And just like their weekend in Columbia, the Dogs were further frustrated by letting another competitive contest slip away. "We're getting there," insisted C Mitch Slauter. "We're sticking together, we're right on the edge about to break through."
Perhaps so. At the same time, Coach John Cohen saw where his team broke down in just a couple of cases that proved crucial. Even those might not have mattered much had Mississippi State's other, and larger, issue remained front-and-center. The offense was again inoffensive as four Rebel pitchers limited State to six base hits.
"When you strike out 16 times you're not going to win many ball games," Cohen said.
The coach and club might have taken all those Ks in stride had Ole Miss put overpowering arms on the mound. They did not. The Rebels came at Bulldog batters with all sorts of medium- and off-speed stuff, spread all around the dish and often as not well off it. Either way, State swingers spent too much of the evening waving at those offerings.
Especially in the middle of the order, where big bats DH Trey Porter and 1B Wes Rea each struck out three times in the fourth-fifth slots. Four more strikeouts came from the last two spots in the order as Ole Miss moundsmen threw mid-80s fastballs followed by mid-70s floaters.
"That was their plan of attack," said Slauter, who was 1-of-3 with no strikeouts and scored once. The Bulldogs weren't actually caught by surprise, either, and Cohen reported that an afternoon batting practice—done on campus before departure due to rain—went very well.
"There is no excuse, you have to come in here and get it done," Cohen said. "And 16 strikeouts tells you that our kids weren't locked-in. When the lights came on here we were just not prepared. That's not taking anything away from Ole Miss and their pitchers, they did a nice job. But when you chase as much out of the zone as we did you have no shot at being successful."
Hawtin Buchanan (1-0) got the decision on his 2.2 innings of middle relief. Scoreless, hitless innings too, with five of the strikeouts and no walks. He protected a 5-1 lead that State cut to two runs off starter Sam Smith, who allowed all three State scores on four this with two walks and two strikeouts. Dylan Chavez got his first save of the season throwing the last 1.2 frames with four fannings.
State starter Brandon Woodruff (0-1) took the loss on 3.2 innings with five runs on seven hits, a walk and three strikeouts. The bright Bulldog spot was Luis Pollorena's relief work, as he took care of the last 5.1 frames with a run on three hits and five strikeouts.
"I thought we pitched it fine, Pollorena came in and did a really nice job for us," Cohen said.
Woodruff's start ought to have gone much better. He was hit for a run in the first inning as Tanner Mathis dropped a single in short leftfield and worked around to third base, where he could score on a first-pitch liner by Matt Snyder. Two scoreless innings after that gave MSU its chance to catch up, though it wasn't until the third that a Bulldog knocked out a base hit.
Or hits, as LF Tyler Fullerton singled past third base and with two outs CF C.T. Bradford did the same. A walk of SS Adam Frazier filled the paths for 3B Daryl Norris, but he didn't have to swing for a tying run. Smith made it easy with a dirtball off the mitt for Fullerton to come home.
That free run was all State got this time as Norris watched the full-count strike go by. And lost chances loomed large very soon as Ole Miss got the lead back in the bottom of the frame in a big way.
It started with consecutive one-out singles. Woodruff bounced one too far in front of the plate that allowed both to advance. Even then he might well have escaped. With two outs and full count Auston Bousfield chopped a grounder that a still-hobbled Norris bare-handed but had no chance to throw. Snyder came home for the lead, which Zach Kirksey made 3-1 scoreboard on a single past first base.
It was vital to limit the damage but the defense failed with runners on corners. A steal of second by Bousfield didn't draw a throw as Slauter correctly bluffed that way and had Will Allen leading too far off third base. An accurate throw would have ended the inning; instead Slauter skipped it off the runner and into leftfield. "We forearm-fake, he's out and we throw it into left field," Cohen said. "So instead of getting the out the guy scores."
Andrew Mistone made it hurt worse with a single to centerfield. Pollorena entered to line-out Mathis but not before Ole Miss had taken charge 5-1.
The Bulldogs were able to chip a couple off their deficit in the fourth, with one out. Rea walked and Slauter singled behind him. Smith skipped his pitch past the catcher again for both Dogs to move up and Rea score on a fly ball by RF Hunter Renfroe. Fullerton grounded deep into the hole but still needed all his speed to beat Austin Anderson's strong throw for an infield single and 5-3 score. The Rebels called in righthander Buchanan to strike out nine-batter 2B Sam Frost swinging at a high fastball.
Buchanan rolled through the next two innings untouched and flew-out Renfroe to begin the seventh, when the Rebels went to Aaron Greenwood for the last of State's order.
Pollorena did his part well, retiring eight-straight before a one-out single in the seventh. And that didn't matter because Anderson screamed a shot right into Rea's glove for a stab/step double-play. His luck ran out in the eighth with a leadoff double by Yarbrough and RBI-single from Snyder, though the batter kept on going and was caught well short of second base. Fortunately for State, because Frazier over-ran a grounder by Allen.
"It's a big park, and I remembered last year just trying to throw strikes," Pollorena said. "The velocity is not going to be there so I'm just trying to throw strikes and let the defense work."
The best Bulldog chance of making it a game again was with two on in the eighth. Frazier legged-out an infield single and Norris went through the right side for a base hit. As Ole Miss was changing pitchers State checked-in lefty Philip Casey to bat; but when a lefthander, Chavez, got to the mound State switched again with righthander Brent Brownlee. He grounded to the pitcher for an out at first base, before Rea struck.
Fullerton was the lone Dog with two base hits, while Snyder had three and Mathis two for Ole Miss. Afterwards Cohen still couldn't shake off how his batters had gotten into the wrong sort of zone against the sort of pitches offered. "I thought offensively we didn't want to fight. We just chased breaking balls in the dirt. It takes mental toughness, putting your head in a good position, and stopping your swing when you evaluate the pitch. The easy thing is to cave and swing over the pitch."
The Bulldogs don't have much time to mull over the evening, which may be a good thing. An utterly vital home series with Tennessee looms, and it begins Thursday evening for television no less. Mississippi State has reasons for a 5-10 SEC score through the first half of the league schedule, but nobody is cutting any slack and Bulldog post-season hopes depend entirely now on getting at least close to .500 by SEC tournament time. At least.
"We have to feed off this going into Tennessee," Pollorena said. "We see positive things, just like last year. We're just a game behind where we were last year. As long as there's faith there's hope we can compete."