June 3, 2013 11:03:15 AM
STARKVILLE - University of Central Arkansas pitching coach Kirk Kelley had the easiest job at Dudy Noble Field Sunday.
Kelley sent two starting pitchers to the mound in two elimination games and then sat back in the dugout to watch them throw complete game four-hit gems in victories. The last victory came in the form of a 5-2 win over host Mississippi State in the final of the 2013 NCAA Starkville Regional.
"We didn't have (2 complete games) in the plans," Central Arkansas coach Allen Gum said. "You hope for it. You hope for seven (innings), maybe six and then go from there about how we'll piece it together."
Turns out in both elimination games UCA (42-21) needed just one giant piece to finish the puzzle allowing the Bears to rest its bullpen for a winner-take-all championship game in the 2013 NCAA Starkville Regional set for 7:05 p.m., tonight. The winner of that contest will face No. 6 overall University of Virginia in a best of three games NCAA Super Regional round in Charlottesville, Va.
Less than an hour after watching his freshman teammate Connor Gilmore dominate the University of South Alabama in a four-hit shutout in a 3-0 victory, Ethan McKinzie turned in a four-hit complete game to give the Bears a chance to advance in the school's first ever NCAA tournament experience.
"Honestly my defense was working for me," McKinzie said about his ground ball routine that he was able to perform against the MSU lineup. "I gave up five walks but whenever I needed a pitch, I found it."
It's not the first time UCA has had back-to-back complete games as they had three straight pitching performances in late February but they got such pitching performances after the Bears exhausted both of its remaining weekend starters in Saturday's 11-inning victory eliminating Mercer University.
Conner Gilmore needed just 101 pitches to plow through South Alabama's lineup, striking out two and walking one as Central Arkansas to play MSU.
"It's been a long, long journey for me and the coaches had a lot of confidence for me to know I would put the work in," Gilmore said. "They wanted me to come in as a freshman and make a impact. My feet are lightly touching the ground right now."
Saturday's heroics allowed the Bears to claim its seventh and eighth straight victory in a elimination game after they came to Starkville winners of five in a row in the Southland Conference tournament. Gum and the rest of the UCA squad have chalked that mentality up to a different mindset when knowing the season could be over just a few innings later.
"They are a solid ball club and I think we just were not focused coming into today," MSU senior infielder Sam Frost said. "We have to get our minds right tomorrow and it is going to be a good ball game."
Instead it was the host Bulldogs, who in front of a 10,226 fans at Dudy Noble Field played with a tightness that was evident by a second four-error game of the tournament against UCA. Friday night MSU (45-18) was able to manage four errors and still win 5-3 in the opening game of the regional for both teams.
"We're disappointed but all you can do now is put this one in the rear-view mirror," MSU coach John Cohen said. "Obviously, you can't make the mistakes we made tonight and expect to win. We were fortunate that we got away with it Friday night."
The minority of those 10,226 fans became the vocal majority during the Bears' sixth inning and in the ninth inning Sunday night when a 'U-C-A' chant loudly being heard throughout Dudy Noble Field from the Central Arkansas fan base. In a MSU 'White-Out' promotion where Bulldogs fans were encouraged to wear white Sunday, the all-white uniformed UCA club felt like they were playing a modified home game as it won its third game in five tries this season in Starkville.
"There at the end, it got loud for us," UCA shortstop Justin Treece said. "I really thought I was playing at home and it was awesome to hear our fans in those moments. I know it pumped me up in what should've been a hostile environment."
Along with making several dazzling plays in the field, Treece had a critical two-run double in the sixth inning to blow the game wide open for the Bears.
"I think we play well when our backs are against the wall," Treece said. "Some people on our club play looser and I know that makes no sense but for us, it does."
UCA (42-21) chased MSU starter Trevor Fitts during a difficult third inning. The Bulldogs made two errors on the infield and the Bears scored a pair of unearned runs. The first error came on a throw when junior shortstop Adam Frazier simply was careless on a throw to first baseman Wes Rea on a double play ground ball allowing both runs to score. It would be one of two errors for the Bulldogs All-SEC Defensive team shortstop Sunday night.
"I felt it was a two-pitch ballgame," Cohen said of the three-run loss. "The two errors in one game for Adam Frazier was really uncharacteristic of him but I know he will come out (Monday) and be good for us."
Fitts worked 2-2/3 innings, allowing one hit and those runs, with one strikeout and two walks but was unable to get through more than 48 pitches in his third career start due mostly to his fielders letting him down on plays that should've got him out of jams in innings.
"Trevor Fitts deserves an apology from our entire team and coaching staff because he was a warrior tonight," Cohen said.
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