March 9, 2013 10:14:28 PM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Less than a week before its Southeastern Conference opener, the Mississippi State University baseball team has a major problem.
Suddenly, MSU can't get a quality pitching start and may be without its most important arm of the season. Both of those facts led to the team's first loss of the season Saturday against its toughest test in the first month of the season.
The nation's longest winning streak ended Saturday after another revolving door of bullpen action couldn't save MSU from a 7-5 loss to the University of Central Arkansas in 10 innings. MSU had won 17 in a row before the loss, and 20 in a row at Dudy Noble Field dating back to a sweep of the University of Kentucky on May 17-19, 2012.
Junior starting pitcher Evan Mitchell walked three and hit two more in a 62-pitch Saturday that saw him go to long counts despite only giving up one run on one hit.
The 10 pitchers MSU used Saturday walked nine and hit five to give UCA scoring chances in every inning.
"It's shocking they only scored seven runs when you're talking about the amount of base runners they had," MSU coach John Cohen said. "We didn't command the baseball at all and do some average things well."
Central Arkansas (13-2), which defeated MSU 2-0 on May 15, 2012, lost the series opener to MSU 4-2 Friday. Its only other loss is to Vanderbilt University (10-2) on Feb. 20.
MSU (17-1) has averaged only 4.38 innings per start this season, which is partially due to ineffiency by the pitchers and partly because MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson has wanted to limit the number of innings pitchers projected to be weekend performers in Southeastern Conference play throw in the first month of the season.
However, with less than a week before MSU opens SEC play against defending SEC regular-season champion LSU, the Bulldogs must find quality arms to match the Tigers' pitching depth, which includes by ace Austin Nola.
"We'll find those guys that can get us five or six innings into a game because we know our bullpen given any chance at all can be successful for us," Cohen said.
Unfortunately, Jacob Lindgren, the only MSU starting pitcher who has gotten out of the sixth inning this month, could be out of the active roster after suffering a knee injury Friday night. Lindgren took a line drive off his left knee nine pitches into the game and needed to be helped off the field.
After the game, all eyes were on Lindgren, a 12th-round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs out of high school, who was using crutches as a precautionary move. Cohen said the line drive went off the side of Lindgren's knee instead of directly off the patella. The sophomore left-hander had an X-ray late Friday night that was negative for fractures. He is scheduled for an MRI scan Monday morning. A decision hasn't been made about his status for the LSU series.
"That was a frightening moment for us," Cohen said. "I'm not a doctor, so we'll know more tomorrow after an MRI, but those things are really scary."
Freshman Myles Gentry, who had eight previous appearances before Friday night, went from charting pitches to the emergency arm in a matter of minutes. In his longest outing of the season, Gentry (1-0) saved MSU from disaster in the opener of the series.
"That was unexpected," Gentry said Friday. "I heard them say my name and I was in there. I really didn't have much time to think about it with the time to get my arm warm. I wasn't going to rush myself."
Gentry kept UCA, which came to Starkville leading the country in offense with 9.9 runs per game, to no hits in 4 1/3 innings. Of the 13 batters Gentry faced, a hit batter to the lead off the fifth was the only batter to reach base in his 63-pitch effort.
"They were taking some good swings, but I had to get the ball down on the fastball in order for my defense to make greats," Gentry said.
Cohen and UCA coach Allen Gum went through a 2-hour, 43-minute chess match Friday that included 12 pitching changes. MSU junior C.T. Bradford twice came in from center field to pitch.
After relying on its bullpen Friday night, MSU couldn't afford a short start from junior right-hander Evan Mitchell less than 24 hours later. Unfortunately, Mitchell had another roller coaster outing that ended with two outs in the
"I thought Evan had the best stuff he's had all year today and unfortunately we had some calls that didn't go his way," MSU senior catcher Nick Ammirati said Saturday. "Some pitches could've gone either way and I saw it as a stepping stone for him and his confidence. There wasn't a lot of big misses today."
MSU ended the debate about what role sophomore right-hander Will Cox will have this weekend, as the Amory native pitched in consecutive days in relief. Cox, who has only allowed one earned run in three
starts but was bumped from the rotation this weekend, allowed the first UCA run Friday night and finished the final two outs of the 10th inning Saturday.
"When you're playing three games this weekend instead of four that brings Will Cox into focus in a game like this," Cohen said Friday. "I thought he came in and threw the ball very, very well."
The only two pitchers MSU hasn't used are Kendall Graveman, today's projected starting pitcher, and left-handed senior Luis Pollorena. Everybody else in the bullpen will be on short rest when the teams meet for a rubber
match at 1:30 p.m. today.
"A lot of our guys only threw 10-15 pitches (Saturday), so when you do that you have to believe you can come back and pitch again," Cohen said. "We need a good starting performance from Graveman. There's no doubt about that."