Bulldogs Lose Lead, Game, And Series

Coach John Cohen found one positive point in Sunday's 12-10 loss to Auburn…though it was after his sixth-inning ejection. "It's a good thing we have the best radio guy in the country," he said. "Because at the very least you get to listen to something of quality associated with Mississippi State baseball, on the radio. There was nothing of quality happening on the field for a while."

Or not following the fourth inning anyway. After spotting host Mississippi State a 8-2 lead, Auburn used a combination of their own mid-game power and Bulldog late-game wildness to come all the way back and beyond and take the SEC series rubber game. The Tigers improved to 20-10 and evened their league mark at 6-6, while State fell to 16-15 and 4-8 SEC. It was the third-straight series setback for the Dogs.

Given how the afternoon played out, it might have been best that Cohen was listening to the meltdown from a safer distance than the dugout. After Auburn got back into contention with four home runs and five RBI in the fifth inning, he was ejected in the top of the sixth after a close but seemingly correct call on a Tiger steal. Thus State's skipper did not have to watch the complete collapse of the remaining Bulldog bullpen, which gave up two more runs on a homer in the seventh to tie the score then issued three bases-loaded walks in the eighth for Auburn's margin of victory.

The worst part was, Cohen was not the least surprised that this could and did happen. "The whole story of this thing, everybody knows we're trying to dodge our bullpen," he said. MSU relievers had a rough weekend indeed, giving up 13 of the total 24 runs allowed and doing so in less than eight combined innings. That included letting a 6-3 lead vanish in the ninth inning Friday night as Auburn took the opener 9-8. Saturday's State victory came as starter Nick Routt went the nine-inning distance.

But game-three was something else entirely. Six bullpen Dogs took turns on the hill to allow seven runs on six hits with seven walks. And they didn't even need to issue free passes sometimes; just falling behind in counts was sufficient. "I don't know how many of the home runs they hit were with advantage counts," Cohen said. "Ball one, ball two, guess what's coming now, hit a fly ball and it's gone."

The top Tiger for gone-balls was catcher Tony Caldwell, slugging a solo homer in the fifth inning and a two-run shot in the seventh that tied it up 9-9. He'd also accounted for the first Auburn run with a caught fly-ball in the opening inning and even scored the last run by walking-in. Third baseman Joseph Sanders hit safely three times, scoring thrice and driving himself in with a solo homer in the fifth. The top-four of the Tiger order accounted for ten runs and eight RBI.

And most of this came after State had burst out to that big lead, scoring five times in their third inning and twice again in the fourth. Even then no Bulldog was overly confident that a six-run margin would be sufficient, least of all the head coach.

"That bullpen has so many walks in it, had walks in it last year. It's personnel that just walks people and there's not much we can do about that. In the future we will have pitchers that have a background of throwing strikes; these guys do not, I think it's that simple. We don't have strike-throwers."

Nor did Auburn for a while, as starter Taylor Thompson was tagged for six runs on as many hits in his 2.2 innings. Not until Bradley Hendrix, their fourth hurler of the day, arrived on the hill could the Tigers take control. The righthander managed the last four-plus, entering with two on and no outs in the MSU sixth and stifling State's last offensive efforts. He did surrender one run on two hits, striking out two, and inheriting a decision that made him 5-3 on the season.

State was literally starting at a disadvantage because Cohen wanted to throw another lefty against Auburn's order, and the best available—soph Forrest Moore—was coming off a short rest. He'd thrown 109 pitches Wednesday night in a start at Louisiana-Monroe. Under the circumstances Cohen couldn't complain much about a 4.0-plus start with five runs on four hits, three strikeouts and three walks.

"Forrest did a great job today and I think he pitched better because he didn't have his better stuff, he threw more balls than strikes. But that's the story of this game."

Auburn got one on the board the first inning as Sanders tripled and came home on Caldwell's fly to rightfield. In the top of the third Trent Mummey walked on, stole into scoring position and was plated by Hunter Morris with a single. Those were the only hits allowed by Moore in the first four-full.

1B Connor Powers briefly tied the tally with his solo homer in the MSU first, beginning what would be a 4-of-5 day at the dish. Thompson had to leave two on in both the first and second turns with his own early control issues. But in the bottom of the third C.Powers and DH Ryan Duffy singled their ways on, and what began as a baserunning mistake turned into a Tiger error that had both in scoring positions. 3B Russ Sneed popped a short single to tie things up, then 2B Jet Butler scored Duffy on a grounder.

"He was getting underneath his pitches and leaving his fastball and slider up in the hitting zone, it wasn't too much break," C.Powers said of Thompson. When SS Ryan Powers one-hopped the leftfield fence with a ground-rule double, scoring C Scott DeLoach, righty Paul Burnside got the first AU bullpen call. CF Grant Hogue singled up the middle for two RBI and a 6-2 scoreboard. An inning later it was 8-2 after Sneed drove in C.Powers and Duffy with his single through the box.

But it was too good to last once the Tigers limbered up the lumber. Casey McElroy started the assault with his shot, and after a walk of the ninth-man Moore was tagged by Mummey for a two-run job to the same just-right-of-centerfield wall location. It fell to Jared Wesson to be the first Dog out of the pen, and he lasted four batters; two of whom, Sanders and Caldwell, went long for solos and a 8-7 score. Another walk and righty Greg Houston had to get State back in the dugout with that diminished lead on a fly ball that stayed in the yard.

Cohen wouldn't be around for the rest of the fun, after ejection two outs into the sixth. A plunking of Mummey was followed by a steal and close call as Butler got the tag down but the ball came loose after contact. Cohen had two good arguments, one about the play itself and the second when, after he'd returned to the dugout, ump Todd Henderson thumbed him Houston flew-out Sanders anyway.

C.Powers continued his Sunday safe-hitting streak with a chopper that third baseman Sanders couldn't handle on a short hop. A walk of Duffy brought Hendrix to the mound, and DeLoach bunted successfully off him. Auburn essentially walked Sneed on purpose but Butler foiled the tactic with a routine fly ball to left that scored Powers and padded the lead a bit. A bases-loaded bobble of R.Powers' grounder at third base would have added insurance but Sanders recovered to make the throw across in time.

Which hurt when, after a leadoff walk of Morris, Caldwell again went deep; this time to leftfield with a bit of wind-aid for the two-run job and 9-9 deadlock. A bunt-single ended Houston's afternoon with Drew Hollinghead asked to hold the tie. He did with a strikeout and ground-out, with Butler snaring a tough bounce for the force at second.

State got nothing else done against Hendrix. "He got a really good call on me on that one strikeout," said Powers of his only outing. "And he hit the corners. The umpire did show if you hit the corners he was going to call it, and that's what he started to do." And what the Bulldog relievers couldn't do in the fatal eighth. Two outs into the inning Hollinghead lost the zone and put on a pair via a hit and a walk. Justin Bussey got the unenviable opportunity to face Caldwell and threw four balls to fill the paths. Then he missed on four of the next five pitches to walk Ben Jones and force in the go-ahead Tiger. Another ball chased Bussey for Caleb Reed, who did no better as he issued another couple of run-scoring walks.

Paxton Pace finally stopped the collapse, and would toss the ninth as well. But the damage was done. Butler roused the remaining crowd briefly with his leadoff home run in the last MSU chance before a strikeout, line-out, and ground-out ended the affair one minute over 3:30. That was a long time with a lot of things that happened, but Cohen summed it up shortly enough.

"Because we just handed it to them, there's no question about it." Hollinghead (1-1) took the loss though he was far from alone in the issue. And Powers had an otherwise-splendid day of four runs and one RBI spoiled. Sneed and Butler drove in three runs each.

"It seemed we beat them in almost every aspect of the game the whole weekend, other than the scoreboard," mused Powers, speaking for the squad. "I don't know if that makes any sense. But that's just how it went I guess."

Things get no easier for the Bulldogs this week as they have a pair of midweek matchups out of conference, traveling to Alabama-Birmingham (16-13) Tuesday before hosting Southern Mississippi (20-10) Wednesday. Then they travel to Tennessee for a weekend set of teams battling to get out of their respective Division cellars and scramble back into some sort of contention to make the SEC Tournament field of eight. True, this coming weekend is only the mid-point of conference season, but the Bulldogs have dug themselves into an April hole already.

And there is nobody new on the pitching forecast to use the rest of this season. "So we're clutching tightly to the Whitneys, the Routts, the Moores," Cohen said. "We're just having open tryouts in practice every day for guys who can throw strikes."

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