Bulldogs Pile Up the Hits, Young Bullpen Can't Finish the Deal

It didn’t take long for the first post-game locker room meeting to be called. Just until the first post-game.

Whatever was said won’t change the 10-6 outcome against Florida Atlantic. It should help Mississippi State evaluate a lost opening day in the context of a longer season. That’s what Coach John Cohen intended.

“Some exciting stuff happened. But we need to play a better brand of baseball to win against good competition.”

Mississippi State (0-1) did show some exciting stuff on the first day of 2016’s season. A quality start on the mound, 17 (official) base hits at the plate, with six doubles and even a solo home run from a touted freshman. Nine first-year collegians got on Dudy Noble Field, too.

It still came up short while the visiting Owls (2-0) did not. On the strength of one huge inning Florida Atlantic picked up their second win of opening day, and at expense of the home team. Earlier FAU had beaten South Dakota State 11-5.

“It unraveled because we didn’t throw it in the strike zone,” Cohen said.

It unraveled in the fatal seventh inning. After Mississippi State made-up for a slow start to tie things 2-2 after five innings, Florida Atlantic put together a killer frame. Against four Bulldog pitchers, three of them true freshmen and one reliever who didn’t throw at all last season, the Owls rattled out six hits in a dozen at-bats with a couple more walks. By the time rookie RHP Noah Hughes finally ended the top of that seventh Florida Atlantic led 10-2, more than enough margin.

This, even with the Bulldogs piling up more and better base hits. “You can’t hit balls harder than we did tonight. That wasn’t our issue,” Cohen said. “Our issue was giving up free bases and not taking advantage of free bases.”

The loss spoiled RHP Dakota Hudson’s own day. Making his first start since the 2014 season, the junior overcame initial issues and a couple of quick runs to work five full innings. He was even off the hook after the Bulldogs evened the score in the bottom of the fifth.

“I felt it was pretty good, I guess,” Hudson said. “Just a good team that came with a good approach.”

Florida Atlantic did approach Hudson successfully to start. Their best approach was a one-out bullet by Billy Endris that lined right off State’s starter for an infield single. A clean base hit had Owls on corners, when Hudson—who uses an odd arm-extended crouching stance this year—was called for a balk and the first FAU run.

“It was a ‘fidget’ going up. I thought since I was down in my thing I could move my arm. But I was told I moved my shoulders, too, which was what the balk was.”

A two-out single by Esteban Puerta got through for a 2-0 score before Hudson rolled a grounder to end that inning. He retired the second-inning side and stranded a pair in the third thanks to 2B Ryan Gridley’s running get in the hole off Puerto. That double-play kept it a two-run deficit.

Hudson allowed isolated singles in the fourth and fifth to finish with a five-hit, two-run line, three walks and eight strikeouts.

“I feel I was able to kind of catch their adjustment and make my own based off what I was seeing with their swings. They were really comfortable the first inning, I was able to keep them off-balance after that.”

It took the third inning before State’s swingers got much done off FAU lefty Brandon Rhodes. He stranded Dogs in the first and second turns, then with one out in the bottom of the third CF Jacob Robson bunted for a base hit. DH Jack Kruger lined a RBI double in right-centerfield for a 2-1 deficit.

In the fifth Robson led off with a clean single and Kruger hit safely as well. 1B Nate Lowe tied it up with his base hit to leftfield. State had the go-ahead runs on bases with one out, only to have Rhodes strand them with a couple of air balls.

Freshman LHP Kale Breaux was handed the tied game and kept it into the seventh with a couple of strikeouts. But a leadoff walk and bunt at the bottom of FAU’s order in the seventh led to fatal trouble. Breaux issued a four-pitch walk for two on; then Endris dropped a single down the leftfield line.

Austin Langham scored from second on the hit and trailing runner Stephen Kerr was able to take third on a bad throw by LF Jake Mangum towards home. That mattered because Chatham was able to chip a single over the right side for the RBI and 4-2 lead. This was off reliever RHP Jacob Billingsley, his only batter-faced.

LHP Ethan Small inherited runners in scoring spots with still one out. But he saw the hapless Christian Dicks, who notched his fourth strikeout of the evening. Unfortunately Puerta got to swing, and he lined a hit past the pitcher for two more RBI and a 6-2 lead.

Rookie RHP Noah Hughes was called in as the fourth pitcher of the inning and tagged for a gap-double to right scoring Puerta. Langham made it 10-2 with his single.

“We walked two and did not do a very good job of corralling what they were trying to do,” Cohen said.

FAU righthander Alex House was handed that big lead for the bottom of the seventh. He did lose a little of it off doubles by both RF Brent Rooker and 3B Reid Humphreys that inning. The eighth went worse. Freshman SS Luke Alexander took him over rightfield for a solo home run with one down; and after two outs Robson scratched out another infield hit.

Kruger doubled in Robson, and Rooker joined him on bases via plunking. FAU hustled lefty Devon Carr to the hill, to get a sinking line-out by Lowe in leftfield.

The Bulldogs did keep it interesting in the ninth as Humphreys rapped his second double in leadoff, against righthander Cameron Ragsdale. A two-out walk of Alexander let freshman 3B Hunter Stovall take his first college swing and it was a good one, a RBI-single. Ragsdale didn’t let the evening go longer though with an out of Robson, not the usual for the centerfielder as he was 3-of-5 otherwise and scored three times.

The whole top-half of State’s order was productive at the plate for that matter. Kruger, the juco transfer, was 3-of-5 with a couple of RBI-doubles. Rooker was 2-of-4 in the third slot, and Humphreys 3-of-5 batting fifth with a run and RBI. Down the order Gridley was credited with three hits, though one should have been ruled a fielder’s choice reach.

Breaux took the loss on 1.1 innings with three runs on a hit and two walks, with two strikeouts. Small and Hughes were each charged with a pair of runs in their own debuts. “Some of our freshmen had good sequences early and couldn’t finish the deal,” Cohen said.

Rhodes (1-0) earned the win on 6.0 ininngs despite ten hits as while he only struck out one Dog he walked none.

Even allowing for the young pitcher’s problems, a 17-hit output should have sufficed on opening day. But as the coach reminded, “It’s got to be timely, and you’ve got to have not standing where the ball lands. That’s why you play a lot of baseball games. We have to come out tomorrow and do a better job piecing some runs together.”

Tomorrow comes early for the Bulldogs. They are on the field at noon against South Dakota State (0-1). Cohen and Coach Wes Johnson were deciding Friday evening who would start that game, and who would wait for the 3:30 rematch with Florida Atlantic between junior LHP Daniel Brown or junior RHP Austin Sexton.

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