Pioneers Frustrate State Bats To Save Split

Jarrod Parks hadn't been keeping official stats or anything, but he had a very good idea how things had trended towards the end for a frustrated Bulldog offense. "It felt like nine-straight, ten-straight fly balls?" he asked. That rough calculation confirmed, the senior shook the head. "Yeah, that's just not going to cut it."

Not after Mississippi State had fallen behind Sacred Heart and was trying—too hard—to come all the way back from a five-run deficit. But once the Pioneers cashed in on some shaky Sunday pitching to take the 8-3 lead, just about all the Bulldogs were able to do was hit airballs. A lot of airballs. The final ten outs were all on either true flies or infield pops.

In fact after a one-out single in their fifth inning, the Diamond Dogs didn't smack another safety the rest of the way. They did get on base six times, five by walks and once on a passed strikeout, but had no real comeback shot as long as reliever Nick Leiningen kept coaxing that extended series of I-got-it outs. In the process he preserved the win and salvaged a split of the weekend series, with Sacred Heart leaving 5-6.

State went to 12-4 after the final pre-conference weekend of the schedule. Though they did take the series, there wasn't a lot of confidence taken from the weekend. "You don't feel good after you lose the Sunday game," said Parks, who promised. "We'll get better tomorrow and come out Tuesday ready to play."

The Bulldogs might have been feeling good, at least a little, after scoring in the first inning and stretching to a 3-1 lead through three. But based on how Sacred Heart had swung the sticks even in Friday and Saturday losses; or more to the point how State had not swung even in victory, there was the sense something could still go wrong. Sunday it did.

The Pioneer offense got a fourth-inning read on MSU starter Evan Mitchell and turned everything around, scoring four times in the critical frame. By the time the rookie righthander was relieved Sacred Heart had tied the score, and the go-ahead runners to follow went to his account also. Mitchell (3-1) absorbed his first losing decision on five runs, six hits, with a walk and four strikeouts.

Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson had some concerns after Mitchell's bullpen command was spotty, but once on the mound he scrapped through a couple of scoreless innings. Even the third-inning run allowed was avoidable after a leadoff Tyler Curry single. Mitchell read a delayed steal and picked to first but 1B Daryl Norris had missed the late takeoff and look at the bag for a tag first, throwing too late to second. Further irony came as Curry was ultimately caught going to third on a one-out grounder.

Yet that still mean a runner was on the paths and a steal put Steve Tedesco in position to score on a RBI single.

The real trouble came in that fatal fourth, with consecutive singles from the middle of Sacred Heart's order. Mitchell pitched high on an obvious bunt, too high because it was of C Wes Thigpen's mitt for free bases. A one-out walk was essentially called to load the bases and set up a double-play, but Curry foiled it by again singling inside the left-field line for the tying RBIs. That ended Mitchell's day at 3.1 official innings.

"But he pitched OK, really just the one 0-2 (pitch) killed him," said Cohen. "He could have thrown a breaking ball anywhere, but he threw it right down the middle and the guy hits it hard." A somewhat similar fate awaited reliever and fellow frosh Victor Diaz. A bunt to the left side was perfect for a base hit, giving Tedesco the bases-loaded opportunity.

"He fell behind 0-2 then just chopped at Diaz' offering, dribbling it by the pitcher and second baseman alike for another two-run hit. "They made two 0-2 pitches and it cost us four runs," Cohen said. "You want to hide your freshmen as much as you possibly can but they were exposed today."

Diaz would work 3.0 innings with two runs of his own on five hits, a walk and three strikeouts. His runs came in the seventh as the Pioneers got a single and one-out double by Rob Griffith for a RBI. Lefthander Tim Statz entered and three batters later left having given up another RBI double (Derick Horn), infield hit and walk. Curry singled off Luis Pollorena for the final Pioneer run before Pollorena could roll a double-play.

But more than enough damage had been done for Bulldog bats to overcome. Not that they had trouble making contact off starter Matt Fitton or reliever Nick Leiningen; both Sacred Heart hurlers were hit hard and often. State's trouble was only six such licks fell for base hits. Half those safeties were two-baggers showing how well the Dogs were striking the ball…and just how frustrating all other contacts were.

Fitton (1-2) survived all six hits with the three Dogs runs, striking out three and walking three. He was greeted by a Nick Vickerson double at the very start, and the second baseman soon scored without offensive help as he stole third and came on home thanks to an errant throw. But the home team left unscored runners at second in the first and second, and didn't really maximize their third inning potential.

RF C.T. Bradford bunted his way on and in succession stole both second and third bases. Norris brought him across with a fly-ball to center for the lead. An out later with Parks on third base SS Jonathan Ogden made it easy with another Dog double to leftfield, for a 3-1 score. He too was left on the middle bag, and from there MSU mustered only one more hit—a one-out single by DH Cody Freeman in the fifth.

What made it all the more painful was how hittable Fitton and Leiningen were, or looked at least, as the Dogs couldn't lay off and kept taking bigger and bigger hacks. "They tend to throw a little slower and everybody wanted to hit it out of the yard," Parks said. "And it wasn't going."

The best bid came in the sixth as Fitten issued a leadoff walk, then Leiningen filled the other bases on balls too with two outs. With the difference just 5-3 it was Norris' chance to be the homefield hero and he struck the off-speed offering on the nose, drove it straight and long…and right to the perfectly-placed leftfielder. State would load the bases with two down in the ninth as well, but by then everything was going up in the air and down into waiting gloves for easy outs as Leiningen got his first save of the season.

"The game just beat us today," Cohen said. "The last four innings they're essentially throwing batting practice and we don't deal with it very well, I think our kids have more trouble with Coach (Nick) Mingione in batting practice. But some were crushed." As were Bulldog hopes of a confidence-building series sweep.

Pioneer catcher Horn had a Sunday to celebrate with 4-of-5 hitting and two runs, while Curry had three hits and as many RBI. Only Ogden had two hits for State including one of those three doubles. A total of 13 Dogs went unscored.

Though a dozen wins four weekends into the season is a fair starting point for a still-developing squad, the four losses have all had in common offensive issues. Which raise natural concerns now that SEC season is about to begin, with much better pitching to face with unproven bats. That will be the particular case in State's conference opener, at mound-power Vanderbilt this coming weekend. And while the Bulldogs are confident with the first two veterans in the rotation, Devin Jones and Chris Stratton, this Sunday reminded that the third slot is still unsecured.

The Bulldogs have one more home game (Eastern Illinois, 6:30) on Tuesday before their first real road trip of the year. That will all be in Nashville as State plays Lipscomb at 6:00 Wednesday. Cohen and Thompson had not set the midweek pitching as of yet but did plan to put junior lefthander Nick Routt on the hill one of those days. It will be the first action for the 2009 staff ace since he tried to throw in the '10 SEC opening series, then was shut down for an elbow problem.

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