The visiting Aggies withstood some of the best batting of this 2014 season from Mississippi State, using right-time contacts of their own to offset a Bulldog edge in total hits. A bases-full single by Cole Lankford in the top of the fourth inning broke a 3-3 tie, then Ryne Birk's hit in the eighth doubled their end of game margin to two runs. Both clutch contacts came with two outs and runners in position to score.
Mississippi State had as many or more and even better opportunities to do the same. The Dogs only did so once, instead leaving seven runners stranded in scoring positions and no less than four on third base. So seeing an edge of 13 total hits to 12 in their favor didn't make any Bulldog feel better.
"Today was a rough one," said SS Seth Heck.
Tough to take today, and tougher in the long-term season outlook. With losses in three of their last four series Mississippi State (28-17) ends a frustrating April at 11-10 SEC. Only the grace of a much-muddled conference keeps the Dogs in the middle of the pack with three series remaining. Texas A&M (27-18) left Dudy Noble Field 10-11 SEC after greatly aiding their chances for a SEC Tournament berth.
With so much at stake, State was supposed to hit the field ready to make up Friday's 6-3 loss that split the series. Instead, "We were just a step slow in everything we did," said frustrated Coach John Cohen.
The sluggish—actually Cohen called it "horrendous"--start meant a 3-0 deficit going to the bottom of the second inning. Even though the Bulldogs caught up that same frame, they never put many, many opportunities to full use and allowed the Aggies to keep wriggling off hooks. Even ones they had climbed onto.
As frustrating as the lack of two or even one more hit in the right time was to Cohen, worse were the strikeout numbers. Because they were entirely in his team's favor. "It doesn't happen very often that you punch somebody out 13 times and strike out four and lose a game. But that's exactly what happened today. Credit to them."
And a bewildering debit for Dogs who didn't miss many pitches and put the ball in play sufficiently well to win. Only they didn't. "We maybe came out a little bit slow," Heck said. "We had a little fight in those middle innings, came up with some big hits. But we just came out a little bit too slow and it's tough to come out of a hole like that."
The initial hole was dug by a pitching gamble. RHP Preston Brown had just settled into a rotation role in March when shoulder soreness sidelined him three series. Some good practice work during the week convinced State coaches he was ready to resume starting. Brown wasn't, opening with a single and walk.
A strikeout later Brown coaxed a grounder from Banks. The high bouncer right towards second would have been a tough double-play to turn, and as Heck tried to time his steps for a snag-and-step the ball skipped a little higher than expected to get over two gloves. Allemand scored on the official base hit.
The next grounder was more routine and rolled into a twin-killing but the Bulldogs were down 1-0 before batting. It became 3-0 when A&M opened with consecutive singles in the second. Brown stayed in for the expected and successful bunt before giving RHP Ben Bracewell the ball. He got an out to shortstop with nobody advancing, then on 2-2 count saw two very close ball calls to load the bases and let Patrick McLendon swing. His single up the box scored two.
"Preston, in retrospect maybe it wasn't his time to pitch," Cohen said. "And that's my fault because I'm the one who put him out there."
After his offense caught up Bracewell kept it tied for one turn thanks to a brilliant 3-6-1 double-play, then in the fourth with two outs absorbed consecutive singles and a bases-filling walk. With full count he put one in Lankford's zone for two more RBI that really set the remaining tone of play.
Even then it ought not have meant more than an even game at worse, because the Dogs had their chance. Great and plenty. A pair of singles in the first inning were negated on a ground ball by CF C.T. Bradford. The second inning did produce three runs but had potential for much more. With one out C Zack Randolph, 1B Wes Rea, and 3B Matt Britton all singled to load every base.
Order-topper RF Cody Brown didn't hit, missing the pitch entirely but that was good because it also got off the catcher's mitt scoring Randolph. DH Alex Detz did better with a two-out single to rightfield plating Rea and Britton for the tied tally. Pirtle bunted his way on as well and Heck walked to load every corner. It was the chance to grab control and while Bradford hit it well the drive tailed towards the leftfielder to strand the trio.
It meant A&M could and did regain the lead in their fourth as Lankford delivered his two-out, three-on hit for the 5-3 advantage. And a pitching change as RHP Brandon Woodruff ended the fourth on a strikeout. His own stint ended with two Aggies in scoring positions in the fifth with LHP Jacob Lindgren stranding them.
At the same time Aggie starter Grayson Long was retiring ten-straight including seven consecutive air balls for fast innings. He finally got into enough sixth inning trouble as again State got three-straight hits; from LF Jake Vickerson and Randolph to reach and Rea's single to right for the RBI. With a 1-2 count on Vickerson A&M brought in lefty A.J. Minter to finish that strikeout, then fan pinch-hitter Derrick Armstrong on inside heat, before walking the bases full with Detz. Pirtle swung on the 1-0 pitch and looped it to the shortstop to again leave the bases full of unscored Bulldogs. Again.
Corey Ray got the ball in the MSU seventh with the tying Bulldog (Heck) on third base and one out. With Gavin Collins pinch-batting, righty Ray was summoned for a pop-out behind shortstop instead of a fly ball that would have evened it all up again. Randolph's grounder left a fourth Bulldog on the day unscored from third base.
By contrast the Aggies got their leadoff batter on as well, an Allemand single; stole second; and then scored him on a two-out base hit by Banks for the final margin. That was off RHP Jonathan Holder who'd taken the hill for the eighth with the top of the order up.
Long (6-1) got the decision on 5.0-plus innings despite four runs and ten hits, a walk and two strikeouts. Ty Schlottmann (2) threw the ninth for A&M with only a two-out single from Bradford against him. Bracewell (3-4) took the loss on 2.1 innings with two runs on five hits, two walks and a strikeout. Lindgren fanned seven of the eleven he faced without any hits.
Rea was 3-of-4 with a run and RBI, while Allemand was also 3-of-4 and scored three times.
Cohen praised the work of Lindgren and Holder coming out of the bullpen a second-straight day. Not much else satisfied, not even 13 base hits. "We did not get our barrels in position, we were a step slow in the infield, we were really a step slow almost everywhere on the field, baserunning, everything."
With these teams first to end their weekends State players will track Sunday scores elsewhere. But having given away the margin earned by last week's sweep at Missouri the Bulldogs can't be too concerned with what anyone else is doing. NCAA hosting opportunity is effectively out of any realistic picture now, and it will take some work just to scramble into the top four SEC seeds again and avoid a single elimination opener at the conference tournament. Then again as tight as the league is right now even making it to Hoover is not a sure thing.
So, "We've got three big weekends left and I'm hoping our kids are a little bit better in those three weekends," Cohen said.