"We played good this weekend, so it's a better setup than we had last weekend," said CF Derrick Armstrong. Winning four-straight against quality competition was certainly more encouraging than a split of the previous series.
The nine-run margin of MSU victory didn't reflect how competitive Eastern Illinois was in the rematch. The Panthers saved a couple of arms long as possible in the four-game weekend, paying the price in an 18-13 loss to Michigan State earlier Sunday. State held only a 2-0 lead through six innings and EIU had shown Saturday they could come back. That possibility was ruled-out when the Bulldogs exploded for seven scores in the seventh.
The outburst sealed a win for the team and for starting pitcher Dakota Hudson, his first as a collegian. Hudson had showed great stuff his first two weekend turns of four and three innings, but his fastballs were also hittable. The third time-around showed a different freshman.
"It was really good to get out there and things just felt good today," Hudson (1-1) said. He worked 5.2 innings with seven hits mostly scattered and a couple of walks, and five strikeouts. Cohen liked what he saw from the rookie righty.
"I thought we got a lot out of Dakota. He's really close to making a big jump, he threw a lot of fastballs to his glove side which is really a big key to him. I thought we defended the field well with double-plays, and we had some running plays in the outfield that we made."
Defense indeed kept Hudson hurling, because he had challenges immediately with a pair of Panthers in scoring positions and one out. Hudson got Montana Timmons to watch a strike three on the inside corner and coaxed a first-pitch popup behind the plate to strand everyone. In the second two were on again and the top of the order back up. A 0-2 fastball produced a pop-out for two more unscored runners. With a scoreless game still in the third RF Cody Brown ran down a sinking liner to leave a Panther at third base.
"It was a good thing Cody (Walker) was back there," Hudson said. "He settled me down, came out to the mound a couple of times to settle my nerves." The difference this third outing was how Hudson got his off-speed pitches, in the low 80s, through the zone. "I've had all three catchers and they've all worked on keeping my shoulder in line so I can keep it for a strike."
But to Panther credit starter Troy Barton frustrated State's batters, with isolated walks in the first and second innings. He plunked Walker in the third, and LF Jake Vickerson got the first Bulldog base hit. EIU walked 1B West Rea on four pitches to set up a double play. Which they got, as on the first pitch 2B Brett Pirtle bounced to his counterpart to start the twin-killing. There would be another opportunity for the second sacker later.
That was also Barton's last pitch, as he was lifted after three scoreless innings with just a hit, three walks and a hit batsman against him. Righthander Chase Thurston took over and after one out fed Armstrong a fastball that he was looking for. It landed left-of-center for a double. Armstrong took third on a deep fly ball by Brown, and with 2-2 count SS Seth Heck lined a hit over shortstop for the RBI and 1-0 lead.
Eastern Illinois had a runner on in their fifth with a one-out single by order-topper Frankie Perrone, and he was running on a 3-2 count. Fortunately Mitch Gasbarro's one-hopper was to Heck for a short flip in time to second and relay for the double-play.
Hudson returned for the sixth for a final challenge, as Caleb Howell fought off an inside pitch for a single. He was outed at second as Pirtle took a risk going to that bag on a grounder and was just in time. His choice saved a run too as Jason Scholl bounced a base hit past first base, putting Panthers on corners. Hudson struck out Tyler Schweigert on a dirtball which did advance the second runner. With a lefthander coming up LHP Ross Mitchell got the call, a correct one as his second pitch came right back to the glove for an easy inning-ending out of the only batter he'd face.
State got some valuable margin in the sixth after two outs. Brown's fly ball fell in the left-center gap for a double and he made third base on an infield single by Heck. Panther catcher John Devito thought he had Heck leading off too far and threw for first…with his teammate either unexpecting or unready. The throw got past Casson for Brown to make it 2-0.
Bracewell inherited that lead and had to work to keep it intact. A one-out single and wild pitch had Dane Sauer on second base, and Perrone's scratch single meant the tying Panthers were on corners. On 1-2 count Gasbarro struck it well, right to Pirtle for the nick-of-time double-play.
He returned with a larger lead. Much larger. In State's seventh Vickerson knocked a second single on the day and made second on a wild pitch. With one out Rea again was semi-intentionally walked in hopes of a fourth Pirtle ground ball. The second-sacker's pulled contact did touch down but found the open space on the right side, scoring Vickerson from second. The onslaught had just begun.
Pinch-batter Jacob Robson bounced one to the Panther shortstop that was dropped for a bases-loading error. EIU called in lefthander Billy Kennedy for the one-out jam, and he went full-count before Armstrong oppo'd a ground ball into right field for a two-run single.
On full count pinch-batter Demarcus Henderson watched ball while Armstrong ran…then stopped between bases, drawing attention and finally a throw from confused Panthers. They chased a jogging Armstrong back towards first—"I didn't know what they were doing, so I sat there and Robbie took off" Armstrong said--while Robson stole home; then realized Armstrong was safe on second anyway via the walk. Armstrong did get thrown-out trying for third base but Henderson made second behind him, and was able to score on a Heck single to leftfield.
"We did not have a play on there, it kind of became a play," Cohen said. "But you can do those things when you have guys that can really run, and Robson and Armstrong are maybe two of the faster guys in college baseball."
Things didn't stop there as Walker's long fly fell just beyond the centerfielder's reach, scoring Heck all the way from first base. Vickerson got his second hit of the inning and this one for a RBI (Walker). Sub-swinger Dan Garner also batted safely to finish Kennedy at last, with righty Joe Greenfield having to leave the bases jammed on a line-drive snagged by his rightfielder.
With a 9-0 lead LHP Vance Tatum took care of the Panther eighth in-order with a strikeout; and Zac Houston threw the ninth, with a one-out single and three ground balls. Bracewell had worked 1.0 official with two hits and a strikeout, and the key twin-killing.
"Benny came in and got some work and obviously Ross got the one guy, instead of doing a bullpen," Cohen said. "It's great to see Houston pitch a little bit and Vance got out there and threw his breaking ball in the strike zone."
Thurston (0-1) took the loss with six runs on as many hits, just four earned. None of Kennedy's three runs allowed on five hits and a walk were earned. Neither team struck out too often, but seven walks did contribute to EIU's loss as the Bulldog bullpen gave no free passes.
Vickerson was 3-of-5 in leadoff with a run and RBI, while #8 batter Heck was 3-of-4 with two RBI and a run. Seven Dogs combined for the 12 total hits, while the Panthers had ten safeties with three two-hit performances. Rea extended his games-reached streak to all 14 games of '14 so far by walking three times with a plunking. State was 3-of-4 in steal tries and Armstrong certainly looked safe when ruled out at third base in the seventh inning.
With the season back on track, the Bulldogs must risk the fresh momentum in a big way. They host South Alabama, fresh off a series win at Arkansas, on Wednesday. Cohen expects to start RHP Preston Brown against a familiar foe which was on Dudy Noble Field just last June for NCAA play. Then for the first time State leaves home, travelling to Tucson for a set of games against both UC Santa Barbara and Arizona.