So call it just a good weekend for the Diamond Dogs, after they began the weekend with 13-6 and 10-3 triumphs only to let the last one slip from their gloves. A couple of run-scoring singles in the top of the sixth inning provided South Carolina's final margin of victory, with the tying run in the bottom of the seventh left on third base when Gamecock reliever Grimes Medlin drew a finishing fly ball. South Carolina escaped with a 1-2 conference start and 11-4 record, while the Diamond Dogs are 12-5, 2-1 SEC.
It was better relief work, in fact, that made the difference in the second and shortened Sunday contest. In a literal battle of bullpens the Gamecocks got a bit more from their four hurlers than State could from five moundsmen. Even in a shorter game—dictated by SEC rules as the interrupted Saturday game-two had to have it's last seven innings played out Sunday—both skippers kept calling on relievers to ultimately strand 27 combined baserunners. Not coincidentally, Mississippi State left one more man on a bag and also had the winner on first base at the final swing of a stick.
"They threw a lot of people at us," Bulldog 2B Jet Butler said. "We competed but we just didn't get it done." This despite taking and re-taking leads three times, though much of this was due to Gamecock generosity and a strange non-strike zone they struggled with as much as MSU did. No less than 11 Dogs drew walks, though they also struck out ten times.
Lefty Alex Farotto (2-0) was the winning pitcher, second of the day and easily SC's best. Entering with no outs in the MSU fourth he got things under a semblance of control and lasted 3.1 innings with a run charged on three hits, striking out six and walking four. He stemmed the middle-inning bleeding for starter Adam Westmoreland who'd gone three-plus with three runs on two hits and seven walks.
Cohen had hoped to start Chad Crosswhite for the third game in a weather-rearranged weekend that didn't start until 3:00 Saturday. But the senior had to work the last three innings of game-two to assure the victory that did clinch the series. Even with the win Cohen regretted, again, the fog and rain that halted game-two when starter Nick Routt was dominating. "He was on cruise control last night," Cohen said. But the interruption inevitably took a toll and State had to burn both Greg Houston and Crosswhite for any third-game use.
Instead freshman righty Devin Jones got the starting nod and a Gamecock offense that had been hampered for two games was making much better contact off the SEC rookie. He got around a first-inning single but two outs into the second third baseman Andrew Crisp crunched a drive over leftfield for South Carolina's first lead all weekend. A couple of singles meant Jones had to ground out the top of the order to end the inning.
But a one-out double off the centerfield wall ended his day early with Drew Hollinghead stranding the runner at second.
Westmoreland had his own initial issues as well, needing a double-play to get out of a bases-loaded jam in the first inning. State gave the hurler unintended help in the second as with one out and one on via walk, the bottom of MSU's order got out-of-order. Thus a single by LF Brent Brownlee was taken off the board and the out assessed. So even when SS Ryan Powers, the listed #8 hitter, walked it was still two down and a fly ball left both stranded. That certainly didn't help Cohen's opinion of his team's focus.
Walks still came back to bite Westmoreland in MSU's third though. He put Butler on via free pass, then loaded the paths with two outs by walking 1B Connor Powers and RF Ryan Collins. State had to swing the stick to get the first run as C Scott DeLoach dribbled one between mound and base, drawing all three nearest Gamecock gloves and giving him barely enough time to leg out the infield single while Butler scored. With sacks still filled R.Powers, now batting in the proper order, worked a walk that forced in C.Powers for a MSU lead.
A brief one, though, as Hollinghead quickly had two in scoring positions with no outs. CF Grant Hogue nicely ran down a short fly ball but had to skid in the process so Crisp was able to come home for a 2-2 tie. Bobby Haney singled for Gamecocks on corners, and took second on a dirtball. When order-topper Whit Merrifield walked the bases were stuffed and Hollinghead's place on the hill taken by Jared Wesson. He rolled a nice grounder to the middle that shortstop Powers made a really nice play on to start a close double-play that kept the score even.
For only as long as it took State to seize on another gift, with Westmoreland plunking Hogue to open the fourth. A wild pitch advanced the best Dog runner, and it showed when Cohen had him take off for third early with pinch-hitter Cody Freeman swinging. Not just that, but hitting it right where Hogue was running and no Carolina fielder could cover. Hogue had no trouble coming home for the 3-2 lead.
That also opened the Gamecock bullpen with Farotto striking out three-straight.
Wesson couldn't last though as a couple of singles around a strikeout had two Gamecocks on in their fifth. With the count 1-2 Justin Bussey got the quick call only to throw three balls to Crisp and load all posts. A pinch runner was put on second for the prospective go-ahead score, too. Bussey got a deep fly-out to leftfield that tied the tally and advanced the other pair. Lefthander Michael Roth was pinch-batted against righty Bussey, but the Bulldog threw three straight strikes to strand the leading runs.
A leadoff walk in the South Carolina sixth hurt as a bunt and single later Haney was crossing the plate for a 4-4 tie. Jackie Bradley played some run-and-hit, too, and was able to reach third as Ebert lined a single past third base. Bussey loaded them all with a one-out walk, and as S.C. sent Justin Dalles up to pinch-hit Swindle was handed the ball and the jam.
Two pitches later Dalles dropped a short single behind second bag and Carolina led again. State had the chance to catch up, again, in the bottom of the inning as Butler singled with one out and both Connor Powers and Collins drew walks. DeLoach made good contact on 1-2 but S.C.'s Merrifield kept his footing in an uncertain centerfield for the out.
Swindle made things tough on himself in the seventh with a single and two walks, needing to fan Ebert—the only out of the Gamecock's day—to keep State within one going into the last chance. With one out Brownlee worked for his walk and Hogue singled. South Carolina let Faratto throw one ball to Freeman and brought in lefty Curtis Johnson to finish him with a fly ball deep to the track that let Hogue take third. Johnson appeared to tweak his arm in the process and was replaced by Medlin, while Cohen made his own move and called on regular DH Luke Adkins to pinch-hit.
He went full-count against the soft-throwing southpaw with the last two balls looking awfully good to everyone but the man in blue. Three foul-offs later Adkins lifted on that centerfielder Merrifield ran in front of his left-side teammate to catch, somehow avoiding the collision. It gave Medlin his first save of the year.
Since South Carolina out-hit State 14 to 5 it was odd the game could be so close, though two double-plays helped as did errorless glovework. Ebert went 4-of-5, his first four-hit day at Carolina, but Enders was more productive by driving in two runs and scoring once on his two hits. All five State safeties were singles.
And still with three leads nobody was shrugging off this loss. "I guess it hurts a little bit," Butler said. "We're obviously hoping to have a huge opening weekend. It's good to come out and win the first two but we could have won that one. And we had a lot of chances, too."
"We were going to do a lot of different things with a lot of different people just to try and get through a weekend," Cohen said. "Doubleheaders are all about heart, effort, really paying attention to a lot of different things. And I thought the second (Sunday) game we didn't do as good a job of that." Which was again why the first-year State coach wasn't letting anyone celebrate his first SEC series success.
"Not to say two our of three is a bad weekend, but to have your foot on the opponent's neck and have the opportunity to really come after them, and let that slip away, really hurts. You don't want that to bleed into what you've got to do in the middle of the week also. That's what I'm going to tell our guys, I'm going to say if anybody says hey, that's OK, we had a good weekend, two out of three is good…that's not what we're after."
Now State has to shift that focus to a couple of midweek meetings with motivated opposition. Tuesday night the Bulldogs play Southern Mississippi at Trustmark Park in Pearl (6:30), then come home for a Wednesday game at the same time against Alabama-Birmingham which features a certain former MSU head coach on the assistant staff. And while the rest of the student body is on a spring break, the Diamond Dogs leave Thursday for the weekend series at Georgia, an unhappier group of Dogs after losing their series with Alabama; a major upset for a team some had ranked #1 this week.
Cohen said Ricky Bowen, used in midweek to defeat Valparaiso, will start one of these games though Cohen isn't sure yet which. "Then we'll get other guys out there, a matter of seven or eight guys getting work instead of bullpen. But the teams we're playing are very, very good teams and we'll have to play well to win those games."