Friday Bulldog Regional Notebook

Double-plays are definitely nothing new for these Diamond Dogs. The season record of 71 twin-killings set in 2012 has just been tied, too, as State rolled #s 70 and 71 on Friday night. Yet both of those double-ups were far, far from routine. Special might not even do justice to the absolutely clutch efforts involved.

In the top of the fourth, Central Arkansas had just taken a 2-1 lead after three Dog defensive errors, two of them by starting pitcher Kendall Graveman on the same series in fact. The go-ahead runner had reached base on a dropped grounder by SS Adam Frazier; he was able to first-to-home when Graveman first bobbled a bunt-flip from 1B Wes Rea at first base, and then tried to make up for that one with a throw to third base. A high one that scored the lead runner.

His competitive nature just took over, Graveman admitted. "I might should have held on to the ball, I don't know." At which Coach John Cohen interjected "There's no ‘might' to it!" Yet ironically the error which advanced another Bear to third base contributed to what followed.

Because Graveman snared a laser-liner from the top of Central Arkansas' order that brought back memories of Bobby Reed in the 1990 Starkville Regional title game. Reed also doubled-off a runner on that comebacker, as did Graveman; except in this case the runner had led off the opposite corner on contact. Graveman got him easily.

Asked if somehow those errors forced him to settle down, Graveman said there was something to that idea. Mostly, though, "I put things in the rear-view mirror. It's over." Which his 6.1 inning and winning stint proved.

But there was further drama ahead for he and Dog defense. With a 2-2 score in the top of the sixth, Central Arkansas was poised to answer again with two on via another infield error and this time a plunking. Graveman wasn't trying to hit the batter, who had squared to bunt and was over the plate enough the umpire could have called it a strike anyway.

Still with two on and no outs the Bears were certain to sacrifice again. So, Mississippi State gambled. "We put on an early break play," Cohen said. "We didn't have it on the first pitch, we wanted to read what the hitter was doing." Taking, as it was a first-pitch ball. The second though, Garrett Brown squared and pushed it to the right side just as scripture says.

Where big Rea was charging towards for the perfect pickup, and all 270 pounds' worth of momentum behind his bullet towards third base where Frazier had wheeled. Somehow the shortstop wasn't knocked-back by the catch; in fact Frazier was able to send a shot all the other way to first base ahead of Brown where, wait, who was covering?

"I got to thinking it was 3-6,S" said Rea, "And I wondered who caught the ball! The pitcher or second baseman?" It was second-sacker Brett Pirtle of course, who ironically had committed the initial error in the inning on a very routine roller. It was almost an afterthought that Graveman still had a go-ahead runner on second base and needed RF Hunter Renfroe to run down a line drive to strand him before the inning was over.

For that matter the Dog defense was almost dazed by what they'd just done then, and before. "I'd come back to the dugout after certain innings like, wow! this is a crazy game," said Rea. "Some stuff happened that you don't see a lot."

Not in games anyway. Practice is another matter, confirmed Graveman. "Man, we've worked on that play for the whole year. And every time we work on it we're like ‘it might come down to this'. Tonight it did."

Some State fans often are annoyed by the amount of bunting Bulldogs do in games. They should be grateful instead after Friday night's exploits. In fact, "We actually play a ‘bunt game' where we do nothing but bunt," Cohen said. "So our kids get pretty creative when we do that." Which in-turn makes the defense equally capable of instant ingenuity.

Still, calling early breaks and wheeling middle infielders is a very, very specific situation to Cohen. "When you have that much movement if the hitter pulls back and slash, hit-and-run, the whole middle of the field is available. You're really vulnerable when you run that play so as a coach you're just hoping the guy actually bunts the ball. And he did."

BIG TARGET: As dramatic as those double-plays were, neither were counted by the coach as the biggest defensive moment of the ball game. Cohen pointed to the very first inning when C.A. had loaded bases and two outs. Almost anything could have given the fourth-seeded the Bears both a lead and a huge jump-start, not to mention deflating the home team and crowd.

Bear Scott Zimmerlee didn't hit Graveman's 3-1 pitch very hard, so it went on a slow, big hop to Frazier who fielded and, feeling the pressure, really forced a throw that was high and wide. For anyone but Rea, that is, though even he had to use his entire 6-6 size to both reach up-and-back for the catch; and while falling down somehow keep a toe on the bag.

He did for the inning-ending out. Hours later, and even after watching such great twin-killings, Cohen was still awed. And this involved a first baseman who has saved many a run in his State seasons already. Still, how Rea covered the bunt later was worth discussing again too.

"Wes, I've never seen anybody his size who is as agile as he is and can make that play. That's a ridiculous play for a guy 5-9, 5-10; but he's 6-6, 270, and gets it in-and-out like a Gold Glove shortstop.'

With all his defensive gems Friday night, Rea's contributions with the bat were almost overlooked later. Yet the junior had knocked in runs in the first and fifth innings with his two base hits. And while fans—not to mention foes—always expect the big Dog to swing, well, big, Rea knows his strengths. Both his RBI-singles were sliced through the middle-infield.

And, were results of reading the pitcher well.

"I'm just trying to get my foot down early, and react and know where the pitch is. He was middle-away on the hit to right. Then he tried to come in and jam me on the second AB. I'm in a hitter mindset and trying to do that again, if I'm jammed again to get the barrel there. Because he's a first-pitch guy, throw it in the zone."

Save only for a hitless evening last week in Hoover against Texas A&M, Rea has been putting that foot down just fine. He's 8-of-27 in the last six games with four RBI and two runs. Maybe the average doesn't jump out, but in Rea's case the timing has been excellent. And the defense speaks for itself.

SECOND SLOT, FIRST RATE SWING: Now for a rising average, check what DH/3B Alex Detz is doing these days. He has a five-game hitting streak underway including a 3-of-3 NCAA debut with two runs and a RBI. It was his fifth multiple-hit game out of the last 15, and has raised Detz to .321 on the season.

Yet Detz doesn't have to hit to reach, as Cohen reminded. "Yeah, he's just an on-base machine. He knows how to get to first base. When he's not swinging it great, and everybody goes through that, he still gets walks, he gets HBPs."

His perfect Friday came despite what his coach called "a finger thing" that limited Detz' work this week. "So I was glad to see him take the swings he did. And when he's hitting balls to the middle of the field he's a very, very good hitter. I think he's just starting to scratch the surface of what he can do here."

PEDAL TO METAL: Maybe Mississippi State should scratch a little deeper on Detz' potential to run bases. Not noted for his footwork on the paths, Detz surprised many when he went first-to-home in the sixth inning on a double by Renfroe. True, it was full-count and Detz was moving on the delivery.

Still it raised a few eyebrows when Detz was waved-around third base and got home safely. But Cohen blew the cover afterwards.

"I always tease Detzy, he's always as fast as he needs to be at that moment. If he needs to be a 4.4 runner, which is average at our level, he can be an average runner. If there's hit on the line he can run a 4.15. So he runs better than folks think he does. I tell him he's got that California ‘cool' in him."

Cool or not, as long as Detz keeps up the hitting heat he can pick his on-base pace as wished. Because he produces. "He is a really smart baserunner, and scoring from first base is huge. Especially in a ballpark like ours where it really plays big and takes outfielders a while to get to balls."

STILL STREAKING: Speaking of hot Dogs, 2B Brett Pirtle is the acknowledged master of making base. He extended his streak to 34 games last night, a stretch that began on March 29 at Arkansas. Pirtle was 2-of-4 with a run Friday in his NCAA debut, which was his sixth time in the last seven games to notch multiple base hits.

But he doesn't have the longest active hitting streak; that is Frazier at 12 games now, a career-long for the junior in fact.

STAGE FRIGHT? So, the inevitable question went: did the Dogs suffer from some opening-night nerves in their first home-field Regional? The debate blew-up with Mississippi State's first fielding error and only amplified with ensuing lapses, a couple of them on such routine plays as to almost shock the guilty parties. Cohen in particular pointed to Pirtle's drop of a fielded grounder, and Graveman's own consecutive gaffes. Coming from a pitcher regarded as an extraordinary defender it really was shocking.

"That's a crazy inning," he said. Fortunately Central Arkansas didn't maximize their opportunities as the defense rose to other occasions. After, Rea said, everyone recovered their usual poise.

"Early on we might have been a little amped-up. But then again that's something we can settle in and play under late in the ball games, where other teams I don't think are going to be able to do that." Yes, State's consistent experience with late-game rallies and comebacks and such stood them in fine if unexpected stead Friday.

Besides, who could blame any Bulldog for over-amping the moment? The fans absolutely contributed, ecstatic over hosting a first-round Regional for the first time since 2003. An official gate of 11,102 turned out, the second-largest announced figure of the NCAA Tournament Friday though most suspect some extra figuring was done at a rival's venue after the announced fact. State did sell over 6,400 full-tournament tickets by Friday.

And it felt as if every one of them, and a friend or two, were circulating around the ballpark leading up to the evening gametime. The Regional fever was certainly catching per Cohen. "I think our kids were a little more amped-up than even I realized. But we got through it."

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