‘Perfect' was not a word to associate with State's Saturday performance. The pitching least of all. No less than ten Bulldogs went to the mound, one of them twice. None were all that bad objectively. But neither did they produce the sort of outings seen in in building that long winning streak.
In fact, Cohen thought his squad lucky to not be blown out of this one.
"Obviously the story of the game is when you walk nine and hit six," the coach said. "I mean it's shocking they didn't score more." He had a good point; Central Arkansas batters were walked exactly as often as they hit safely, nine times each; and received six plunkings to boot. With 28 Bears reaching base, to have just seven score was surprising.
Nor did they necessarily hit their way to those runs, as three were un-earned. "The double-plays really bailed us out," said Cohen of State's four twin-killings. "That's what gave us a chance to win the ball game. But we didn't command the baseball, we didn't do some average things well."
And still State was one play from winning in the bottom of the ninth having three times rallied to force ties of 1-1, 3-3, and 5-5 with another at-bat coming. Still, "I don't say if we got a comfortable lead I would feel comfortable because these guys swing pretty good," said Henderson. "They came to play, so we have to come back tomorrow ready to play."
What put the Bulldogs on their back foot was starting pitching. This needed some explaining too because RHP Evan Mitchell was not bad by any means. In fact, "I thought Evan had the best stuff he had all year today," said catcher Nick Ammirati. Trouble was umpire Larry Short didn't have the same high opinion, though in fairness he made life hard for all hurlers. What made Mitchell's struggles over 2.2 innings frustrating was just how close the calls were on his hard low fastballs.
"I thought he threw some good pitches that were marginal," Cohen said. "There's one pitch, 3-2, that really changes the ball game if it's a strike. But it's a ball and I thought he made a really good pitch. But that's the way it works and you have to deal with that." Mitchell only allowed one run on as many hits but walked three and hit four against three strikeouts.
The run came in his third inning after stranding walked Bears in the first and second. One out in, Mitchell broke a curve off too big and hit Forrest Allday. A single to center had a pair on, and it took a great get by SS Adam Frazier just to force one runner at the middle bag. Mitchell got ahead of Jonathan Davis 1-2 before a couple of foul-tips, then hit him to load everything up.
Once again Mitchell was in front 1-2, then 2-2 and gave two excellent strikes…only balls were called to full the count. This time Mitchell did miss for a run-forcing walk. Ross Mitchell had to take over with sacks still stuffed, and roll a grounder to shortstop to keep it a one-run deficit.
The lefthanded Mitchell soldiered through 3.0 total innings, while State's offense forced its first tie. C Mitch Slauter worked a one-out walk, and with two outs 3B Daryl Norris went after the first offering. He pulled the drive, which got down in time to stay fair and roll into the corner, with Slauter coming all the way around without a throw. A walk had two Dogs on and meant a mount talk before Ammirati's fly-out to right left things even.
Into the sixth that is. With two outs Mitchell nicked Garret Brown on the toe for a free base. He followed with a walk for two on bases. Central Arkansas pinch-hit for the ninth batter with Blake Marchal, who'd swung second in the order Friday night. It worked as he dropped a single in centerfield for one RBI.
But CF C.T. Bradford's throw to third base wasn't stopped by Norris, plating another Bear for the 3-1 deficit. LHP Chad Girodo finished that frame with a grounder.
UCA starter Jeffrey Enloe had shaken off the one run and was working into the bottom of the sixth with a three-hitter. Two outs in and in similar fashion a free base opened the gate as Henderson walked. Norris singled him over to third and State called for Trey Porter to hit. It was not the usual pinch-move as meant a left-on-left matchup, and Porter looked bad missing two strikes.
But he fought off a third for a blooper that fell just off the second baseman's glove for the RBI-single. Dogs were still on corners too, with Norris taking third so he could score easily when Ammirati singled over shortstop. That finished Enloe and after walking the bases full Clayton got a fly-out, as State again failed to take a lead.
They also lost another tie quickly. Girodo came back out for a leadoff single in the Bear seventh and was replaced by RHP Preston Brown. A sacrifice-bunt later Michael Marietta stung him for a double and the lead again. Bradford ran in to face a lefty, and give up a run-scoring single to Scott Zimmerle before RHP Ben Bracewell took over the pitching. He struck out a pair. The Bears had two on in their eighth and Bradford again was called on. He outed a lefty and stayed to throw to a righthander, walking him to load the paths. He threw a strike to Marietta and was replaced by RHP John Marc Shelly, who needed a single pitch for the grounder and force at third base.
Henderson opened the State eighth with a hit so UCA went to reliever Griffin Glaude. With the change on the hill State made a strange counter, replacing Norris with lefthander Jacob Robson. He struck it well but out to centerfield, and when Henderson tried for second on a pitch in the dirt he was easily thrown out.
Still down 5-3 in the last chance, Bradford worked a one-out walk and took second on a wild pitch. Renfroe singled for the RBI as UCA pitched to him despite an open base. 1B Alex Detz was nailed in the back for two on, his place taken by a pinch runner Tyler Fullerton. With two out Henderson went full-count before singling off Zach Barr for the tying run. Fullerton was on third hoping for any chance to come across, but 2B Matt Britton flew-out.
RHP Brandon Woodruff had warmed for a while but didn't show it with a four-pitch walk of Marchal to bring up the top of the order one more time. A bunt advanced him into scoring position. Ethan Harris slapped a hot grounder to the right side and Britton made an outstanding stop to prevent the RBI. He also had time to throw for an out, but substitute Nick Flair was on the bag after Detz was run for and Wes Rea had pinch-swung earlier. It was a catchable throw that Flair didn't.
Marchal scored the unearned run. Marietta made it hurt more with a single to center for the final margin. Only one last twin-killing kept it there for State's half of the ninth. 2B Sam Frost did walk in leadoff and an out later Frazier singled to right, but he was too aggressive on the turn and the throw was for him, not Frost going to third. Frazier was run down for the second out and Bradford fanned to end it.
Henderson was 3-of-4 with a run and RBI while Norris and Renfroe had two hits each. Woodruff (1-1) took the loss on 0.1 inning with the two runs and a walk, as Will Cox finished it out. Barr (2-0) picked up the win anyway with the save to Ethan McKinzie.
Cohen pointed to the two run-scoring errors as crucial. "Couple that with the walks and HBPs and that's the ball game," he said. "I don't feel it was a horrible offensive game for us but we really struggled to put some things together. And we were just looking for that one guy that was going to give us a lift on the mound. For the first time in 18 games we're really searching for that guy and didn't get it."
What the Bulldogs did get was their first defeat. It wasn't any shame given the veteran nature of the Southland Conference favorites, which came into the series among the national leaders in scoring, walks, and plunkings. Now they play to win a series at SEC expense. While Cohen still has bullpen arms available—several of the Saturday stints were ten pitches or less—and closer Jonathan Holder is rested, it's time to get a better opening.
"We certainly need a good, good starting performance from Kendall Graveman," said Cohen. Sunday's rubber game is 1:30 and is a network broadcast.