Mississippi State watched a 7-1 lead melt away, in spectacular fashion, as visiting Eastern Kentucky rallied to take an extra-inning victory 16-12. The Colonels (8-8) beat up on the Bulldog bullpen for eleven runs in a three-inning span to force extra frames, then scored four more times in the tenth.
The worst part was a helpless feeling as Bulldogs saw the collapse in progress. “It drives me nuts because there’s nothing I can do about it and there’s only so much you can say to guys,” said 1B Nate Lowe.
There probably was not a lot Coach John Cohen and staff could say that players did not know for themselves. Mississippi State hit and scored more than enough to win most any contests, certainly a midweek game. The defense did its part with solid fielding and throwing, just one error charged.
Even the starting stint by LHP Konnor Pilkington served its purpose, with 4.0 innings of three hits and only one run. The rookie was comfortably in line for a winning decision despite three walks as he struck out five and handed over a 5-1 lead.
The margin would grow to six runs after five complete and Bulldog batters evenly countered the first two Colonel comebacks for a 12-6 lead going into the eighth. All the offense didn’t hold up.
“Almost everybody in our lineup had two, three, maybe even four good at-bats,” Cohen said. “Our pitching staff just didn’t do the job tonight.”
That was an understatement. The four relievers used for six total innings got shelled for 14 of EKU’s 17 hits and 15 runs. All but one of those was earned, too. The Colonels had swung away during batting practice, and they did the same to State’s relief staff.
The first four of five pitchers were all southpaws, by design. “This is a team that hit 70 points worse against lefthanded pitching,” Cohen noted. “To their credit they did a good job.”
A great job even. The first seven batters in the EKU order all had multiple base hits, led by third baseman Manny Alvarez’ 3-of-6 evening with two RBI and three runs. He had the one of the big blasts with a two-run homer in the seventh inning that briefly got EKU within 9-6 before the Bulldogs answered with three in the bottom of the frame.
The eighth inning was the real turning point though. With State’s lead at 12-7 leftfielder Kyle Nowlin sailed a two-out shot over rightfield for three RBI. This was off veteran LHP Vance Tatum, too, who stayed in to allow a couple of hard-hit singles. Centerfielder Shea Sullivan cashed them in with a drive into the right-gap for a double, two RBI, and the tied game.
Tatum ended up with 0.2 innings of work facing six Colonels for four hits and three runs charged to his account on top of those who’d been put on bases by LHP Ethan Small in his 1.0 innings. Small took five runs on three hits with a couple of walks and strikeouts facing just eight batters.
Neither team threatened in their ninth. But the top of the EKU order was up for the tenth against RHP Blake Smith, who was supposed to be held for weekend work if possible. Instead State had to put him on the hill and he did his job for one inning.
The tenth was another matter. Consecutive singles were followed by two air-outs giving State a chance to escape. Sullivan spoiled it with a single looped over shortstop for one run, and Cole Warrenfeltz got a good—or to substitute 2B John Holland bad—hop that skipped into the outfield for a 14-12 lead. Smith wild-pitched in Sullivan and Warrenfeltz scored on a single.
All State could do in their tenth was get 2B/SS Ryan Gridley on with a plunking. He was stranded at second.
The ending all but erased how strongly State had begun. And, how big a night Lowe enjoyed. A snake-bit batter for three weeks, Lowe broke loose against EKU pitching. He went 3-of-4 beginning with a two-run homer in the first inning, a sacrifice fly in the third, a two-run double in the sixth and two-run single in the seventh.
His seven RBI were the most for a Bulldogs since 2010 when Ryan Duffy had nine against Jackson State. And that total didn’t even include a run that scored in the MSU fifth as Lowe grounded into a bases-loaded double-play.
“I was seeing the ball well,” Lowe said. “We made a couple of structural adjustments yesterday in BP and I’m glad I put it to work today.”
Lowe wasn’t the only Dog with a longball. Right after his two-run shot, 3B Gavin Collins hit a solo job for consecutive homers off EKU starter Chris Cervantes. He looked to be the loser half-way through and for that matter his relief was not shutting State down either. Three bullpen Colonels gave up the next eight runs on ten hits.
But Brandon Smither stopped State at three runs in the seventh by stranding three, which would have made a late-game difference. Eastern Kentucky then gave the ball to their best arm statistically, and Caleb Johnson (2-1) went 3.0 scoreless innings with just a hit and two walks against four strikeouts to get the decision.
Smith (2-1) took the loss for State with the four runs on five hits, no walks and a strikeout. But his stint was no worse than his predecessors. Cohen also acknowledged that making defensive and pinch run moves beginning in the seventh left a short defensive roster for the final frames. “Was that a mistake? If so it’s my fault,” he said.
“We’re trying to involve our entire roster and find a way to win these type ball games. Tonight it didn’t happen for us and credit to Eastern Kentucky. That’s a team that really wanted to win this ball game and apparently they wanted to win it more than us.”
The Bulldogs can’t gnaw on this loss too long. Though with spring break going on there is likely to be some team work done ahead of a Wednesday game. State hosts Oral Roberts at 6:30. They bring an order just about entirely right-handed so Cohen expects to use a lot of different arms.
Scheduling two midweek games ahead of the opening SEC series seemed strange, but it might be just what the Dogs now need. Besides, “That’s why you like baseball,” said Lowe. “You get to play every day."