Bullpen Breakdown Means 8-4 Rubber Game Loss

John Cohen’s glare could have ignited the box score he was holding. That’s how hard the coach was taking an 8-4, rubber-game loss to Alabama which by most rights Mississippi State should have won. Most. Not all.

“If it’s a game of who has the most barrel contact today, Mississippi State did,” Cohen said. “If you look at who played the best defense today, Mississippi State did.” And the coach didn’t even mention where the host Bulldogs dominated most, in starting pitching. Because it was for naught.

“You look at that eighth inning…” Cohen said.

Yes. For the second time in the weekend Alabama used an eighth inning to take control, and open SEC season with a series victory. The Crimson Tide broke a 4-4 tie, which they’d forced in the previous frame, with four runs. It wasn’t nearly as dramatic as Friday when Alabama turned a 5-2 deficit into a 10-5 win in an eighth inning.

But it counted just the same, as the Tide left town 11-7 and 2-1 SEC. The Bulldogs fell to 16-6 and 1-2, and now have lost six of the last nine games. Four of them have seen the winning, or rather losing runs scored in the next-to-last inning.

For that matter, in the six losses Mississippi State has been out-scored 22 runs to two in the 7-8-9 frames. Sunday was just the latest example of a bullpen which has been the program’s trump card for years failing to hold and close.

“When you have the starters doing great and we’re not keeping their wins, that’s something we’ve got to work on,” LHP Ross Mitchell said.

The oughta-been win could have gone to State starter LHP Vance Tatum, as he soldiered through seven complete innings on 124 pitches and was a fielded grounder from handing a 4-3 lead to his bullpen. Alabama tied it up as a bleeder off the bat of Mikey White glanced off one Bulldog glove and skipped by another into leftfield. Running from second base with two outs Georgie Salem was not about to pause, he came on home.

So it was a tied tally going into the eighth and not a Mississippi State soul could be confident after prior letdowns. This one began with RHP Myles Gentry giving up a leadoff single and bunt. On another full count RHP Zac Houston skipped a pitch under C Josh Lovelady to put the go-ahead runner on third base and another on first for free.

Will Haynie, who’d scored the first Alabama run on a solo homer in the third, was walked to set up forces everywhere and Mitchell summoned. He got ahead of #9 batter Riley Colburn two quick strikes, then was wide-outside the next three. The full-count pitch missed low for a run-scoring walk.

Mississippi State had played the entire infield in close on that batter. They stayed in for the top of the order and Chandlar Avant took advantage. His simple bouncer up the middle had plenty room to get through for two RBI. With two outs White singled to left scoring Colburn, and while a rundown at third ended the inning it was a four-run Dog deficit.

Mitchell ran-out the game and even got a late break when Alabama tried a squeeze play to expand the lead. The runner from third was out and so was another trying to take third behind the play. The twin-killing wasn’t going to put runs on State’s line though.

After a leadoff plunking and single, Thomas Burrows replaced Ray Castillo to throw strikes and get three outs. It was Burrows’ third save of the season, and made a winner of Castillo (2-0) on 2.2 innings with a hut, walk, strikeout but no runs charged.

Tide starter Geoffrey Bramblett wasn’t as sharp as Tatum, but serviceable enough. He worked 5.1 with all four Bulldog runs on eight hits, three walks and two strikeouts. Bramblett didn’t win it, but just as importantly he did not lose the game. He twice left Bulldogs on third base un-scored, and Castillo did so once in immediate relief.

Mississippi State had enough chances to build a real lead in the earlier going. RF Cody Brown doubled in the first inning and was the initial Dog stranded on third base. The second turn went better after a walk of 3B Matt Spruill and CF Jacob Robson single. Bramblett slipped on a bad spot in the ragged infield covering 2B John Holland’s bunt leaving all bases full.

Brown scored on a wild pitch, and Lovelady drove in Robson with his grounder to shortstop. It took one swing by Haynie to chop the lead in-half, as he lined a leadoff shot over leftfield. Tatum did leave a pair on that third inning, then had his fourth begin with a deflected single and double dropped on the left line by J.C. Wilhite.

Tatum got a grounder to third, with runners holding; then a called strikeout of Haynie. He was also up two strikes when Colburn fought-off an inside pitch that somehow stayed fair as far as the first base bag for a two-run double.

This time the Bulldogs did have a response. DH Reid Humphreys used the third base line for his leadoff double, and was bunted over by Spruill. Robson showed bunt until filling the count, and walking for Dogs on corners. Alabama brought in the defense looking for something on the ground. Holland was swinging, and chipped one just outside the shortstop’s reach.

Humphreys held up to let the ball fall before going home. Fortunately for him there was no throw home; even better Robson forced a defensive mistake as he not only ran to second but turned for third. “I was just trying to make something happen,” Robson said. The ball got loose before catcher Haynie tried to shovel it to his third baseman. The ball stayed loose and Robson ran on home.

The key though was Bramblett did keep it a 4-3 scoreboard, despite a single from Lovelady. LF Jake Vickerson lined a shot that normally would have gone for a double, but because a runner was on first base Chance Vincent was in position for the snag and tag double-play.

A one-run deficit proved no big deal. Tatum was off the hook after 7.0 with four runs, a lone walk and seven strikeouts. The loss went to Gentry (0-1) with two runs on a hit and walk. Bulldog pitching only gave out five walks, but three were in the fatal eighth.

“You look at that eighth inning and three of those runs scored because they’re walks,” Cohen said. “We’re just not challenging the strike zone.”

Alabama did end up with more hits, 11 to 9, and four Tide batters had two safeties each while Colburn drove in three RBI and scored once. Robson and Holland each had two hits for State, batting consecutively.

While it is a long season just begun, this was a very rough start for a State squad already coping with concerns about lack of consistent offense and now an unreliable bullpen. A 13-0 start has now faded fast, and after a midweek game with Eastern Illinois the Bulldogs will be leaving home for the first time. They go to Kentucky next weekend, in a venue where runs are scored easily and often.

Also, objectively, with a following series at struggling Auburn, the first-third of the SEC schedule looks to be when State needed to stockpile some wins before facing the league’s elite. Now that they’ve squandered the first weekend, pressure only increases.

Mitchell was speaking specifically of relief pitching, but could equally have been talking of the entire team at this point. “We just have to be better. That’s pretty much it.”

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