Bears 6-3 Win Concludes Classic Series Sweep

It required a day longer than scheduled but the 2008 Cadence Bank Classic was completed after all. And the weather-delayed series turned into a complete success for visiting Baylor, as the 11th-ranked Bears finished off a three-game sweep of host Mississippi State with a 6-3 Monday victory.

Baylor left Starkville 11-1, while the host Bulldogs fell to 5-7 after losing a pair of Sunday games by 5-4 and 16-11 scores. "Baylor is a better ball team than us right now," MSU Coach Ron Polk said. "And we had a chance to maybe win two of the three here if we get a couple more hits."

Or just bunch a few of the base hits they did get. Especially Monday when State collected a dozen safeties to Baylor's eight. Ten of these came off Bear starter Willie Kempf, and even in the ninth the Bulldogs went down swinging with two on bases and leading hitter Jason Nappi at the plate. Baylor's Nick Cassavechia was able to get the Dog DH on a hard fastball to earn his fifth save and preserve a win for starter Kempf.

For most of his stint it didn't seem Kempf (2-0) would need saving. He hung six-straight zeros on the scoreboard and only lost his shutout on a seventh-inning groundout. Kempf lasted an out into the eighth and left the mound with four strikeouts and three walks. He would ultimately take responsibility for all three Bulldog runs.

Bulldog righthander Ricky Bowen (1-2) was able to put in six challenging innings, charged with the first five Bear runs on six hits. He walked three and struck out seven, and wasn't battered all that badly. "I had most of my stuff most of the game, it was just some key situations where I should have got it done and things didn't go my way or I didn't get it done."

Bowen got the first-inning side with no problems; the second inning was another matter with a leadoff walk, infield single, and RBI knock through the right side by Dustin Dickerson. It might have stayed 1-0 as Bowen fanned a pair, but ninth-batter Landis Ware lined a shot through second for another Bear run.

The 2-0 margin wasn't seriously threatened through three Bulldog turns at-bat either. Kempf left Hogue on first base in the first inning; got a double-play and strikeout to strand RF Andy Rice in the second; and fly balls to leave two more on in the third. He also picked off LF Ryan Collins in the MSU fourth after a one-out hit and caught Hogue in a one-way lead to end the fifth.

Meanwhile Bowen had battled through three scoreless turns, despite a walk and plunking to put a pair on in the Baylor fourth. "They're very disciplined, they make you throw a lot of pitches and I had a little fatigue going the last inning. But that's all a credit to them, they made me work." He was a strikeout into the sixth when Dickerson got his second single of the afternoon, and stole second base. A walk of Gregg Glime had the double-play set up, except Paul Miles spoiled it all. His drive into the left-centerfield gap not only drove in both runners but ended with the batter on third, where he could score on a Ware ground-out for a 5-0 margin.

"That was a key situation," Bowen said. "I didn't get a call that should have gone my way, should have gone my way maybe. But I should have battled through it and made a better pitch afterwards."

The Bulldogs finally got to Kempf, and on their own scoreboard, after the stretch. Collins walked his way on to open the inning, and a ground-rule double for pinch-batter C Cody Freeman had two in scoring position with an out. Only Collins came home, on 2B Jet Butler's ground ball. Freeman almost did, but Kempf got to the nubber and nipped Hogue at first by a step.

State's Jesse Carver faced just three in his inning, though it took starting C Ryan Duffy throwing out Shaver Hansen to do so. Reliever Forrest Moore had a much more statistically-interesting eighth inning; three strikeouts, around a hit and two walks that meant fanning Ben Booker left the sacks filled.

Kempf hadn't slowed down through seven segments, but SS Russ Sneed greeted him with a single to center leading off the eighth. DH Jason Nappi pounded a double into rightfield corner for a pair in scoring positions with no outs, producing a mound talk and busy bullpen. 1B Tyler Moore, who'd hit home runs in each of Sunday's games, made nice contact but lined it right to the leftfielder for a sacrifice-fly and 5-2 score.

At that Baylor called in Mace Thurman to take on the second-half of State's order. It didn't work out so well as the lefty was touched for a single by pinch-hitter Nick Hardy to move Nappi up, scoring on a grounder by Collins. Cassavechia was immediately summoned and while 3B Connor Powers got good contact the grounder went right to shortstop, leaving the Dogs down by two.

And the Bears blunted State's comeback with a ninth-inning insurance run, as Hornung delivered a two-out drive to the leftfield wall that plated Miller all the way from first…though he ran through the ‘hold' sign at third base to do it. The score came at the expense of Greg Houston, one of several Dogs relievers trying to fill the closing role of the injured Aaron Weatherford this week.

Hogue and Nappi both had two hits for State, and Hogue stole safely twice as well. For Bayor, Hornung and Dickerson had a pair of safeties apiece.

Though two games under break-even, the Bulldogs are more frustrated than worried. Even with top-batter 2B Brandon Turner sidelined the last week by a hamstring problem, they have out-hit opponents .309 to .293 in a dozen games, fielded at a much better clip, and have successfully stolen in 12 of 14 attempts. They even have more homers than the opposition with three for Nappi and two this weekend by Tyler Moore.

The problem is all-too-obvious: a team that expected to thrive on pitching prowess has been beaten on the mound regularly. The staff ERA is 6.88, and the strikeout-walk ratio an awful 115 to 63. And the free passes were prominent this weekend with 46 walks issued in three games; a school-record 17 in Sunday's second contest.

Polk noted that the better batting is also negated to a large extent by, naturally, double-play balls. The weekend featured far too many rally-killing rollers.

"We're snake-bitten on double-plays," Polk said. "We hit into seven, they (Baylor) don't hit into one. We space our hits out and they didn't. The whole key it seems is any time we walk somebody they score."

Those are trends that must stop if State is to make headway against a grueling opening-stretch of conference play. The Bulldogs begin SEC season this weekend by hosting 5th-ranked Ole Miss, then go on the road for a series at ranked South Carolina. Given their struggles against lesser competition before Baylor, things aren't bright in Bulldog country.

Except the players themselves don't see it that way. "I think the mood's OK," Bowen said. "We're definitely disappointed we didn't take two this weekend, or all of them. But we'll keep plugging away. That's part of baseball and we have to keep fighting back."

"Watch a game and we're not booting the ball around or looking terrible out there," said Sneed. "We've got a very competitive team and once the ball starts bouncing our way things will be going well for us. It takes time, the attitude in the clubhouse is still good."

Attitude and aptitude alike would be even better if some injured veterans were available. Polk said Turner might be back by the South Carolina trip; closer Aaron Weatherford (elbow nerve) might be available by this weekend. "We're without our two players the scouts love best, and that hurts," Polk said. Especially in the record so far. "I can't remember the last time we were under .500 this time of year. Somebody said it was 1982." It was indeed.

And this coming weekend is complicated further by having two midweek games against Mississippi Valley State (5-2), then trying to realign the pitching after playing a Sunday-Monday series. Polk said Lee Swindle will start Tuesday against MVSU and ‘staff' will throw Wednesday. As to the weekend, usual Friday starter Justin Pigott will be pushed back to at least Saturday after throwing six-plus innings yesterday afternoon. "We don't know who is going to go Friday," said Polk, though the betting is Chad Crosswhite—who lasted just over an inning yesterday—will get to start a series as he did the last half of last season. Bowen should be fine for next Sunday.

"I like our offense," Polk said. "We just need to get some guys to pump the strike zone and let us play defense. We're making plays, we just can't defend bases-on-balls."

Gene's Page Top Stories