Bunting, complemented by some well-timed regular swinging, did help Mississippi State continue their season-starting win streak with a 5-0 record now. The Demons left 2-2 despite matching the home team hit for hit and error for error. The difference came down first to pitching control, as MSU's four hurlers did not walk a single batter; while Northwestern State arms issued two walks and five hit batsman.
Bulldog starter Kendall Graveman had the longest stint, working the first 5.0 frames with two runs, four hits, and three strikeouts. It was reliever Andrew Busby who had the right timing though, taking over in the sixth just before his offense broke a 2-2 tie. In his first college appearance Busby picked up the win on his 2.1 innings with two runs, three hits, and three strikeouts. Freshman Luis Pollorena provided key eight-inning help with a pair of outs.
And it was Caleb Reed picking up his second save of the season by working the scoreless, hitless ninth. Cohen had initially planned to use another frosh, C.T. Bradford, as the mid-week closer. But with a two-run lead, and the bottom half of the Demon order bringing up mostly righthanded hitters, veteran Reed got the call.
"And Caleb is really difficult on right-handers," the coach said. Reed responded with a strikeout,line-out, and a long fly-foul run down by RF Brent Brownlee to end the game.
Lefthander Jacob Williford (0-1) took the loss on 6.0 innings with three runs on five hits, two walks and two strikeouts.
"We're playing good ball, it took a little while for our bats to get going but their pitcher did well," said Graveman. "We hung in there and found a way to win, this team is pretty resilient."
So were both starters as they faced early challenges. In the bottom of the second a pair of Dogs reached only to stay stranded by Williford. In the top of the third it was Graveman under pressure with a pair on and no outs. State expected nine-hole hitter Aaron Munoz to sacrifice and he did, except Graveman came in for the quick field and in-time throw to third base for the lead out. A 6-4-3 double-play ended that inning.
The Bulldogs snapped the shutout with a pair of fourth inning scores, initiated when both 3B Jarrod Parks and DH Daryl Norris worked the count until walking their ways on. Freeman executed his first sacrifice better than planned by beating the throw for a scratch single and bases loaded.
"Really I wasn't planning on bunting, but the third baseman was playing back so I took it," Freeman said. "I wasn't surprised but I'm pretty slow so I'm sure everybody else as surprised!"
The first RBI went to LF Bradford on a grounder scoring Parks. Next up, SS Jonathan Ogden caught the Demons looking with a bunt in front of the plate. Williford recovered and covered only to have catcher Munoz drop the ball as Norris slid across for the 2-0 lead.
Northwestern answered immediately in the fifth though with consecutive doubles putting Demons in scoring positions. A sacrifice fly (Ray Frias) and grounder (Munoz) evened the scoreboard a the half-way point. Graveman fielded the last out of the inning and his stint.
"This day we wanted fly balls, their hits were all infield grounders that squirted through there," said Cohen. "But Kendall did great. We needed him to get through five innings his first time out."
In his debut Busby was greeted by a single, and with one out nearly had his hat knocked off by Colin Bear's liner. The rookie responded well. Righthanded hitter Stephen Gandy subbed in to swing and took a called strikeout on the inside corner, and on 2-2 Busby fanned Justin Martinez to keep it even.
Freeman bunted his way on for the second time to open State's half of the sixth, with freshman Taylor Stark sent in to run for the catcher as the Bulldogs bunted again. This time a true sacrifice by Bradford, advancing the runner. Ogden wasted no time going after the first pitch and dropping it between the center- and left-fielders for a double, RBI, and 3-2 lead.
Jacob Roark took over NWLa pitching at the stretch and promptly hit CF Jaron Shepherd. 2B Nick Vickerson squared to bunt only to get plunked in the back as well for two on. With one out Parks dropped a single in short centerfield to fill the sacks.
The first offering to Norris was also off the headgear for a free RBI and another mound move as righty Matt Lackie inherited still-stuffed sacks. Bradford sent a liner towards the left side that Demon fielder Bear over-ran just enough, the drive falling behind him for a double and two more runs as Norris was tagged out at the plate.
But the Demons weren't done with the top of their order back up. A leadoff single led to a run when Shepherd miss-read a drive by Ryan Keele; it got over him for a triple and RBI as Drew Helenihi scored. Busby got a pop-out before Pollorena was summoned. Bear crushed his first chance deep to right-centerfield, a sure double or better…
…except Brownlee made a marvelous running, reaching grab on the track. The dive had Cohen holding his breath over the oft-injured outfielder. "But he got right back up, and I thought he might have a play at third base." The lead runner still tagged and scored but bases were empty with two outs and a grounder got Pollorena and State out with a two-run margin. "You can't walk guys in that situation, we told him to just shove it in there," Cohen said.
Reed made sure the two-run margin held up for the rest of his mound-mates. Graveman hadn't gotten a decision but he had set a tone, Freeman said. "Kendall did really well, he had five pitches going and all of them for strikes."
"We worked together well tonight and Coach (Butch) Thompson kind of let us play our own game," said Graveman. "We had our pitches going, and it was the first time I've been out there this year so it was good start." It was also a good way for young Busby to start as well in his relief role.
"His last two, three times out in fall and spring were phenomenal and we think he has a chance to be really good," Cohen said. "His breaking ball has come a long way and his command has come a long way, and now his fastball is in the 90s."
Rookie Bradford led the RBI list with three and Parks scored twice with two hits. Keele and Will Watson each had a pair of safeties for Northwestern State. The only blemish on the MSU stat sheet was the first error of the season, when second-sacker Vickerson made a tough play going behind the bag to get his glove on the ball. But he came right back on the next batter's grounder for an inning-ending out.
State's 5-0 record also looked a bit better with news Lamar had just thumped Rice, since the Bulldogs had taken two games from Lamar over the opening weekend. All in all there was little more to be asked from these first five tests.
"This is really a lot of fun right now," said Freeman. "It's a lot of fun in the dugout, a lot of energy in the clubhouse. Even the coaches are having fun, I think, and the whole stadium I think it's a better atmosphere this year."
The weekend brings a three-game set with Belmont. Cohen plans on again throwing right-handers Devin Jones (1-0) and Chris Stratton (1-0) on Friday and Saturday respectively. He has several Sunday options such as prior-weekend starters Chad Girodo and Tim Statz, but the coaching staff might also run Busby out to open the third game.