State Taking Stock After First Series Setback

If Diamond Dogs were looking forward to a little extra down-time with school out this week, Sunday's loss to Central Arkansas will alter all schedules. "You treat it as a learning experience," Coach John Cohen said. "We've got spring break coming up, and we have a lot of opportunities to work on these things."

And, a lot of things to work on. Mississippi State's 7-3 Sunday setback gave the visiting Bears the series, after their 7-5 Saturday win. Central Arkansas left 14-2 and ready to roll in Southland Conference play.

The 17-2 Bulldogs? They suffered not just the first losses of the season, but a chance to match or surpass the program's record winning streak of 18 games. Whether they lost valuable momentum or poise in anticipation of SEC season was the real post-game question.

"We'll be fine," assured RHP Kendall Graveman. "We've got a lot of leaders in the clubhouse and we'll get this right."

Certainly Central Arkansas left the home team with a lot of items to evaluate after taking a non-conference series. Yet the Bears did not dominate this game any moreso than Saturday. The Bulldogs had as many hits, threw more strikeouts, issued just one more walk, even hit the day's only yardball; a third-row shot pulled over leftfield by RF Hunter Renfroe.

Trouble was, it came when State trailed by five in the bottom of the ninth and with nobody on another base. Just as in game-two the Bulldogs never held a lead, but were either tied or more often playing catch-up. And the reasons why were similar. Almost every MSU mistake was converted into points. Central Arkansas accepted a pair of walks, five hit-by-pitches, and some uncharacteristic fielding lapses.

In a way it was a mirror-image of State's own successes up to now. "I want to credit Central Arkansas," Cohen said. "I think they're a very good club. They're gonna win a ton of games in the Southland Conference. And they have an older crew, a lot of seniors and juniors who've been around for a while."

Age and confidence helped the Bear order out-wait Bulldog pitching too often, and half their hits came on counts with two strikes. So did some of the plunkings. Graveman, the starter pitcher, was most frustrated about coming out on the wrong side of the decision. "I thought I got the ball over the plate the whole game, I had seven strikeouts and a lot of ground balls. I had good sink, what more could you ask for?" Graveman (1-1) did give most of what he'd been asked for on Sunday, allowing there was more than usual game-three pressure after the Friday night injury to starter Jacob Lindgren and a well-worked bullpen. He got deep into the sixth inning with 98 pitches, allowing four runs on five hits with a lone walk and the seven sitdowns. Graveman didn't miss often or by much, but when he did it was a no-doubt plunking three times.

C Mitch Slauter stuck-up for his starter. "He had good command and was getting ground balls. Thy just put some balls in play and found some holes."

Cohen had a comparable impression. "I thought we made pretty good pitches at times. But their guys just had better ABs than our guys."

Bear righthander Bryce Biggerstaff (2-0) definitely had a better afternoon that the whole Bulldog staff. He tossed a complete game with eight hits and a walk. He only struck out three batters and all three runs were earned, but the fourth-year junior never lost a grip on the game. Other than a pair of runs in the State second, and this after his own team had scored twice in the top; and Renfroe's shot in the ninth Biggerstaff had the Bulldogs' number.

"He was nothing special, nothing we hadn't seen before," Slauter countered. "He just threw strikes. Early in the game I though t we had a lot of balls hard, they just found gloves. And he continued to compete."

Graveman was pretty competitive in his own first-inning right with three-straight grounders rolled to 2B Brett Pirtle. The second went worse as Michael Marietta's short-hopper was off SS Adam Frazier's glove for a re-ruled scratch single. A bunt positioned the runner to score easily on a Blake Marchal double.

A plunking had two on with two outs. Graveman's 2-2 fastball in the zone wasn't called a strike, and on full-count Doug Votolotto made it hurt with a single up the middle for the 2-0 scoreboard.

State had an answer in the bottom of this frame. RF Hunter Renfroe hit to center and gambled going for second, sliding in just ahead of the throw for a double. C Mitch Slauter followed with a single to left for one run. The brisk breeze killed 3B Sam Frost's seemingly-sure gapper to right center, bringing it back to the centerfielder for the out. But the same fielder was playing deep on DH Trey Porter, fortunately as his drive fell a step in front for the tying RBI.

Biggerstaff kept it down to two runs with a grounder, then outed ten of the next eleven batters faced. A one-out single in his sixth by 1B Alex Detz was erased on a double-play. And in the seventh when pinch-batter Jacob Robson scratched out a single, with 3B Sam Frost following suit, a short mound talk settled Biggerstaff down. He rolled another double-up off Porter this time.

Graveman seemed to be getting in rhythm with three swinging strikeouts in the third. Even after he led off the fourth with a plunking, he fielded the bunt and forced the lead runner. But Slauter's errant pickoff try advanced Marchal to second and a walk had two on bases when Justin Treece sent a slow roller to shortstop.

SS Adam Frazier fielded but his throw to second was too tall and off the glove. The lead runner would have scored anyway as there was no double-play chance, but the error bit all the same. Because with, again, a full count and two outs, the Bears got a hard-hit single. Forrest Allday delivered it through the right side for the 4-2 lead.

Graveman stayed in for the top of sixth and bottom of the order, leaving with one on and two outs. LHP Chad Girodo stranded that man, then shook off a two-out triple (actually a single miss-played into three bases by CF C.T. Bradford) with a strikeout.

RHP Myles Gentry went in-order in the Bear eighth. For the ninth with it still a two-run margin RHP Jonathan Holder came out to get some work. He hit the number-nine batter to lead off and allowed Allday's second base hit. With one out another plunking loaded the bases and UCA seized opportunity. Marietta singled in one run, a walk scored another, the finale came on a fly ball. Officially all runs were earned, but the Bulldogs knew they had given too much unintended help again.

Offensively, "We took the swings their pitcher wanted us to take," said Cohen. "And when you do that you're going to lose ball games. We were not disciplined enough, forceful enough …you know, stubborn enough to take our swing."

So Mississippi State has a lot of unplanned data to review and evaluate Monday. How they handle the rude reality-check will be key to the upcoming week and approaching SEC season. They do have a game guaranteed to grab attention Tuesday, as the Bulldogs take on Southern Mississippi (7-8 after losing a series to Louisiana-Lafayette) in Pearl's Trustmark Park.

LHP Luis Pollorena (3-0, 1.88) gets the midweek start against a team he's pitched twice against and successfully, including in 2011 at Pearl. "You'd like to think he could get us deep into a ball game," Cohen said, though the coach added that despite a lot of stints from bullpen Bulldogs this weekend most were short and a little rest will suffice.

Meanwhile Monday is when Lindgren has his next exam on the left knee smacked by a second-batter line drive Friday night. Initial x-rays showed no breaks. "He's moving around OK," reported Cohen. "We'll see a doctor tomorrow morning, hopefully and find out the nature of it. he really believes he can run on it right now. So I think it's going to be OK."

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