Having come so close, then falling so far short, would seem to make the latest setback that much more painful than the rest. No Diamond Dog player or coach saw it that way. "Almost there," said starting pitcher and so-close-to-winner Chris Stratton. "We never stopped competing, that's all you can ask for."
Well, his head coach could ask for a few things…mostly not having to rely on so many first- and second-year players to do what by all SEC rights ought to be the province of veteran juniors and seniors. Still Coach John Cohen realized months ago this was how 2010 was going to trend and while the consequences aren't fun…they are no longer surprising.
"I think they're all pretty equally excruciating," said Cohen of the ongoing skid. "The rule of thumb in our league is don't let freshmen beat you, or on your club don't let them lose a game for you. But we don't have a choice. That's as simple as I can make it, our freshmen win or lose games for us."
One almost did, as rookie righthander Stratton put in eight-plus innings and left with a 5-3 lead one walk into the ninth. Though not especially sharp Stratton had managed to limit damage on nine hits and despite five walks and hitting two Commodore batters. He struck out eight along the long way.
"I gave it all I had, I left everything out there," he said. "I never want to come out, the only way I come out is if the coach tells me." Which State only did after the last four of his 143 pitches were all balls to the leadoff batter in the ninth.
"I'm really pleased with what Chris did today," Cohen said. "He battled through not being able to have command of the strike zone and kept us in the game." Unfortunately the five other MSU pitchers to follow couldn't keep that lead. Soph Caleb Reed (1-6) was the wrong place/wrong time man in getting the decision, his line showing two runs on a hit and walk in 0.2 official innings. Freshmen C.C. Watson and Matt Lane were charged with four and two runs on two hits each and a walk apiece, as Vanderbilt teed-off on youngsters forced into bad-odds situations. Especially as in the extra inning the oncoming storm produced swirling gusts inside the park making pitch-placement that much tougher on new kids with enough to worry about already.
"Vanderbilt is not stupid," Cohen said. "When you have a gameplan against freshmen you take a lot of pitches." State handed out nine walks and hit five batters.
Russell Brewer (2-2) got the win as the fourth of five Commodore hurlers, going 1.1 innings with the last two MSU runs on his account off two hits. By then though there was too much lead to lose and Will Clinard entered to get the final two outs, despite walking two on himself.
Stratton had a four-inning shutout going despite not consistently finding the strike zone and walking four in that stretch with a couple of doubles mixed in. With his fastball and change not working, "The curveball was the pitch to go to," he said and that was sufficient at first. Though C Cody Freeman had to work, as on three-straight strikeouts in the fourth the ball was in the dirt each time and required a throw to first base.
State didn't get a lot done early on against Taylor Hill either, after three-straight singles in the first inning to produce a 1-0 lead. DH Russ Sneed scored 1B Connor Powers on his safety. The Bulldogs got more done the fourth time up as LF Ryan Duffy led off with a homer, his ninth of the year; and 2B Jet Butler doubled in CF Jaron Shepherd. Vanderbilt got on the board in their fifth chance as Jason Esposito chopped a single over the drawn-in third baseman to score Drew Fann.
Both sides added a pair in their ensuing turns. In the bottom of the fifth lefthander Grayson Garvin replaced Hill with two out and two on. He did his job getting a ground ball from Shepherd, only to see it take a wicked side-hop that first baseman Aaron Westlake couldn't handle. The grounder turned into a two-run double scoring LF Ryan Duffy and Sneed for a 5-1 lead. Yet Vanderbilt matched in the top of the sixth as Andrew Giobbi stroked a two-run homer over leftfield. With the Bulldog bullpen busy Stratton had to get a pop-out bunt to himself and then scurry over to complete a tough 3-6-1 double-play.
State wasn't doing any more good offensively in remaining regulation though, as Chase Reid entered in the seventh for two scoreless, hitless turns. MSU's best chance to expand was a one-out walk of SS Jonathan Ogden in the eighth and a well-driven ball by RF Luke Adkins caught on the rightfield warning track.
It didn't seem a big deal as Stratton actually got stronger towards the end. He left two on opposing corners in the seventh and sat the side in the eighth with two strikeouts. At 139 pitches few thought he'd come back, but… "He said how do you feel, I said I feel fine," Stratton said. Then he walked order-topper Brian Harris and was done.
Soph Devin Jones had first chance to save this one and rolled a verrrrrrry close fielder's choice to force the lead runner. An Esposito single was another matter and freshman Ben Bracewell was called on for what, based on scheduled off-season surgery, would have to be his one weekend appearance. But he plunked Westlake to load the bases, and after a fly-out to left missed Freeman's mitt for a wild-pitch and run (Anthony Gomez). Another walk re-filled all bases before Joe Loftus took one for the team to force in the tying runner.
State had the chance to win in their half of the ninth as with LF Ryan Collins on second via hit-and-steal Shepherd lined one low into leftfield. Mike Yastrzemski got under it just in time to keep the game going. And for the roof to cave in on the home team with Reed on the hill. He had an out and one on when Esposito doubled to right-centerfield…fortunately for him a ground-rule job which kept the lead runner on third base unscored.
For the moment. Watson inherited the jam and compounded it by plunking Westlake and walking Casali for the lead-RBI. As the freshman got behind ‘Dore batters waited on the inevitable fastballs in the zone and drove them for two, one, and three runs. By the time Lane ended the inning Vanderbilt had scored eight times.
State did make a little remaining imprint on the boxscore as Freeman doubled and Ogden slugged his sixth homer of the year, a two-run shot. Clinard make it a little more interesting with a plunking, walk, and another walk. Sneed flew-out to center to end things after 4:13 and with rain falling.
Esposito was 5-of-5 for the Commodores with one RBI, while Giobbi provided four runs and scored twice himself on four hits. Four Dogs had a pair of hits. But then once again offense was not what doomed State. An overmatched mound staff was. "We just have freshmen that aren't challenging the strike zone and it's killing us," said Cohen. He said this in the context that, really, there aren't a whole lot of other options for MSU to throw out there, as both senior pitchers—Tyler Whitney and Greg Houston—had thrown Friday night.
"I'm proud of our positional players, they were facing some pretty good arms on the other side and keep giving us a chance to win and defending well for the most part. It's just that one key component that is getting us beat, that I think is going to be a strength later on." That's presuming these freshmen and sophomore arms survive their ongoing trials by fire, of course. Which Cohen does. "These freshmen are going to be good, I feel like a broken record saying that.
"You have to pat them on the backside, and let them know what is acceptable and what is not. It's a fine line as a coach. Most coaches decide just not to play them, we don't have that option right now."
What State does have available for game-three is a trio of lefthanders to work with, with freshman Luke Bole the usual Sunday starter of late and both Chad Girodo and Trey Johnson in reserve.