Game time is 6:30 and this year State serves as the visiting team, occupying the first base dugout. The Bulldogs won last season's edition of the annual neutral-site meeting 5-0 on dominating pitching and a two-RBI home runs by C Mitch Slauter and OF Hunter Renfroe. Though it was not a conference contest, in retrospect that win in Pearl came just as the 2012 team was shaking off a rough first-half of SEC season and rounding into form.
It's a different situation here in '13 if for no other reason than the game has been scheduled much earlier. Also, it is the last opportunity to tune-up for league play which begins this weekend, at Dudy Noble Field. And as far as the road trip tag, Pearl has been almost a home-away-from-home for State squads.
What suddenly adds interest, even intensity to what already is a real rivalry is those weekend stumbles. The unbeaten Bulldogs, aren't any longer. After taking care of Friday night business State lost by 7-5 and 7-3 scores to Central Arkansas. That in itself is not exactly any reason for shame, as the Bears are NCAA tourney bound themselves and had only lost before to Vanderbilt.
The Dogs were also the last SEC team to lose this spring. However it was how they lost more than the L's which cause pre-conference concerns. State was not sharp, make that downright poor, in a couple of troubling aspects that up to then had looked just fine. The trick then is turning such troubles into opportunity, said Slauter.
"Obviously no one wants to lose, that's not it at all. But it's a good learning experience because you're playing the wrong game to go undefeated."
Contrary to initial impressions Mississippi State out-hit the Bears, .265 to .219; had half as many strikeouts and only two fewer walks. Where things broke down were on-base rates, .372 to .342 in Central Arkansas favor. All was due to 12 hit-by-pitch reaches, where Dogs got plunked only twice. Even allowing that the Bears did a good job holding their ground in the batters box, Cohen thought his team should have followed that lead.
"In our industry they call those ‘freebies' but there's nothing free about them, you have to stand in and hold your ground and get hit. We had several of those opportunities the last two days that we didn't take advantage of." Because, the coach said, Bulldogs didn't wait-out UCA pitching. Just the opposite. "We took the swings (they) wanted us to do. And that what our pitching staff has been doing all year."
That's fact; up to the weekend opponents hacked at what State pitchers offered. Not so much the Bears, though they did pound into five double-plays and keep MSU at the top of that NCAA chart. In fact the twin-killings were what kept the losses close at all.
However, it's risky reading too much into all those HBPs, only one of which was a ‘nick'. Not for no reason does UCA lead the nation in reaching via plunkings. In fact, Bulldog pitching was much better than the stats (a 4.18 ERA with 12 walks and 26 strikeouts) showed. The pitches were close, very close, to achieving the same results as in all 17 preceding wins. "I didn't see anything we didn't do as a pitching staff we haven't done all year," said Graveman, striving to avoid critiques of the umpiring. "Location sometimes was a key for us."
"That's just it," agreed Slauter. "It's not like we're all over the place. It's not like balls are getting hammered on us." Though, UCA did put a charge in a lot of their hits, it needs admitting. And one of their hardest-hit balls might have dictated how the entire weekend developed. It was the first Friday inning when on his second batter-faced LHP Jacob Lindgren took a line-shot off the outside of his left knee.
Saturday morning x-rays showed nothing of concern, and Lindgren had a Monday morning MRI. Cohen reported good news late in the afternoon the results were a bruise, with no damage to either bone or ligament. Graveman said Sunday that his mound-mate was walking around and even participated in some light morning weight-work. "So that's a good sign."
Whether and/or how the weekend rotation adjusts is pending. Tuesday requires a pitcher and relievers be readied right now and here Mississippi State hopes to hold a trump card. LHP Luis Pollorena (3-0, 1.88era) will get the midweek start, having not tossed at all in the UCA series. His last work was against Mississippi Valley State, 3.1 innings in a rushed relief appearance when starter RHP Brandon Woodruff wasn't focused enough to suit the coaches.
Pollorena did give up a hit, run, and walk to the Devils but struck out six to get his third win. Now he faces a team that has bad memories of this Bulldog. Pollorena of course was MSU's surprise starting hero of the 2011 Atlanta Regional with 6.0 shutout innings against a big-hitting Eagles team in a small park. He got the decision in that 3-0 win. Earlier in the regular season Pollorena went 5.2 relief innings against USM in Pearl, also without runs done and six strikeouts in a 5-4 comeback win.
For that matter ‘Pollo' has thrived in spacious Trustmark Park. In two outings there, against USM and then last year Ole Miss in relief, he has worked 11.1 innings in the AA-park with four hits, a run, no walks and 11 strikeouts. Yes, Cohen said, every year is a new story and by now opponents should have a deeper scouting report on the southpaw. "But you'd like to think he could get us deep into a ball game." This matters because eleven relievers worked this past weekend.
RHP Myles Gentry went the longest, 5.1 innings in separate stints including a hurried take-over for Lindgren to win Friday. He won't throw Tuesday; everyone else is available for at least a limited appearance even if they threw Sunday. That isn't an issue though Cohen cautioned.
"Even if they get just one day's rest is really going to help our bullpen," he said.
What the coaching staff is more concerned with at the moment is the offense. Average aside, the at-bats were a letdown after how the Dogs hit it in their first three weekends. In an obvious way, Central Arkansas played the plate the way the home team expects to. That's something the hitters are watching on tape today of course.
"That's our identity and who we are, and we forgot about what our offensive identity is the last two days," Cohen said. "That part needs to get better quickly because if it doesn't we're not going to be the team we need to be."
State certainly needs the real SS Adam Frazier and CF C.T. Bradford to return. Both had sudden, startling weekend slumps batting a combined 2-of-23 with two runs and no RBI between them. 1B Alex Detz had his first letdown as a Dog too, 2-of-11 with no runs-batted-in when there was somebody on base to drive in. It was an utterly uncharacteristic series for the top of the order.
Fortunately some middle-men picked it up. Renfroe was 6-of-12 with the weekend's only homer (though Detz was robbed on a Friday night loft) and scored three times. LF Demarcus Henderson was 4-of-10 himself. Because UCA was a right-handed starting set 3B Daryl Norris played just one game but was 2-of-3 in it. Alternate C Nick Ammirati and backup 3B Sam Frost had some fine swings as well.
In fact, as poorly as the Dogs performed in some obvious areas, the fact remains that deserving or not they still should have won the series and could have swept. And while pointing to the bad—or outright ugly—plays can make the point sharper in review, the closeness of their calls should keep the outlook positive long-term. Maybe the best lesson was that after 17 wins nothing is taken for granted by teams that keep winning. A learning experience, as Cohen called it.
Or at least, for some younger and less-seasoned Dogs. The elders like senior Graveman have seen it all before. "If you remember we got swept by Southeast (Louisiana) my freshman year and it took a turn for the worse after that. I won't let that happen with this team and I don't think a lot of guys will. So we'll get it right."
"It's just something to look forward to," said Slauter. "Get back on the field and practice and get prepared for Southern Miss on Tuesday."