Slow Start Means Quick Exit From SEC Tourney

At least they didn't have to play to long before realizing this stay at the SEC Tournament was going to be short. A four-run Arkansas assault in the top of Thursday's opening inning meant Mississippi State would be heading home after a 7-2 loss in the elimination round. The sole saving grace of early exit was that the Bulldogs still expect to play again.

Or so the boss believes. "I know they're disappointed, but I know we're a better team than that," said Coach John Cohen. "Hopefully we're playing in a regional next week and put on a better performance."

Certainly Mississippi State would hope for a better beginning. With both teams facing first-out-of-Hoover fate, it was the Razorbacks rising to the 9:30a.m. challenge. Arkansas took advantage of Bulldog starter Nick Routt and a couple of fielding gaffes to push four runs across in their top half of the first, and were not seriously challenged afterwards the rest of the way. Arkansas (37-19) remained alive in this tournament and await a Friday afternoon match with the loser of the Florida-Alabama contest.

The Bulldogs left 34-23 and will endure some anxious days between now and Monday's morning announcement of the NCAA Tournament field. State still anticipates good word from the committee based on a winning season, top-half SEC regular season finish, and impressive power rating.

But they also left Regions Park frustrated with being first-finished, particularly so with how the loss played out. Senior 3B Jarrod Parks downplayed suggestions a morning start time and lingering letdown from a 7-5 Wednesday loss on a Florida grand slam were factors.

"I really don't think it did, being in an elimination game you come out with more pressure on your backs. But when you're in the SEC Tournament you shouldn't have any excuse to be tired. It wasn't any excuse to come out like that."

Following the game-one loss State's staff debated how to pitch Arkansas for a couple of hours, before going with the usual second-day rotation anyway. This was despite Routt's shaky showing against Arkansas in mid-April when he gave up six runs in three innings. The junior lefthander got the ball for another shot with very mixed results. The good was striking out six Razorbacks in 3.1 innings.

The bad was taking eight hits with three more walks, allowing five runs. One of those was unearned, and for that matter another came after two first-inning fielding mistakes. Still falling behind 4-0 before picking up a bat wasn't the sort of start State needed to extend their stay. And in the three-plus innings Routt (2-3) had to fire 90 official pitches.

"I think he had three at-bats in the first inning where he was 0-2 or 1-2 and it ends up being 3-2, that's a killer. I don't think that has anything to do with Arkansas, it has to do with just not being economic."

Not that Arkansas starter DJ Baxendale was that much more efficient, as he would allow both MSU runs on six hits with two walks and three strikeouts. The difference was staked to such a lead the righthander could afford modest damage and still improve to 9-2 on the season. Barrett Astin worked the last 4.0 full innings with two hits and four strikeouts, earning his third save.

Routt's first inning was completely contrasting, as he struck out three but still took the hits. In fact he was two-strikes up on the first three Razorback batters only to have them reach on a single, walk, and misplayed bunt. C Cody Freeman took a look at third on the sacrifice and fumbled the ball with a late throw leaving all safe. James McCann singled through the right side for the first run.

After a strikeout Routt gave up another single to rightfield, by Matt Reynolds, for one RBI; and RF Jaron Shepherd let the ball roll through for another run. Routt wild-pitched in the fourth score himself. And speaking of contrasts…Three Bulldogs did reach in the first inning, but by contrast none scored. A leadoff single by C.T. Bradford was erased by a double-play, which meant nobody was on when Parks dropped a double in left-centerfield. He stole second as well before DH Nick Vickerson walked, but the latter runner fell victim to the classic and rarely-successful 5/3-look and was picked off.

State finally strung some offensive things together in their fourth chance. A Parks grounder was too tough for the shortstop, and the throw-in got away as well for a single/error putting him on second base. Though, Parks would likely have scored from first when Vickerson dropped a double in left-centerfield for the first Bulldog run. Vickerson scored as well when Shepherd deposited a two-bagger in almost the same spot. A walk of LF Brent Brownlee put freshman Adam Frazier at the plate, for a ground ball and double-play.

For a moment MSU thought momentum had changed in their favor. "For sure," said Vickerson. "We thought we had a chance to win the game that inning."

Arkansas responded though, as Matt Vinson doubled and took third base on a caught pop-foul on the right sideline. Norris gave the ball to %%MATCH_16%%, and he got a one-pitch out of the lead runner as Vinson was thrown out trying to score on a grounder. That still left Bo Bigham on first base, then second with a steal, where he scored on Kuhn's single to center for the 6-2 difference.

In their sixth it was a one-out single and RBI-double from Kyle Robinson offering more margin for Astin. He would have Frazier and SS Jonathan Ogden hit their ways on in the seventh and escape on a double-play, then sit the sides for the last two turns.

Arkansas cranked out 14 hits, with the top-five in their order all getting at least two safeties. Cleanup man McCann had the biggest stick going 4-of-5 with two RBI and two runs. Only Parks had two hits for State, which had eight base hits and only left four on bases. The reason? "The three double-plays hurt a lot over the course of the game," Cohen said.

"Obviously, the first inning was not good for us," Cohen said. "I thought we came out a little big lethargic, and I thought our kids answered that over the last seven, eight innings." But the slow start was more than MSU could recover from. Now coach and club all intend to recover in the next few days while anticipating their chance to participate in the national tournament.

"I hope so," said senior Parks. "When we look at yesterday's game we're one play away from winning by a few runs. We played Arkansas good twice at their place, I still think we're just as good as them. And we're playing in the best conference in the country. Hopefully they'll look at that and we'll be in."

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