"Right now we're just not answering the bell," Coach John Cohen said. "It's disappointing. It's not new, but it's disappointing."
What was also not new to the MSU coach was Kentucky's resilient approach to the series opener, as Cohen had been the skipper who built the Wildcat program over the previous five seasons. The squad he left brought a pesky approach that despite being shut out the first six innings was able to tie, then lead, then get it done in extra innings as needed. The Wildcats only out-hit State 11 safeties to 10, but had a double, triple, and homer in their total as well as five hit-by-pitches.
They also struck out just ten times in 11 turns, low compared to the 14 fannings of Bulldog batters including a swinging miss by pinch-batter Jason Nappi with the tying run on first base to end the affair. That K was the fifth by righthander Braden Kapteyn, who took care of the last 3.2 innings to get the decision. Kapteyn (3-0) did allow a pair of runs on four hits, but also managed to leave winning and tying runners on bases.
"We didn't do a good job offensively," Cohen said. "14 punch-outs, it's a hand-eye coordination, toughness, I'm-not-going-to-get-beat mentality. I thought Kentucky did a pretty good job with that, obviously we did not."
Swindle (1-2) took the loss on 2.0 total innings, also charged with two runs on four hits. He struck out one and walked one. Prior reliever Paxton Pace allowed a run on two hits in 1.1 innings, avoiding the decision by State scoring a two-out run in the bottom of the ninth to force extra frames. Though nothing like other late-game collapses recently where MSU relievers gave up bunches of runs, this still followed the unfortunate theme of the season.
And, wasted a fine Friday starting performance by Tyler Whitney, who put in seven-plus innings of work. The lefty only left after Kentucky tied things up 2-2 with a solo home run by designated hitter Andy Burns to lead off that eighth. His linescore had UK's first two runs, on five hits, with five strikeouts and three walks.
"I felt like I was in pretty good shape," Whitney said. "I got erratic at times, hit a couple of guys and got in jams and found ways to get out of it. It seemed they had leadoff hitters on every inning. It was just making quality pitches, trying to keep the ball down in the zone and let the guys behind me do the work."
If State's offense had worked just a little bit better early on against UK starter James Paxton, the work would have been even easier. The second inning began with 3B Russ Sneed legging out an infield single to his UK counterpart. Sneed didn't have to run as C Scott DeLoach drew the full-count walk, and 2B Jet Butler dumped his sacrifice just as asked. State's first run was free as Paxton bounced a pitch on the dirt and off RF Nick Hardy, allowing Sneed to jog home. With two outs SS Ryan Powers found the left-side hole for a base hit, RBI, and 2-0 Bulldog lead.
But one runner was left unscored, too, and that became a trend as Paxton put a pair on to start his third and stranded them. He had to do it again in the fourth as Butler scratched out a single and LF Brent Brownlee was plunked; neither advanced. In the process Brownlee became the 16th Bulldog hit by a pitch this season.
In the MSU fifth centerfielder Keenan Wiley helped his hurler out by robbing Sneed on a drive that would have caught the top of the fence and gone over; a missed chance that would loom larger later. Consecutive two-out singles and Dogs on opposite corners did no more damage in the sixth as Brownlee watched a close strike on full count, keeping it a two-run difference.
Whitney was able to protect it despite runners reaching for seven-straight innings. The first six, none got past the middle bag. A double-play ended the third frame, and Whitney overcame a bunt-single and walk in the fourth. Third baseman Chris McClendon missed on a bunt try and with Bisson leading off second base too far DeLoach was able to gun him down.
Whitney then hit the corner on shortstop Chris Wade for a called strikeout and Sneed handled an inning-ending grounder off catcher Marcus Nidiffer's bat. A leadoff plunking in the UK fifth was erased with a nifty pickoff. The State starter reached 60 pitches as he began the UK order a third time, and wasn't slowing despite an errored grounder at third that put Bisson on first. A pop-out of the cleanup batter meant a fourth Wildcat stranded through six.
The seventh was another matter, as the bottom half of Kentucky's order got something started with a bit of help. As in Whitney hitting McClendon onto base where he could be bunted over. Wiley singled right to leftfield so the lead runner had to check at third, then Whitney nicked Nidiffer to load ‘em up. "It's not a big swing-and-miss bunch at all," Whitney said. "They competed their tails off and were able to put a lot of balls in play. And some of them were hit pretty hard."
Number-nine batter Bryan Rose bounced it right to R.Powers for what should have been a double-play; except he bobbled it off the glove and could only force the middle man as McClendon came across. And, brought the top of the order back up. Chad Wright made good contact, right to first 1B Connor Powers but keeping him deep enough the only play was a flip to Whitney. It was close, so much so the Wildcats left the dugout and one even tossed a bat to earn an escort from the umpire. But Dennis McComb ruled it an out.
No blues were involved in UK tying it up in their very next chance, as designated hitter Andy Burns took Whitney's 91st pitch over leftfield to make it a 2-2 game. And, bring Pace from the bullpen. "I kind of ran out of gas there towards the end," Whitney said. "I left a pitch up and he hit it out and they decided it was time to pull me." Pace got his side off the field with the tie intact despite a two-out walk, fanning Wade with the runner going. "I thought Paxton had very, very good stuff," Cohen said.
Paxton was lifted for Tyler Henry in the bottom of the eighth, but a four-pitch walk of Sneed and bunt had the go-ahead Dog in position to score. So the Wildcats went for another right arm and Kapteyn stranded him with a strikeout and bouncer.
Pace was an out into the ninth inning when Nidiffer dropped a double between right and center fields. Rose took a 2-2 pitch off the arm, just as well since it would have otherwise been wild and advanced the lead runner. Nidiffer made third anyway as Wright chipped a single just in front of leftfielder Brownlee.
Thus Swindle inherited the bases-loaded, one-out jam with the best Kat bats coming up. He managed a grounder Sneed was able to handle and flip home for the force. But after going two strikes down Bisson watched a pair of wastes, then pounded the go-ahead single up the middle. Wright rounded second a bit too far and was thrown-behind for the out, which meant only one run counted.
That made all the difference in the bottom of the inning, too. Because with one out pinch-hitter Luke Adkins walked his way on, and Hogue was plunked—his 14th time this year—to put the tying runner at second. DH Cody Freeman watched strike three on the outside corner, and C.Powers fell behind 1-2 before reaching out and poking a hit to leftfield. Adkins scored easily but Hogue stopped a couple strides short of third to avoid being tagged before the runner had touched home, and was run down to end the inning with a re-tied tally.
Swindle had a pair on in the tenth with a walk and two-out plunking, only to coax a fly-out from Nidiffer. Kentucky had failed to advance the lead runner as McClendon kept trying to bunt and fouled-off strike three. A two-out single by State's Butler only set up a caught-stealing and the 11th inning.
Wright outran his one-down grounder to the left side, and was moving when Burns swung behind him successfully, pulling it past Sneed for Kats on corners. Bisson showed bunt a couple of times but on 2-0 swung away for the three-bagger and two RBI. Swindle was excused for Greg Houston to get a couple of strikeouts, but enough damage had been done.
The Bulldogs had a last-gasp in them as with two down Adkins bounced one down the third base line for a double, and Hogue punched a RBI-single past the shortstop. That meant the best MSU runner was on the paths. Cohen gave Nappi the chance and he was able to work the count full only to offer a hesitant swing that missed.
This, too, was familiar stuff for Cohen, who admitted he's run out of new things to say. Other than ironically State had practiced for such late-game offensive situations yesterday and performed against themselves. Against a real foe, it was another matter when it mattered. "I thought the preparation was very good but our kids for whatever reason are just not ready for this type of challenge. That's my responsibility. We will get there, but right now we're not answering the bell."
The Bulldogs and Wildcats will hear the Saturday bell an hour earlier than usual, with a 1:00 start time for game-two. The contest was moved up so as to not conflict with the 5:30 spring football game, though that would mean not playing another extra-inning, four-hour affair.
State will start lefty freshman Nick Routt (4-2, 3.07) while senior southpaw Chris Rusin (4-3, 4.53) is booked to throw for Kentucky.