The Bulldogs fell to 29-11 on the season, and lost their fourth-straight SEC series. They are now 8-9 in league play, fourth in the West, and of more concern seventh in the overall conference standings, only a half-game in front of 8-10 Auburn A crowd of 3,580 at Dudy Noble Field watched the Razorbacks celebrate their first series win over State since 1999.
They also saw why the MSU head coach puts no stock in the concept of day-to-day momentum in this game. "It's baseball," centerfielder Joseph Hunter agreed. "You have your good days and your bad days and right now we're kind of on a roller-coaster, going up-and-down."
Sunday was certainly a downer. The Bulldogs might have hoped to ride some of Saturday night's emotions into the rubber game, but Arkansas didn't let it happen. Instead the Razorbacks built up a six-run margin over the first six innings and withstood the one big outburst by the home team after the seventh-inning stretch.
The first two-thirds of the afternoon belonged to Arkansas pitcher Shaun Seibert. The righthander hung six consecutive zeros on the bottom row of the DNF scoreboard, scattering four futile Bulldog hits in that dominating span. And while State was finally able in the seventh to bat runners onto base that eventually spoiled his shutout, Siebert's decision was secure. He struck out only three but walked no one and improved to 3-0 after his longest outing of 2006.
"He was just keeping us off-balance," said first baseman Brad Jones, who had one of the safeties off Seibert. "He was elevating his fastball which got us to pop a lot of balls up, and spinning that breaking ball in. He did it to me on the outside corner. His stuff was working alright but it was beatable, we just didn't find a way to get it done today."
It took a couple of Razorback relievers to conclude the contest. The first, Charley Boyce, lasted just a third-of-an-inning as a walk and errored grounder cost him the other two runs allowed. But lefthander Devin Collis was able to stop the surge short and put in a hitless, scoreless 2.2 turns with one strikeout to earn his seventh save of the season.
State finished with six hits, all but one a singleton as third baseman Edward Easley had the lone extra-base knock of MSU's day. "Seibert pitched well," Polk said. "His numbers were good coming in. We hit a lot of balls right at them. We put the ball in play, we just couldn't get anything going." Or not until the seventh inning, after falling farther behind than one rally could make up.
"We should have started putting more pressure on in the first six innings instead of waiting to the late innings," Jones said. "That's been our problem."
So has been unsuccessful Sunday pitching the last couple of weekends. State starter John Lalor was able to work into the fourth inning but left after giving up six hits, two of them solo home runs. He ended up charged with four runs, walking four and striking out three. Lalor went to 2-3 on the year.
Chad Crosswhite took over during the fourth frame and put in three complete innings with two hits, one a longball, and two runs scored. Arkansas hit three homers on the day, all solo shots, out of their nine base hits. Each was a solid piece of contact, too. "They came out and had good at-bats, everything they hit carried," said Hunter. "You really couldn't do anything about it."
Lalor was able to work around some first-inning issues, specifically a leadoff single and pair of two-out walks, and stranded a pair on a fly ball. The second turn was another matter. A one-on, one-out single had a pair of Razorbacks on, and Lalor missed the mitt to advance both into scoring positions. A swinging strikeout of the number-nine batter had Lalor an out from escaping, but this also brought the top of UA's order up. On 0-1 Clint Arnold bounced a double between the bag and third baseman for a double and two RBI. It would be UA's only multi-run inning.
Lalor was able to leave the bases loaded that time after a visit from the pitching coach, but in the third and fourth frames he was tagged for home runs by Brian Walker and Stephen Robison. A follow-up single in that fourth brought in Crosswhite, who needed a great running, wall-banging catch by Hunter with one out to keep it down to a four-run deficit.
But in his first full frame Crosswhite opened with a walk of Walker, and with one out a hard one-hopper got through second baseman Jeffrey Rea's legs for runners on corners. Robison got another RBI, this time playing small-ball with a nifty sacrifice squeeze bunt. An inning later with one down Danny Hamblin sailed a drive that carried not too far left of centerfield for UA's third longball and a 6-0 score.
Meanwhile Seibert cruised with only occasional challenges. Rea led off MSU's first with a single, and was doubled-up. Hunter singled his way on in the second and was picked off, and Jones was stranded after a leadoff base hit in the third. And an inning-opening double by Easley in the fourth came to nought as Siebert retired three…then three more the next turn, and the next. It took consecutive singles to start off the seventh, by shortstop Thomas Berkery and DH Brian LaNinfa, to end Siebert's stint.
It also gave State their one big chance to make it a game. Boyce immediately loaded the bases by plunking Hunter with his first pitch, and after working the count full he missed outside to Jones to force in State's first run. Arkansas responded with the quickest hook of the weekend, calling on lefty Collis to halt the threat; and State played it by the book, pinch-hitting righty Joseph McCaskill for the matchup.
The results exemplified ‘that's baseball' as McCaskill pounded a one-hopper right to the shortstop…who threw it wide of the second baseman. Berkery and LaNinfa scored, Jones made third and McCaskill got back on the first-base bag after rolling an ankle. Suddenly it was a 6-3 game with a pair still on the corners, at least until on full count leftfielder Jeff Butts sailed a fly-ball to centerfield that Jones was able to come home on and cut the deficit to two runs.
Collis got a grounder from Rea and force at second to keep it at 6-4. "That could have been a huge inning for us, it turned out pretty good," said Jones. And it was all the Bulldogs got done offensively. Collis blew through the heart of MSU's order in the eighth, and needed only eight pitches to retire the ninth-inning side.
Rookie righthander Aaron Weatherford threw the seventh and eighth innings with a hit, walk, and two strikeouts, and starting rightfielder Moreland came in to throw the ninth with a strikeout. "Our bullpen did a pretty good job," Polk said. But the bullpen couldn't put runs on the scoreboard.
And State failed for a fourth-straight week to win a series. Now the Bulldogs are back on the road for a whole week, playing a pair at Southern Mississippi on Tuesday and Wednesday before traveling to South Carolina for the weekend series. The Gamecocks, who were not so long ago atop the SEC—just as MSU was on top of the West in March—are coming off a humbling sweeping by Kentucky. They are now tied with the Wildcats for second in the SEC, and first in the East.
Developments during both the midweek and weekend mean that Polk is now considering just how to pitch the coming five road games. Normal Tuesday starter Matt Lea, who left last Tuesday's game at Memphis early with a tightening shoulder, will likely not see midweek action at USM. Or at least he won't start, Polk said. Instead State coaches now want to give weekend starters LH Brooks Dunn and RH Josh Johnson some midweek innings. It's not a usual way of doing business at MSU, but Dunn had a short stint in Saturday's game-one loss and could benefit from some Tuesday work. "We'll make some decisions and probably have guys like Dunn throw 50-60 pitches Tuesday, which is normally his bullpen day; and Johnson 50-60 pitches Wednesday. Then we'll make a decision what we're going to do this weekend." Polk even said there is the chance of ‘reversing' some roles at South Carolina with some bullpen regulars starting. "Weatherford I think now for sure is going to move into some capacity for the weekend," the coach said. "Whether it's Sunday I have no idea, we'll wait and see what happens Tuesday-Wednesday. It's a tiny ball park and you have to pitch good there."
And, use the park to score runs to support whoever is hurling. The Diamond Dogs, who have hit better on the road than at home anyway, are optimistic and even looking forward to this midweek trip to Hattiesburg. "Coach Polk told us it was already sold-out so it's going to be a fun atmosphere," Jones said. "We'll go out and battle, we've been playing good in midweeks and see no reason this week should be any different. We'll go out with a lot of confidence and take it from there."