Arkansas-Pine Bluff was the unlikely opponent to spoil Mississippi State’s perfect season-start. The Golden Lions broke a 2-2 deadlock in the eighth inning with a bases-loaded walk, and made it stand up for a 3-2 victory. UAPB left Dudy Noble Field 4-6, having won the first-ever meeting of these programs.
Mississippi State finally had to take that first setback, and is now 13-1. Though the nature of baseball mostly moots the idea of an ‘upset’, it was a frustrated Coach John Cohen leaving the locker room at how this one got away.
“That’s how the game works,” he said, adding. “If you don’t compete early.”
It was failing to show up sharp for the early innings that ultimately cost the Dogs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff struck for two quick runs in their first chance, and never allowed the home team to do more than catch up.
“They out-everything’d us,” Cohen said. “Our kids for the most part were not prepared to play offensively. I thought defensively we did a great job for the most part. Offensively we were just checked-out, we just did not compete at all and that’s really disappointing.”
It was a marked change of offensive pace for State, which came in batting .320 in their first 13 wins. They finished with just six base hits against four Lion pitchers, not surprisingly the best arms UAPB had to offer visiting a SEC venue. To be fair the Bulldogs didn’t get a lot of good stuff to swing at early, either, with four walks and two plunkings in the first four innings.
That only frustrated the coach further though. Given free baserunners, State did next to nothing with them. By game’s end eleven had been stranded and seven of those in scoring positions.
“If we can’t score three we don’t deserve to win a ball game like that,” Cohen said bluntly.
UAPB’s first-inning scores came off State starter RHP Jesse McCord. The true freshman worked 5.2 innings a week ago in a MSU win over another SWAC visitor, Alcorn State, with two runs on three hits. He gave up that many scores before getting a second out in the first frame.
Rashawn Tillman greeted him with a single, and McCord hit Westin Hinkle. They were bunted over for Andre Davis who made a simple, tight swing for a single up the middle and 2-0 lead. McCord bounced a double-play to end that inning even as two relievers were warming up.
They were needed. Two outs into his second and last McCord plunked another batter and was immediately replaced by LHP Daniel Brown. He got a line-out to center by the #9 Lion batter, and proceeded to work a solid 4.0 total innings with one hit, one walk, and three strikeouts.
The problem as Cohen noted was lack of scoring. UAPB starter Ciji Ramos got MSU in first-inning order, then worked himself into second inning issues with three walks. None got beyond third base as Ramos got a called strikeout of 2B John Holland.
A third-inning walk and plunking came to naught either, as Humberto Medina entered with a 1-1 count and struck out first 3B Ryan Gridley and then CF Jacob Robson on full count.
Medina did allow the Dogs to catch up in their fourth though. He plunked 1B Wes Rea and with one out Medina fielded a comebacker from Lovelady but his throw for second was wide, leaving two on with one out. Holland made it three as he singled through the right side, the first Bulldog base hit of the day with Rea wisely holding up at third base for loaded sacks.
SS Seth Heck worked full-count before punching a RBI-single through the middle, scoring Rea and leaving the paths full. Righthander Kevin Walsh replaced Medina. LF Jake Vickerson grounded hard to second base and Heck was forced at the middle bag. Vickerson ran hard enough to prevent the double-play, scoring Lovelady for the tied tally. Walsh flew-out LF Reid Humphreys to keep it there.
And that was it for MSU scoring. First baseman Davis moved to the mound in the sixth and worked the remaining four innings. Impressively, too, hitting the zone and getting ahead.
State went to Zac Houston with Davis on second after his two-out double in the top of the sixth, just as rain came to force a 50-minute delay. Houston returned to end that one on a grounder and take care of the seventh. For the UAPB eighth, it was weekend long-relief regular LHP Ross Mitchell taking the ball, a sign how seriously things were being taken.
The strategy was sound. “Because we knew Ross would get ground balls,” Cohen said. Mitchell did just that. But the first, a swinging bunt, went down the third base line with no play. The second, with one out and the runner on second base now, was a chopper by Tillman that bounced just high enough that charging third baseman Gridley couldn’t field.
Ace closer RHP Trevor Fitts inherited the runners on corners with one out and only made it tougher by hitting Hinkle to fill ever post. Four balls to Davis pushed Josh Cassidy home for the 3-2 lead. Fitts did limit the damage with a tough double-play, a liner to 2B John Holland caught and flipped to the middle bag.
Davis made it stand with five fast outs. LF Reid Humphreys singled with two down in the ninth before Gridley made him the last Dog stranded with a grounder.
Davis (1-0) got the win with four scoreless relief innings, two hits and two strikeouts. Mitchell (3-1) took the loss, only his second in a relief situation, on 0.1 innings with the run on two hits. “Two balls that do’t leave the infield,” Cohen said.
The loss was State’s first to a SWAC opponent since 2010, in Pearl to Jackson State. That will take a toll on the season RPI of course. The larger issue to Cohen is more immediate, as SEC season looms with some items now to address.“Hopefully this is something we can use and get better,” Cohen said.