"They beat us fair and square," said LF Jake Vickerson. "And we didn't make the plays we needed to, we didn't get the big hits we needed to."
Holy Cross (2-2) did get the hits, ten of them; did make the pitches, mostly by Murray in his 7.0 complete innings; and definitely made plays. What few opportunities the Bulldog offense saw were almost entirely snuffed out with batted balls going right to gloves. State mustered just six hits and if not for a two-out single from Vickerson in the fifth to score SS Kyle Hann the Dogs were in danger of shutout on the home field.
Offensive frustrations have been routine already this season, but Sunday was a troublesome difference. Instead of stranding runners in bunches, State struggled just to put people on at all. Murray, the most veteran member of Holy Cross' staff, had been saved for game-four all along to presumably salvage something. He operated like an ace, not overpowering but precise against Bulldog bats.
"He came out today and mixed pitches pretty well," Vickerson said. "He worked a pretty good changeup and just kept us off balance for the most part. So I've got to tip my hat to him." Murray's outing was over twice-as-long as any other by a Crusader staffer in the series, with six hits mostly scattered along with two walks and four strikeouts.
"He did a good job of keeping it down, he wasn't leaving it up like some of their guys this weekend," said Vickerson.
Mississippi State sent freshman RHP Dakota Hudson out for a second Sunday start and this one wasn't nearly so smooth as the first. Or as long. Hudson lasted 3.0 innings and did allow only one of the runs, on five hits with a walk and a strikeout. But the rookie righty labored to locate on the outer-half against the eight righthanded batters and was done after 45 pitches.
His second offering was hit, for an infield single, by Nick Lovullo. A wild pitch advanced the runner into position to score on a line-drive single to centerfield by Andrew Berry. Hudson settled down after a two-out hit to leave two Crusaders on bases. In the third he had stuffed sacks with just one down, after Hann had saved a run by knocking down an infield single.
Though the bullpen was busy already Hudson was left to face the challenge and did his job, with a grounder Hann was able to start the double-play with and keep it 1-0 for the time being. A one-run deficit was better than some situations State's offense has faced in first innings already this year.
Unfortunately there was no catching up Sunday. Vickerson walked in the first and had a good jump towards second. Catcher Connor Perry's throw hooked into the runner for a close-call out, and a strikeout of RF Cody Brown stranded both 1B Wes Rea (walk) and 2B Brett Pirtle (single). Murray also dodged second-inning danger after a leadoff single by CF C.T. Bradford. He got as far as third base with one out as 3B Matthew Britton reached on an infield hit. C Gavin Collins bounced right to Lovullo for the step-and-throw double-play.
LHP Vance Tatum entered for what became the decisive fourth frame, and immediately put a pair on with a leadoff single and walk. Both runners were bunted over and #9 hitter Bobby Indeglia took Tatum's first pitch to left for the 2-0 lead. It was the last pitch as well, with RHP John Marc Shelly summoned for the top of the order with two on and one out.
He got a ground ball but the MSU infield was playing in, and Lovullo's one-hopper skipped upwards so much that the charging-in Pirtle had no fair chance to do more than deflect the ball. Both runners scored on the single and Lovullo took second on the throw home. So he was able to score on a two-out single for the 5-0 lead.
Shelly didn't get a check-swing strikeout call and ended up walking Perry. He also got a visit from the trainer to check his hand and was replaced by LHP Jacob Lindgren, who proved the day's only bright pitching spot for State. He put in 3.1 hitless, scoreless innings with a walk and six strikeouts.
What he couldn't do was create offense. Murray was tagged by Hann for a leadoff double in the fifth that Vickerson eventually converted into a RBI. All the Crusader starter did was sit the next seven Dogs, until a leadoff single by pinch-batter Derrick Armstrong in the eighth. Reliever Ryan Filipowicz left him at first base with three fast outs, two of them really impressive outfield catches. Vickerson's sinking liner was snared by Ideglia in left, and with two outs Rea drilled a drive to straight center. Brandon Cipolla ran hard, reached late, and held on to his catch on a face-flat landing.
For good measure Holy Cross tacked on some unnecessary insurance in their ninth. With runners on corners after a walk/wild pitch by RHP Myles Gentry, Jack St. Clair executed the safety squeeze to score Brandon Ocello.
Lovullo was 3-of-5 with two runs and two RBI at the top of the order and six other Crusaders at a hit. Six different Dogs had a hit, though DH Alex Detz saw his 30-game streak of reaching base ended on a 0-of-4 afternoon.
Cohen credited the Crusaders, a non-sports scholarship program, for not getting rattled by the arena, the ranked opponent, or two losses to open their season. But after defensive breakdowns set up Holy Cross' Saturday win, just plain poor pitching was the Sunday setback.
"I thought the key was we just had huge misses on the mound and they didn't. When you keep challenging the strike zone the way they did the defense is going to engage, they had I don't know 20 diving caches today. They did a good job of taking a ton of pitches that we didn't engage the strike zone."
Now a most-unexpected 4-4 after two weekends, and a midweek late loss to Memphis, the Bulldogs are simply baffled how things have started this way. There is no single aspect to focus on either. Everything is up for harsh evaluation now before State resumes action. And it is an active week ahead, with a Tuesday-Wednesday set against Mount St. Mary's of Maryland before hosting a four-game weekend event. There is no time for introspection, which is probably for the best. State has a Monday practice ahead and the approach will be more serious than ever for everyone.
Still, "I'm not going to say it's a problem," said Vickerson. "Because it's still early. I don't think it's time to freak-out at all, we're still mixing things in and out, we're trying to find what we need to do to get a win. And I'm very confident we're going to start getting it done."