That sheer volume of offense by both squads meant that while this was the only weekend contest not going to extra innings, Sunday's nine frames took longer to play. Four hours, 29 minutes exactly, and that on top of a 72-minute delayed start for mid-day rains. When told the total time was just a minute under 4:30, CF Grant Hogue managed a wry grin.
"It's got to be a record, huh?" he said, adding. "I guess when you have 43 hits you're going to be here for a while. But a lot of guys on the team swung it well, and Kentucky is a good ball club. Give credit to them."
The Bulldogs did swing pretty well with 21 hits; Hogue, 2B Jet Butler, and RF (and for the last inning pitcher) Ryan Collins all collected a trio of safeties including a homer by Collins in the ninth to give him four total RBI. Five more MSU batsmen had a pair of safeties. Most days, or evenings, this would have been sufficient for a Mississippi State success.
Not this time. Though the Dogs did come on strong late with six runs in the final chance the deficit built over eight-and-a-half innings was too much to overcome late. "Well, we scored 79 runs," Cohen said, exaggeration understandable in the circumstances. "And I was really pleased our kids got it within five. They could have folded up and they didn't, they kept competing for us."
Trouble was Kentucky's offense was able to get more done all through the afternoon, and early evening for that matter by scoring at least one run in eight of their nine innings at the bat. And the assault began immediately with four runs in the top of the first for a lead never lost. Three of those scores came at the expense of starter Ricky Bowen. The righthander was the opening-day starter but after losing that role early on this was his first SEC action since 2008.
An winning, if still rusty, outing at UAB last week convinced the coaches to give the co-captain a weekend chance despite a short, tough stint against Ole Miss on Tuesday before. But Bowen walked his first two foes, gave up a RBI-hit to red-hot Wildcat second baseman Chris Bisson for the first of his six game RBI, and a one-out walk to leave the bases full. Bowen went to 2-3 with the loss, charged with three runs.
"His velocity just wasn't there," Cohen said. "When he goes out there and throws 15 pitches and is not even close to where he was, that's when you start saying we've got to get somebody else in the game. Because we don't want to hurt Ricky, we've got to get him back where he was in the fall somehow, some way."
Greg Houston put in the next 3.2 innings of work, absorbing eight hits for seven runs. One of those was unearned, as were two later scores off other hurlers. Defensive breakdowns contributed to a three-run second inning for Kentucky that foiled what momentum State tried to muster after 1B Connor Powers slugged a two-run shot in the first, his 13th homer of the season.
But no Dog who took the hill had any answers for Wildcat batters. "They hit some balls hard," said Hogue, who had to chase down far too many deep drives to his centerfield. Four he got to; others landed in gaps for the four Kentucky doubles. "We got three errors in the first few innings which was tough. Coach says Sunday is a mental toughness day and I don't know if we were tough enough today to be honest."
Down 9-4 after the fourth, Cohen ran five Dogs out to the hill to take an inning each. That included regular outfielders Luke Adkins—who got two hits and two RBI batting six times himself—and Collins for the eighth and ninth. Each had three hits and three runs against them. Only after State put up six in the last inning to make it a five-run difference did anyone ponder what might have been if other, more practiced arms were available.
One wasn't. LHP Forrest Moore would likely have gotten the start in fact if not for forearm tightness that required testing. "They're all negative and I think he'll be good to go," said Cohen. For that matter MSU was without the pitching coach after the second inning, as Butch Thompson had to exit with illness. "He threw up about 127 times in the locker room," the head coach clarified. "He's got three children and I'm sure it's a bug going around."
Then again Thompson might well have gotten that much more sick watching how Kentucky battered his staff around. Order-topper leftfielder Chad Wright literally led the way with a 4-of-5 day, scoring five times and driving in one other runner. Designated hitter Andy Burns and Bisson had three hits each, as did shortstop Chris Wade and centerfielder Keenan Wiley. Eight of the nine batting Kats had two or more hits with a homer, his second, by Bisson.
By statistical rule Alex Meyer could not get the winning decision, though he threw the first 4.2 innings and struck out seven. He allowed five runs on eight hits. The victory went to the third Wildcat hurler, Logan Darnell (4-3) as he avenged his Saturday loss. Darnell was tagged with four runs on seven hits and struck out three. Braden Kapteyn took care of the last full inning and four of those MSU runs on two hits.
With a month of SEC season remaining the Bulldogs have dug themselves into a dangerous hole, and chances to make up ground and secure a slot in the league tournament are diminishing fast. And while State is close to matching the overall win total of last season (23) hopes were higher. The frustration is made greater because each weekend the Dogs show something, or somethings, that give hope they can put the package together.
And Hogue is among the veterans that don't think a single aspect, pitching, deserves as much criticism as they've received in the last month. "Look at it throughout the year. At Georgia they competed and we didn't offensively. So it's been back-and-forth and that's why we haven't gotten anything done. When they do pitch well we don't score runs and when we do score runs they struggle. But it's not a pitching, offensive, or defensive thing. It's a team and we have to figure out a way to win."
"Our kids are trying on the mound, they're giving us the best effort they can and we're just not there yet," Cohen said. "Offensively for the most part we battled our tails off. And we made some critical errors, we're just not defending the infield they way we want to. Overall we're getting a lot of mileage out of our kids and as a coach that's all you can ask."
The coaches now have to put together plans for a five-game week, beginning with Tuesday-Wednesday home dates against Middle Tennessee State. The teams split a series last April played in Winchester, and MTSU showed it can score on a SEC club as they beat MSU 20-5 in the first game before State took a 4-3 win the second contest.
Cohen wasn't able to say Sunday who would throw those midweek games. "We've got to wait and see who's available," he said, adding "That pool of folks is getting smaller and smaller. But we'll come out and compete and keep doing what we know how to do. The positive thing is we're learning how to compete at a high level. And when some other things in our program come together and we compete the way we did today, there's no telling the heights we're going to be able to take this program."
For the weekend at Vanderbilt, the plan at least for now is to stay with the lefthander pair of Tyler Whitney and Nick Routt for the first two games, then see who is left available for Sunday.