June 3, 2013 11:20:59 AM
STARKVILLE - Like it or not, Mississippi State University has one more baseball game left at Dudy Noble Field in the 2013 season.
The inability of being able to close out a scrappy University of Central Arkansas team Sunday night in a 5-2 loss, has forced a Monday elimination game starting at 7:05 p.m. tonight that will end the season for one program and put another two wins away from the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
Like it not, doubt has begun to creep into the minds of the players playing at home in this 2013 NCAA Starkville Regional. 12 errors over the last five games including eight errors in the two games against UCA in this tournament, have the favored Bulldogs looking tight, nervous and unable to focus in its first home regional since 2003.
"At the end of the game I guess we were pressing a little bit," MSU junior second baseman Brett Pirtle said. "We will just have to put it behind us and we will be fine."
After sitting at the post-game media conference podium for nearly 10 minutes and listen to Pirtle and senior third baseman Sam Frost talk about their mentally inefficiencies, MSU coach John Cohen finally couldn't help but simply hold his tongue for much longer.
"I don't see that at all," Cohen said when asked if his players were nervous or pressing in the loss Sunday. "When you have 0.4 seconds to think on a 90 miles-per-hour fastball, you're probably not thinking ahead. You're probably thinking to get your barrel in the right spot. I think our kids had a bad night, period."
Tonight's MSU-UCA matchup will be one of five Monday finales across the country in NCAA regional action as the top two overall seeds (University of North Carolina and Vanderbilt University) will also try to stave off elimination in their home ballparks against Florida Atlantic University and Georgia Tech University respectively.
Cohen has seen this scenario play out before with him wearing a MSU uniform. Cohen was a member of MSU teams as a player in 1987-89 that failed to advance out of a regional at Dudy Noble Field. One more home loss tonight and the exact same confusion and disappointment will find him and the club he manages in 2013.
After a four-error performance Sunday night, that included his start shortstop Adam Frazier making two blunders just a week after being named to the All-Defensive team in the Southeastern Conference, Cohen gave a blunt answer to why he thinks MSU (45-18) can rebound tonight.
"I guess 63 games, in which we 45 of them," Cohen said. "That should give us a little confidence."
On four previous occasions (1983, 1989, 1991 and 1992) MSU lost regionals in which they have won the first two games they've played. However, all of those NCAA regionals involved a six-team format. MSU has never lost a regional under the current four-team format where they've won the first two games.
The problem for MSU, who will be the home team tonight against UCA, is they'll be coming to the ballpark and stare straight into an opponent that knows they've already won three of four previous games against the perceived SEC power opponent.
"They have a really good game plan," Cohen said. "They do a nice job with the strike zone and a big part of the game when you play a team like this is what is the strike zone like on that particular day. Every day a strike zone is different. Whoever locks on to that strike zone first, usually has a better day offensively."
In front of a packed crowd of 10,226 at Dudy Noble Field hoping to see MSU advance to the program's fifth Super Regional round, MSU simply hit too many lazy fly balls that will not carry out of the spacious ballpark in Starkville.
"I probably won't put my head on the pillow tonight but if I do, I'll be thinking about our at-bats because I'm remembering three fly balls that went to the track right now," Cohen said.
MSU, who has struggled to get quality starting pitching performances in the last two months of the season, failed to name a projected starting pitcher for tonight. The dilemma for Cohen and MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson is the logical choice would be sophomore left hander Jacob Lindgren (4-3, 4.18) but he has failed to get to the end of the second inning in three of his last five starts. Lindgren was the Sunday starting pitcher in SEC weekends for the final six weeks of the regular season and failed to get a win on the mound.
Cohen and Thompson have also intentionally avoided throwing a left-handed pitcher against UCA's right-handed dominant lineup because of the matchup possibilities that the Bears veteran batting order can provide. MSU may simply have no choice and may have to avoid the numbers game tonight unless they want to start a normal reliever such as Ben Bracewell.
When asked about his thoughts for a starting pitcher, Cohen again referenced his bullpen depth naming relievers such as Jonathan Holder, Chad Girodo, Bracewell and C.T. Bradford that did not pitch Sunday or at all in this tournament so far.
"I believe in our pitching depth and if we ram it in the strike zone and make plays behind him, then we should be okay," Cohen said.
After back to back complete game outings on the mound, UCA coach Allen Gum is sitting in the most comfortable spot as his staff tries to piece together a pitching strategy for tonight. Gum has watched UCA (42-21), in its first NCAA tournament experience, run off three straight elimination game victories making that total eight straight, dating back to the Southland Conference tournament last week.
"They are hard-nosed tough guys and we are going to fight the fight and finish the course," Gum said. "They love playing baseball and they are quite frankly, fighting to continue the opportunity of playing together on this team."
In a game where everybody is clearly available in the UCA bullpen, Gum has everybody wanting the baseball hoping to contribute to something historic for the Bears program.
"Maybe even Coach Gunn will give me the baseball again before this thing is over," UCA freshman Connor Gilmore said after he tossed a four-hit shutout Sunday afternoon. "Maybe this is just adrenaline talking but I'm ready to pitch if needed again. I'm feeling great right now."
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