March 29, 2014 10:58:20 PM
STARKVILLE -- Derrick Armstrong has quickly eased the concerns of Mississippi State fans everywhere after C.T. Bradford's injury.
The senior outfielder went 6 of 8 Saturday as he continues to produce near the middle of the MSU lineup. Armstrong saw his batting average go from .260 to .328 during the single day of effort. He is also tied for the team lead with his ninth stolen base of the season and is exactly the athletic option he was recruited to be from a Tennessee junior college two years ago.
Armstrong gave MSU its first lead of the day at 2-1 in the sixth on a looping single to short right field. Armstrong's two-out hit would be part of a four-run explosion by MSU in the frame during a much-needed 5-1 victory. The win clinched a split in the Saturday doubleheader and kept MSU (19-10, 5-3 in Southeastern Conference) near the top of the league standings.
"Derrick has just worked so hard at putting the barrel exactly where it needs to be because in this ballpark fly ball just won't do the job," MSU coach John Cohen said. "Derrick has always been somebody we can count on to make either line drive or ground ball swings that will help our offense."
Armstrong's game-winning hit Saturday was what is now considered a classic swing from the 5-foot-10 outfielder as he took a fastball to opposite field after the rest of his teammates struggled to find holes in clutch situations all afternoon. MSU was 2 for 13 with runners on in the 4-0 loss early Saturday but the middle of MSU's order find success in the middle of the game against the Arkansas bullpen.
Armstrong filled in for the seventh straight game in center for the injured C.T. Bradford and provided his first career three-hit effort in the losing effort of the first game. Bradford didm't play in any of the games Saturday as he continues to nurture a hip injury sustained in the opener of SEC play at Georgia. Bradford was hitting .323 before the injury but Armstrong has been consistent at the plate and failed to make a single fielding error in the 2014 season.
"Last year was a little strange because I was always supposed to be ready when my number was called but this year has been different in the sense that since C.T. Bradford has been out, it's my job to make sure the production doesn't dip."
MSU junior left-hander Ross Mitchell (5-1) tossed his second complete game in three SEC starts this season for the win. The preseason All-American candidate is now 7-0 all time against league foes as he dominated the Razorbacks in a 98-pitch effort.
"He's standing on the mound in the ninth inning having given up only two hits," Cohen said. "One was on a ball that bounces over Brett Pirtle's head and another was one where he doesn't cover first base. If those two things don't happen, he's got a no-hitter on a good SEC team. That's just doesn't happen."
Mitchell's deception was in full stride Saturday as he 12 fly ball outs and 12 groundouts on a day where the wind was blowing as much as 20 miles per hour inward in a dream scenario for a pitch-to-contact style.
Mississippi State ran into more of arguably the hottest pitching staff in the league Saturday during the game one loss.
After winning a home series against Alabama last weekend and sweeping a midweek pair of games against Mississippi Valley State, the Arkansas staff currently has held opponents to just two runs over a 57-inning span. This streak, which lasted until MSU's four runs in the sixth inning of game two, of accuracy on the mound has included four shutouts in the last six games.
"We have a lot of guys that have been waiting on their moment to come and that time is now for them," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "It's been a situation where we don't have a lot of depth and practically no offensive bench so our starting pitching has to carry us right now."
In the first game of the twin bill Saturday, MSU was completely held in check by Arkansas starting pitcher Jalen Beeks. Beeks, a junior left-hander who had been knocked around against Alabama last weekend, scattered nine hits over eight innings. The Bulldogs never had a runner in scoring position with less than two outs during the entire game as Beeks perfectly pitched to contact in his 114-pitch effort. Beeks and Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn made a common adjustment with the placement of his hands in the week leading up to the next start in Starkville.
"It's a lot easier to hit the pitch when the batter knows what is coming so we'll just leave it at that," Beeks said laughing about how he was tipping pitches vs. Alabama. "I'm not a strikeout guy so I rely on deception and so I had look at a bunch of video to see what I needed to change. Needless to say I needed to change it in a hurry too."
Arkansas (17-9, 4-4) got run-scoring hits from Brian Anderson, Eric Fisher and Bobby Wernes in the second, fourth and fifth innings to take the series opening contest.
The reshuffling of the MSU order by Cohen had less than desired effects as the Bulldogs were shut out for the first time since being defeated 8-0 in the final game of the 2013 CWS Championship Series in Omaha, Neb.
"I just felt like our guys were hitting the ball so hard right at fielders in the first game," Cohen said. "And what I'm so proud of our guys for is the patience and maturity to not change anything with their approach going into game two. It's so easy to think something is wrong and then that's what gets you into trouble."
MSU had only a ninth-inning double in the left field corner to represent the Bulldogs only extra-base hit of the contest.
Preston Brown struggled in his second SEC start as the sophomore allowed four runs in just five innings in a 89-pitch effort. Ben Bracewell, who had opened SEC play as the Friday night starter for MSU, was dominant out of the bullpen with six strikeouts in the final four innings.
The series final is today at 1:30 p.m. and the winner could find themselves near the top of a currently jam packed SEC standings.
All of the Dispatch MSU Sports Blog readers: feel free to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/matthewcstevens for up-to-date Mississippi State coverage.
4. Hair Razing BOOK REVIEWS