The Bulldogs ended this weekend, not to mention a long run of series against ranked opposition, at 24-16 and 7-11 SEC. Though just fifth in the not-completed West standings, that still leaves State only two games out of leading a ludicrously loose Division race.
"We still have a lot we can do," agreed Cohen. "We're in the middle of things. This is not how we wanted to finish things but our kids know what's on the horizon."
A lopsided Sunday certainly wasn't the best ending to a series, even against a defending national champion. But as every Dog noted, the difference came in just those two critical turns. State scrambled the game-three pitching plans once again, without enough success from the six who got to throw this Sunday.
"We're kind of searching for the right guy to get us a little deeper in a ball game," said Cohen. It wasn't true freshman Daryl Norris, who gave up a pair of first-inning runs in his first SEC start. But the rookie righthander was not the ultimate problem. That came from an unexpected source. Former Friday starter Devin Jones had put in some encouraging relief outings since leaving the rotation, and State was counting on the righthanded junior to be the right mid-game match. Especially so as South Carolina had to alter their order two spots due to an injury and an illness.
But taking over for the fourth inning, and after the MSU offense had rattled the Gamecocks for three runs and a lead through three, Jones (2-5) was not up to opportunity. His line ended at 0.2 innings, four runs on three hits and a walk. There was no big mystery to how S.C. hit the veteran so well.
"Well, he's just finding a lot of barrels," said Cohen. "His fastball and slider are finding a lot of barrels."
Not that the next two MSU moundsmen missed many themselves. Victor Diaz and Taylor Stark, also true frosh forced into SEC emergencies, made only one-third an inning apiece combining for five runs on as many hits, a walk each and again no strikeouts. In fact only four Gamecocks fanned all afternoon.
A trio of South Carolinans accounted for more Ks. Reliever John Taylor (3-1) struck out three Dogs in his 4.0 official, with one run and four hits against him. His mid-game work resulted in a winning decision, and while the margin was too much to allow a save setting Carolina closer Matt Price pitched it that way. In his 2.1 scoreless innings he was hit just twice with a walk, and struck out four.
They didn't lack for a lead to protect, either, after their offense compiled 18 hits with seven extra-base knocks including a two-run homer in the ninth by Christian Walker. The first baseman was 4-of-4 on the day, scoring three times and driving in four. Jake Williams was 4-of-6 with a couple of RBI and designated hitter Brady Thomas was 3-of-6 with four RBI and two runs. All feasted on shaky State Sunday pitching.
"We give up 13 runs to a team hitting .257 in SEC play, I don't know if that's the exact number but that's pretty close," Cohen said. "It's frustrating when that happens."
Of course State coaches knew the risk running rookie Norris out for a SEC start. Worst fears were confirmed early as, trying to take advantage of the out-to-left wind, Gamecocks flung high flies around the park. "It was clear Norris early on wasn't going to get it done, he didn't have the sink he had a couple of weeks ago," Cohen said.
Instead with the leadoff runner (single) on second base after a steal, Scott Wingo lofted a deep drive that RF Jaron Shepherd made a hard try at only to go off his glove on the track. The triple not only scored a teammate but made it easy for Walker to get his first RBI with a fly to the deepest centerfield. Lefthander Chad Girodo took over for Norris and settled things down for two scoreless innings, though he too was being well-hit in the process.
S.C. starter Forrest Koumas benefitted initially as State batters also tried air-balls, only to have their caught. When Bulldogs began hitting grounders it put two on bases in the second inning. Freshman 2B Adam Frazier hit it well, too, with Wingo making an excellent diving stop to prevent any scoring with a force. Shepherd was overmatched on strike three to strand a pair.
But in the third LF Trey Johnson got another, comparable chance. With one down DH Cody Freeman and 3B Jarrod Parks singled. So did Johnson as his grounder went through the open middle scoring Freeman. Parks pushed his luck to take third as well. So C Wes Thigpen didn't have to swing to tie it up; he just pushed a sacrifice to the right side allowing Parks to come across.
And the inning wasn't done yet. 1B Ryan Collins went 2-2 count before knocking a fly ball that carried surprisingly far, but more to the point just a little more left-ward than centerfielder DeSean Anderson could reach. Johnson scored for the 3-2 lead, and South Carolina made the early call to Taylor. He ended the inning as leftfielder Steven Neff had to run in hard to prevent Ogden's drive from falling.
Given a lead the Bulldogs, concerned about the contact Girodo had allowed in the third turn, made their own quick call and gave Jones the game. Which he promptly gave right back to the Gamecocks. A walk of Anderson mean third baseman Parks had to play in a couple of steps…just far enough for a high hopper by Robert Beary to get over the glove. Both runners were bunted along for Wingo, who hit it hard to the right side.
Frazier made a slick stab and an even better throw to the plate for Thigpen to tag Anderson for the second out. "Just an unbelievable play, he makes a great play for Devin there," Cohen said. But given such sparkling defensive support, Jones failed to do his part and end the inning. Consecutive singles each scored runners before Jones could be pulled and rookie Diaz pushed to the hill. He also allowed back-to-back ground ball hits, though the first was a close non-error call as the ball slid under SS Jonathan Ogden's glove, staking South Carolina to a 5-3 advantage.
Diaz did end this inning, but after State stranded a pair in their fourth the Gamecocks blew it entirely open. An infield single and walk of the bottom of the order brought Stark to the hill. South Carolina wasn't actually playing for a big inning, because Mooney bunted to Stark. But the pitcher tried to force the lead runner and his throw pulled Ogden from the sack.
So all were safe and a fly-ball to left scored Anderson. Another walk re-loaded all bases and after falling behind Thomas whipped a scorcher down the right-side line and into the corner for a bases-clearing triple. Williams used the other line just the same for a double and 11-3 scoreboard, with Stark dismissed in favor of Kendall Graveman to end the inning at last.
Graveman was the right response for two more scoreless innings, though South Carolina did deserve a run in their seventh. With Walker on second and two outs Williams singled to centerfield. Bradford's throw was good but Walker surely seemed safe. Ump Ray Miller hesitated and chose otherwise to end the inning. Any S.C. irritations were eased in the ninth when Walker got around on Graveman for a two-run homer.
State did scratch out a run in their seventh, with a bit of blue help as with two on and Collins at bat a balk was called to negate the ground-out. Collins walked, and while Ogden grounded out the relay was short of first allowing Parks across. That was the right point to let Price show his stuff, as he took over and threw strike three by a frozen Frazier.
State got a pair on in the remaining two innings with nothing to show on the scoreboard but two more hits, for a dozen total. The top three in MSU's order all finished with two safeties, while Collins was 3-of-4 with a RBI. It wasn't for lack of contact this one was lost, as even most of the outs were solidly struck. But Carolina did have the ace in the pen to negate any serious rally once so far in charge.
"They had Price sitting in the bullpen waiting to bring in, he's one of the best closers in college baseball," Cohen said. "I felt we took unbelievable swings against their starting guy and the first four outs were just bullets, right at somebody. That's how it works sometimes and you have to keep battling."
But the real battle remains setting up a staff for a full SEC weekend. With no midweek game Graveman was allowed to go the last 4.2 with two runs on four hits and two strikeouts. Cohen was surprised that Stark was not as effective as earlier outings had showed. The real disappointment though remained Jones, who appeared on the verge of finding a productive place in the plans.
"I've said many times he's a talented young man, sometimes the light switch just has to come on like it did for Caleb Reed and Luis Pollorena and Taylor Stark for the most part."
The Bulldogs don't have a game until Saturday, when they play a special SEC doubleheader with Alabama because of weekend graduation. State players will be kept busy though with final exams, along with practices and weight workouts.