June 3, 2013 11:48:50 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- University of Central Arkansas pitching coach Kirk Kelley had the easiest job Sunday at Dudy Noble Field.
Kelley sent two starting pitchers to the mound in two elimination games and then watched them throw complete-game four-hitters in victories. The second, a 5-2 victory against Mississippi State University in front of a crowd of 10,226, pushed the teams into a winner-take-all game at 7:05 tonight in the NCAA Starkville Regional to decide which team advances to face the No. 6 overall seed University of Virginia in the best-of-three NCAA Super Regionals.
"We didn't have (two complete games) in the plans," UCA 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."
Less than an hour after watching freshman teammate Connor Gilmore limit the University of South Alabama to four hits in a 3-0 victory, senior Ethan McKinzie threw a complete-game four-hitter to help UCA (42-21), which is in its first NCAA tournament, rest its bullpen and prepare for MSU (45-18). The victory was the Bears' eighth in a row when facing elimination. It also was their third against the Bulldogs in five games this season.
"My defense was working for me," said McKinzie, who improved to 4-2 and lowered his ERA to 2.09. He had 18 ground ball outs in a 128-pitch outing. "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. Jeffrey Enloe scattered 10 hits in a 9-3 victory against the University of Kansas on Feb. 23. Bryce Biggerstaff followed that performance with a no-hitter in a 13-0 victory against Jackson State University on Feb. 24. The complete games Sunday gave the Bears 16 for the season and helped them refresh a pitching staff that exhausted its remaining weekend starters Saturday in an 11-inning victory that eliminated Mercer University.
Gilmore (5-0, 0.73) needed just 101 pitches to plow through USA. He struck out two and walked one.
"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."
MSU will try to recover from its second four-error game in the regional. On Friday night, MSU committed four errors and escaped a bases-loaded situation in the ninth inning to edge UCA 5-3.
"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 (today), and it is going to be a good ballgame."
Said MSU coach John Cohen, "We're disappointed, but all you can do now is put this one in the rear-view mirror. You can't make the mistakes we made tonight and expect to win. We were fortunate that we got away with it Friday night."
UCA's fans became a vocal majority in the sixth and ninth innings Sunday night when a 'U-C-A' chant was heard throughout Dudy Noble Field. In a MSU 'White-Out' promotion in which Bulldogs fans were encouraged to wear white, UCA, which wore all-white uniforms, felt like it was playing a modified home game.
"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 two-run double in the sixth that blew the game open.
"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 chased starting pitcher Trevor Fitts in the third. The Bulldogs made two infield errors that helped the Bears score two unearned runs. The first error came on an errant throw by junior Adam Frazier on a double play ground ball that allowed both runs to score. It was one of two errors for the Bulldogs' All-Southeastern Conference Defensive team shortstop Sunday night.
"I felt it was a two-pitch ballgame," Cohen said. "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 allowed one hit in 2 2/3 innings. He struck out one and walked two, but the errors prevented him from going more than 48 pitches in his third career start. Myles Gentry (4-1) took the loss. He allowed four of his five hits in the Bears' three-run sixth. Scott Zimmerle had an RBI single to give UCA a 3-2 lead before Treece's double to left field accounted for the final margin. Gentry walked one and didn't strike out a batter in 3 1/3 innings. Will Cox struck out two in two hitless innings.
"Trevor Fitts deserves an apology from our entire team and coaching staff because he was a warrior tonight," Cohen said.