Yet there were more than enough junctures where a hit, a throw, a corrected call or just a recognized strike would have sent the series in another direction. The painful Diamond Dog problem was inability to equal opportunity.
Most obviously so where Mississippi State has struggled most of the season: at the plate. Bulldog batters were 2-of-8 Sunday with runners at second or third bases, and only once did such a hit score anyone anyway. That was C Wes Thigpen's bases-loaded single in the second inning which accounted for the only State run. Even this wasn't maximized as the next runner was ruled out short of the plate.
By contrast the Gators could afford to wait for their big chances. When it came they struck, broke the 1-1 tie, and went on to win despite what was one of the better Bulldog pitching days all season so far.
The hard-luck loser was first reliever Luis Pollorena (3-1) who deserved better after assuming responsibility from starter Nick Routt. For that matter Routt looked a lot like his excellent 2009 freshman season, putting in 5.0 innings plus one batter in his best start of this return-from-injury season. Routt allowed one run on six hits, struck out five and walked one.
"I thought he was really good, he threw it in the strike zone which is exactly what we needed after yesterday," said Cohen. The same was true for sophomore Pollorena as went the critical 1.2 innings with two runs on two hits, a walk and strikeout.
Also in contrast was the luck of Florida's bullpen, which saw more use as they mixed, matched, and won all situations down the stretch. Their initial reliever, Stephen Rodriguez (2-1) picked up the well-timed decision based on his—ironically—1.2 innings also, with no hits and three strikeouts. He took over from starter Karsten Whitson, still unbeaten though charged with the one MSU run on five hits, two walks and three strikeouts.
"He's pretty efficient and we swung at a lot of balls," Cohen said. "We swung at a lot of pitches outside the strike zone, and I'm not 100% sure he threw three-strikes to any given hitter the first two times through the order."
Three more men accounted for four outs before Austin Maddox entered in the ninth for his first save this season. And this was the most glaring missed opportunity of all for State. A leadoff single by LF Nick Vickerson came off Anthony DeScalafani, who an out later fielded a bounce-back from 2B Adam Frazier. But he threw it into centerfield, then gave up a single to LF Jaron Shepherd. That brought righthander Maddox to face the #9 Dog batter.
Thigpen chipped a short fly into right that Tucker somehow got a glove under as he dove forward. Even a bobbled throw-in wasn't enough to risk sending Vickerson, so freshman CF C.T. Bradford had the do-or-die chance. The Florida native fouled off both the first two pitches and the second stayed just inside the third-base netting for a game-ending catch.
He also had a lead after the second, albeit not as much as it should have been. With two outs, including a perfectly-timed leap and stab by second sacker Josh Adams, Whitson gave up a scratch single to SS Jonathan Ogden and a cleaner hit to Frazier. Shepherd drew a walk and on a 2-2 battle Thigpen took the ball into leftfield for one RBI.
It should have been another as Frazier tried to skirt catcher Mike Zunino who had the path blocked up the line. A shoulder check threw the runner off-stride long enough for a reach-around tag, or at least the umpire chose to think so. It merited at least a protest.
"There's no question to me, we had a really good view of it," Cohen said. "It's a difficult job back there and those things happen during a game." Routt, who said he hadn't seen the play anyway, left two on bases in the top of the third. The fourth frame was another matter as with one out Routt was hit for three-straight singles after getting ahead of all hitters. On 2-2 Maddox bounced a true seeing-eye single that evaded the gloves of both 3B Jarrod Parks and Ogden. Zunino came around for the tied tally.
Bradford ran down a drive towards the gap to prevent another run, or two, and Thigpen came up with a pop-foul to end the inning still tied 1-1. Routt took care of the fifth by retiring three lefthanders around a righty's single. State could have taken the lead in their half of the fifth. Leading off, Shepherd worked his second Whitson walk of the afternoon. A pop-out later Bradford hit behind the runner perfectly for Dogs on corners. But Freeman bounced right to the shortstop for an easy step-and-throw.
Routt returned to face the leadoff Gator and walked him on four pitches, Pollorena's cue. He picked Zunino off on the third try and added two quick outs. Parks gave Whitson's first offering of the sixth a ride, caught mid-track but enough to bring a change, a timely one so Rodriguez could go on the record.
It wasn't Pollorena's fault at all the game got away in the seventh, as he was two outs into the turn and surely caught the 1-2 corner to Zack Powers. On the record though it went down as a ball, and with new life Powers singled to bring up the order's top. A walk later Pollorena did his part with a roller to shortstop and Ogden fielded just fine. But he couldn't get the ball out cleanly. "It got underneath me and I couldn't get a good grip on it." The error left all safe, bases loaded, and the Gators a hit away from taking charge.
Tucker got it, a bouncer right through the box. Caleb Reed ended the inning with a strikeout and took care of the next five outings. Bradford needed one pitch to ground Tucker out in the ninth, not that this one mattered as much.
And the Dogs had more offensive opportunity than just the ninth. Two down into the eighth Jacob Tillotson walked Freeman and Parks punched a single up the middle. Nick Maronde was called for a left-on-left matchup with Collins, and State countered by pinch-batting righty Taylor Stark. On 2-2 he let one go by on the inside corner.
On a day the wind was blowing straight out and rather strongly at times, all 17 combined hits (nine for Florida, eight State) were singles. It was a credit to pitchers coping both with field conditions and a strike zone that neither dugout had a clue about. That made taking a loss all the more frustrating. "I thought Caleb Reed was a warrior, I thought Luis did a great job," Cohen said.
A job that went unrewarded because State lacked that one momentum-moving base hit. Or for that matter just one routine fielding play. Florida, after all, had a 3:00 ‘getaway' time for a 4:30 flight home, and a 1-1 tie through nine would have made things officially interesting indeed.
"I feel horrible for Oggie because if we make that play I really believe it changes everything," Cohen said. Even then there were other chances to redeem such gaffes with a single swing. In a large way this was a reprise of State's offensive issues last weekend at Georgia.
"Yeah, we didn't have a good day," Cohen said. "Our seniors had probably the roughest day of the whole season, collectively. I love them, they're great kids, they work hard for us, but they didn't have a very good day today. We did a lot of average things wrong. Dropped pop-ups, average ground balls." Upperclassmen were a combined 6-of-21 Sunday and did provide the lone RBI as well as run.
"But it's still early in the conference season and we believe they're going to make those plays for us. And we're going to do a better job with runners in scoring position."
Such an opportunity comes immediately Wednesday evening in Birmingham. That's when Mississippi State and UAB resume their March 9 game suspended in the sixth inning with the Blazers leading 4-3. But two Dogs, both seniors, will be on bases and two more coming up to bat. State had not picked a pitcher for the 6:00 resumption.
Cohen is getting comfortable with his underclassman rotation though, and expects for now to stick with junior Devin Jones, soph Chris Stratton, and Routt for the upcoming weekend at Arkansas. Though the way lefty Routt has worked lately the coaching staff will have some interesting decisions about order.
The Razorbacks, ranked #22 coming into the weekend, will be fresh off a sweep of LSU.