Dogs Drop Both Ends Of Twinbill At Bama

Coach John Cohen called it "kind of flipping coins" in Sunday pitch on or replace the starter decisions. Final scores showed both times Mississippi State saw the wrong side of that coin come up as Alabama rallied from sizable deficits for 9-8 and 6-4 wins to conclude a series sweep. The weekend boosted Crimson Tide odds of SEC Tournament play while possibly dooming Bulldog post-season hopes.

Sunday's twinbill, forced by the delayed end to game-one, epitomized what the 2010 season has turned into for Mississippi State. Now that slow-starting Bulldog bats have come to life midway of SEC action, the young pitching staff forced to shoulder a load beyond their combined years is struggling to carry the weight. So despite out-hitting the Tide in both Sunday games, and jumping to leads of 7-0 and 4-1, the visitors just could not seal either deal.

"The number of things that are happening to us right now in order to lose games is just amazing," Cohen said. "And it seems to happen to people who are inexperienced on the mound. It's not happening offensive and defensively because we have some guys who have been there before. It's happening to guys who have never been there for the most part. That's part of the growing experience on the mound.'

If the two freshmen who started Sunday's twinbill shake off how their stints at Sewell-Thomas Stadium ended, it will indeed be a growing experience. Both Chris Stratton and Luke Bole pitched well enough to get into middle or later innings to win, just as they did a weekend ago at home against Tennessee. Repeating on the road was another matter.

"That seems to be our bugaboo, we have young arms that don't throw strikes when they absolutely need to," the coach said. "But that's kind of a natural progression." Stratton's progression in the fatal fourth inning of game-one is recounted in a prior story, though Cohen pointed out that the go-ahead, three-run homer in that frame was a well-placed pitch. "He basically jams a guy who dumps one over the fence. We're playing on the same fence they are but he jams the daylights out of a guy who dumps one behind the fence there."

Bole's issues took longer to develop as he shook off a first-inning run to hang four zeroes on the scoreboard. But again all Alabama needed was a chance and this one came in their sixth as the Tide again bolted ahead; this time with a five-run burst, and this time to stay. Unlike his classmate in game-one, Bole (2-1) would take the decision as in 5.1 innings he allowed five total runs on seven hits with a pair of walks and three strikeouts.

"I thought Luke pitched fine today," Cohen said. "Be's going to be better when he learns how to handle the situations in the middle of the game a little better and throws a few more strikes."

Alabama's Jonathan Smart (2-1) got the win as the last of three Tide hurlers working. He took care of 4.0 complete with a run on four hits.

The home team scored in their half of the opening inning as with two outs Wilson drew a walk. Consecutive singles by Clay Jones and Jake Smith brought him in. Mississippi State was able to answer in the second, at the expense of UA starter Tucker Hawley. DH Russ Sneed thought he'd walked only to be called back to the plate. Hawley soon wished it had been a ball-four because on full-count Sneed crushed a drive over leftfield for the 1-1 tie.

State didn't stop at that either as 2B Jet Butler and CF Jaron Shepherd each singled for Dogs on corners. SS Jonathan Ogden dropped a bunt to the right side and Butler came half-way home. He somehow scrabbled back to the bag safely as Ogden reached. And C Wes Thigpen didn't wait but swung at the first chance for a single through shortstop and Bulldog lead. 3B Nick Vickerson followed with an identical safety, plating Shepherd and chasing Hawley for righthander Tyler White.

RF Luke Adkins barely missed dropping a double in the left corner before striking out, and on full count 1B Connor Powers left them loaded missing a high strike. State had a two-out chance to expand in the third as Butler walked, to be replaced on the paths by Sam Frost having taken a knee to his thigh in the second inning—and Shepherd continued his strong Sunday with another single. Thigpen left both aboard with a fly-out to center.

Alabama's order re-started in their third and Taylor Dugas dropped a slick bunt-single to begin. He made third on a one-out blooper from Wilson, but came down the line a couple of steps on a two-hopper by Clay Jones. Vickerson was able to field, tag Dugas, and throw to first for the unusual twin-killing. And Thigpen made it sting as the catcher yanked a full-count feed over leftfield for his third homer of the season and a 4-1 Bulldog lead.

This came off Smart who'd entered for the fourth with no fanfare. He was able to leave Adkins on first base in this inning and sit the fifth-inning side. Alabama didn't get anyone on in that frame either, most notably when Ogden made a diving stop that was impressive enough and an even better throw for the bang-bang third out.

In the Alabama sixth though a leadoff single cracked the door. Ogden made a nifty stop-and-throw to the middle base to force Rutledge, but Frost's relay went wild and into the dugout putting Wilson on second base. He was able to make it a 4-2 game scoring on a single to center by Jones. Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson weighed lifting Bole, but game-one had taken a toll on the bullpen; especially preferred stopper Ben Bracewell who had iced-up between games. "We didn't have a lot of options at that point in time," said Cohen. "We thought Luke could get out of that, he got out of some jams earlier in the game. I'm pleased with the way he competed, he had 68 pitches in four innings and said he felt great. He just went into a freshman tail-spin there."

A following single from Jake Smith had the tying runners on bases, and Bole wild-pitched both runners into scoring positions before pinch-hitter Brett Whitaker could swing. He didn't have to for a 4-3 score as again Bole bounced a pitch past the plate, bringing in Jones. Only then, on a 2-2 count with the tying run on third base, did State go to the pen. Kendall Graveman finished walking Whitaker, then walked Andrew Miller to load every post.

Instead of a regular reliever, frosh Trey Johnson was shoved into the pressurized setting. He came close, striking out Jon Kelton and locating a nice 2-2 offering fairly close to the outer corner on game-one hero Brock Bennett. He didn't get the wide zone and on full count Bennett bounced a base hit though second base for two RBI. Order-topper Dugas drove in Miller for the two-run cushion before veteran Greg Houston was called for, and a dubious called strikeout of Rutledge ended the inning.

Duffy reached on a one-out single and was run for, but with two outs Ryan Collins was gunned down on a steal try to end the long afternoon. The win gave Alabama their first consecutive series sweeps of State since 1959 when the SEC played two-game sets twice each season.

More importantly in the big picture, Alabama is now in that crucial #8 spot in the SEC Tournament standings; while the Bulldogs fell all the way to 11th in one weekend gone wrong. Not entirely wrong, Cohen stressed. "I'm really proud the way our kids competed, especially offensively. I think we're getting full-throttle out of those guys, they'll wake up tomorrow morning and be tired after competing their hearts out."

The problem of course is that with four series left Mississippi State has fallen dangerously close to out of all but mathematical contention for post-season play. And the remaining roster of foes begins with an Ole Miss club that just swept LSU, who is also on the May MSU schedule after Auburn. The Bulldogs have no control of their now…but there are things the club can still control on the field at least.

"They'll come out and give the same effort next week as they did this week," Cohen said. "I think we can compete with and beat anybody in the league." If, he qualified, the Bulldogs can come with a better-rounded package of hitting, fielding, and now most of all throwing strikes throughout. "It's nobody's fault, we kind of knew that was going to happen just because of the inexperience on our staff. But it's totally my responsibility. The only time I get upset with our players is when I feel they're not giving a great effort and I feel they're giving as good an effort as they possibly can."

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