"It's very, very disappointing," Coach John Cohen said. "He (SELa Coach Jay Artigues) got an older group over there, they've been waiting for this type of opportunity. We've got a bunch of guys we're trying to fit together and get used to each other and we're not doing the things we need to."
That might seem a harsh assessment of one February loss. But then in three of their prior wins it was the Bulldogs coming from behind, twice in their own last-chances. And Mississippi State got a sufficiently strong starting performance from Nick Routt as he limited the Lions to a lone run, on one pitch, in his eight complete innings. So it was his team's failure to round-out the evening with just an adequate effort at the plate that annoyed the skipper.
"It was a close game, I just felt our at-bats were so poor for the first six innings," Cohen said.
The main reason of course was outstanding work from Lion starter Tyler Watkins, a Petal native and Pearl River CC product. The big righthander dominated his first seven full frames and was still ahead 1-0 leaving the mound in the eighth. Watkins successfully scattered the first four of his five allowed hits with a walk and four strikeouts, aided to no small degree by a defense that turned three double-plays in the first four innings to erase most MSU runners.
"We were very, very poor offensively today," said Cohen. "That's my responsibility. We had very poor at-bats. We absolutely let their guy do whatever he wanted to do. To his credit he shoved the breaking ball in the strike zone after we got him into a rhythm early."
Watkins had a few challenges to overcome, such as State's second when DH Ryan Duffy and SS Jonathan Ogden singled their way on. A swinging strikeout of LF Trey Johnson stranded both. In the fourth frame 1B Connor Powers and 3B Russ Sneed singled to begin the inning and Duffy hit it on the nose…right to the centerfielder. Another twin-killing kept State scoreless and began a stretch of nine more consecutive outs.
At the same time MSU's Routt was almost as effective and save for one offering he could just as easily kept a shutout of his own through eight. The exception came in the top of the second as Lion designated hitter Cody Gougler got ahold of an up-and-in fastball and deposited it beyond leftfield. Otherwise Routt was in good control with five other hits, three walks and six hits on his linescore, throwing exactly 100 pitches.
And he did it with only two tools. "Fastball and changeup," the soph said. "I was able to get to both sides of the plate on my fastball and the changeup was there." It was a much sharper outing than last Friday when the southpaw struggled with location in the season opener. "We changed a few things in my delivery. I'm still not there where I want to be but I felt a lot better today. It's something to build on."
Neither starter would get a decision for all their labors though. Watkins finally yielded in the MSU eighth when Ogden one-hopped a hit between third baseman and bag. It was compounded a base as the Lion leftfielder errored the ball. LF Ryan Collins bunted Ogden over to third and SELa summoned Chris Franklin from the bullpen.
He bounced the pitch past his catcher though and Ogden came home for a tied game. State had a great chance at taking the lead, too, as 2B Nick Vickerson doubled; then both RF Luke Adkins and Powers walked to load all posts. On a 2-2 count Sneed hit it hard and on a string to the centerfielder.
This early in the season State was not going to push Routt any farther and Caleb Reed took over for the ninth. He plunked third baseman Josh Cryer and was replaced an out later by closer Devin Jones, who only opened the gate with a wild pitch, hit batsman, and walk to fill the bases. SELa Coach Artigues pinch-hit a lefty against Jones in the #8 slot and Joe Sparacino delivered the go-ahead single to leftfield. Nine-man Trey Martin did bigger damage with his two-run base hit for the final margin of MSU victory.
All State could muster in their last inning was a two-out single from Ogden, his third hit of the affair. The game ended typically enough as Collins hit it hard and long only to have the drive run down.
As excited as Cohen said he was about Routt's return to form—"He misses one fastball to the five-hole guy and it jumped out of the yard on him"--the late-relief was an unexpected letdown. "Devin just couldn't find the strike zone, and when you can't that kind of stuff is going to happen. The nine-hole guy of Southeastern Louisiana is going to beat you. Devin's stuff is really good but all of a sudden he's squeezing a little bit tighter and not attacking the game. He just wasn't in the strike zone as much as he needed to be." With 27 pitches tonight Jones might not be available the rest of this series, so Cohen said rookies Ben Bracewell and C.C. Watson will be other closing options.
"All that being said, we're talking about eight innings worth of stinking one bad pitch and the ball leaves the yard. You'll take that on most occasions, but our at-bats were just dismal. We hit balls right at people. I thought we took some pretty good swings but you have to be at 70% great at-bats instead of 40% which is about where we were."
Frustration was strong enough that the team went directly to the locker room for a talk with the coach before post-game interviews. Cohen used the situation to make clear at this first chance that the ‘that's baseball' notion won't apply. "It's our responsibility to win the game and do whatever we can. So we'll analyze this one in-depth and then forget about it and move on. We have to learn how to have better at-bats than we had this evening."
Saturday's game-two will start at 1:00, an hour earlier than published schedules show due to the evening basketball game broadcast. Mississippi State will give freshman righthander Chris Stratton (1-0, 0.00) his second start of the season while junior righty Brandon Efferson (1-0, 3.00) is booked to open for SELa.