Community College which the coaching staff went very well.
"But it seems the more we work on a skill it reverses in a game," said Cohen, noting the strikeout/passed ball in particular. "Maybe there's such a thing as working too hard. But if we're going to go down, that's how we're going to do it." Effort wasn't an issue, though here too over-effort resulted in that second-inning dropped fly ball. "You have two guys screaming for the ball at the same time and run into each other, who are you going to blame?" Nobody, being Cohen's indication as it was just the kind of play a team desperate to win is prone too.
And even good defense is overmatched when, as the coach reminded, pitchers aren't challenging the strike zone enough to keep batters backed-up.
"That's just how things are going for us. But you just have to deal with it. There are those that would say that's baseball; we say you have to make your breaks. And we're not doing that right now. We're not doing all the little things you have to do to get lucky."
Luck, in the form of playing hot teams, doesn't look much better immediately since State now travels to play an Auburn team that just took a series from SEC West-leading Arkansas. Senior lefthander Tyler Whitney will take the mound for MSU again in a game-one. "Tyler deserves the opportunity to go Friday night. Chris Stratton will go on Saturday and we'll see who we have left." Most like Bole who only threw 35 pitches in Wednesday's start.
Cohen said junior centerfielder Jaron Shepherd, who pulled a quadriceps in the Sunday game with Ole Miss, might be able to play this weekend. "We're hoping he can play. He's one of the fast guys on our team that can move like a SEC athlete and we desperately need him."