Mississippi State(39-23) awaits the loser for a noon elimination game at Dick Howser Stadium. And a painful wait it will be for the second-seed squad after suffering the shutout. While the Southern Conference Bulldogs were clearing fences, the SEC Bulldogs mustered just five base hits; only one of those going for as many as two bases.
"And it's very, very hard when you put that much pressure on your pitching staff to not give up any runs," Cohen said.
Of course, over the last seven weeks Mississippi State has thrived when asking the pitching staff to minimize, even eliminate, opposing offense. That approached produced an 11-4 second half of SEC season and 5-1 record in winning the league tournament championship. But then in all those victories the Bulldogs did manage to muster at least two or more runs.
Not in NCAA play. Samford righthander Charles Brasford, a Tallahassee native, throttled State as well as any SEC ace did all season. The five safeties were always in separate innings, and two—both by C Mitch Slauter—were infield scratches. 1B Wes Rea's two-out double in the fourth inning was the only extra-base knock.
Brasford (10-2) had four strikeouts and four walks in the shutout, with eight-plus innings credited. "He threw strikes," Slauter said. "He went at hitters and gave you his best stuff. That's the best thing he did all day, he did a good job of competing against us."
State starter Chris Stratton (11-2) competed as well. But the SEC's Pitcher of the Year did not get the sort of support. Nor was he as sharp as in some recent conference outings. Good, yes. Or very good as Cohen and Slauter both said, able to consistently get ahead of hitters. His problem was finishing them all off this time.
"They just did a good job of going down and getting pitches," Stratton said. "They really reminded me of Kentucky, they could go down and get it. They had a good plan and executed it really well." Stratton gave up six of Samford's seven hits with four runs, walks, and strikeouts each.
The Kentucky comparison was used by Bulldog coaches and players all game-week in fact, whether how Samford swung the sticks or the comparable venue to their own field. Howser Stadium beckons batters much the same way, and Samford certainly made themselves at home. There were even some signs of stress before the first big hit as Stratton's pitches were being hit on the fly, not on the ground as the Bulldogs prefer.
The solo shot would stand up through five more scoreless innings, though Bulldog offensive futility would have let it be the game-winner anyway. Basford did have a challenge in the bottom of the second of his own making mostly. A one-out walk of LF Demarcus Henderson and infield hit by Slauter were supplemented another out later when 2B Sam Frost was plunked.
With bases loaded, 3B Daryl Norris was aggressive and went after his first pitch of the game. It was popped up to the first baseman, and with it State's best chance of tying things up. Or of just scoring. A two-out walk of DH Trey Porter went for nought as Basford coaxed an infield liner to strand him. Rea's two-out double was erased on a fly-ball. And in the sixth inning after CF Hunter Renroe's one-out single, Henderson pulled it hard but right to the third baseman to begin the double-play.
Basford was good, the Bulldogs agreed; but they ought to have been better. "We just struggled getting things going all day long," Slauter said. "You get a leadoff guy on like that and hit into some unfortunate things. Things just didn't fall our way."
Cohen said it was State struggling to recognize exactly what Basford was offering them to hit. "I don't know if it was a focus issue of what, we just did a very poor job of recognizing pitches. It's a difficult thing when you're not recognizing it good, you hit a ball and it's a double-play or line-out to the shortstop.
Stratton had some struggles as well, putting two Samforders on in both the fourth and fifth turns after two outs. Norris saved a run with a nifty charging snare the first time, and a swinging strikeout took care of the other situation. A seventh-inning error did no harm either as Stratton kept the 1-0 score. But his offense still could not dent the scoreboard. Rea took the best shot in the bottom of the seventh with a deep drive that pulled to his usual left side would have cleared; going opposite way it was caught at the wall.
Even then State could have been comfortable with a one-run deficit at the end. Samford spoiled this hope with a huge eighth inning. An out in, Saxon Butler lifted a fly that cleared the left fence by maybe two feet. With a runner on and two down, though, C.K. Irby crushed his shot, a line-drive over the centerfield wall which is the same height as any other part of the park. It finished Stratton at last, but Samford had one more blast left.
It came from Christian Durdaller, first man faced by Caleb Reed, and got out to left again for the final 5-0 margin. Reed worked 1.0 official inning with the one run and hit, a walk and strikeout. Chad Girodo got to record the final out.
Slauter's second hit, leading off the ninth, was good reason to let Basford tip his cap to the crowd. Designated hitter Irby took the hill for three quick outs, same as his total hits for the day.
The three home runs off Stratton were a career-most, and came after he had allowed just four longballs in his regular season. Slauter still believed his starting pitcher deserved better. "Chris had good stuff, he was down in the zone. He just made a couple of bad pitches and they took advantage of it when they could. It's not easy to keep pitching at your best level when you're having to put the team on your back and having that much pressure inning-in and inning-out."
The pressure is on everyone now. Extending the season beyond Saturday's noon game means winning. Pitching coach Butch Thompson figured on starting RHP Kendall Graveman regardless who the opponent is, pending final consulting with Cohen. But pitching is not even the primary concern now; finding some way to support the mound crew takes elimination-game priority.
"Obviously our kids are disappointed, but the tournament goes on," Cohen said. "We'll have another opponent tomorrow and another opportunity to compete."