March 29, 2014 11:27:33 PM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Derrick Armstrong has eased the concerns of Mississippi State baseball fans who were worried about C.T. Bradford's injury.
The senior outfielder went 6-for-8 Saturday and had a key two-out hit in Game 2 that sparked No. 16 MSU to a 5-1 victory against Arkansas at Dudy Noble Field. Arkansas' Jalen Beeks scattered nine hits in eight innings to lead the Razorbacks to a 4-0 victory in Game 1.
Armstrong's performance helped put MSU (19-10, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) in position to win the series at 1:30 p.m. today. It also raised his batting average from .260 to .328. He added to his success by stealing his ninth base of the season, which is tied for the team lead.
Armstrong gave MSU its first lead of the day -- 2-1 -- in the sixth inning with a looping single to short right field. The hit was part of a four-run explosion.
"Derrick has just worked so hard at putting the barrel where it needs to be because in this ballpark a 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 came on a classic swing. The 5-foot-10 outfielder took a fastball to the opposite field on a day his teammates struggled to find holes in clutch situations. MSU was 2-for-13 with runners on in the opener, but the middle of MSU's order found success in the middle of the game against Arkansas' bullpen.
Armstrong filled in for the seventh-straight game in center field for Bradford and provided his first three-hit effort in Game 1. Bradford didn't play Saturday as he continues to recover from a hip injury he suffered in MSU's SEC opener at Georgia. Bradford was hitting .323 before the injury, but Armstrong has been consistent at the plate and hasn't made an error this 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," Armstrong said. "It's my job to make sure the production doesn't dip."
MSU junior left-hander Ross Mitchell (5-1) threw his second complete game (98 pitches) in three SEC starts this season for the win. The preseason All-America candidate is 7-0 against league foes.
"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 recorded 12 fly-ball outs and 12 groundouts on a day the wind was blowing as much as 20 mph inward.
In Game 1, MSU ran into one of the league's hottest pitching staffs. After winning a home series against Alabama last weekend and sweeping two midweek games against Mississippi Valley State, Arkansas had allowed two runs in a 57-inning span until MSU's four runs in the sixth in Game 2. The streak included four shutouts in the past 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."
Beeks, a junior left-hander, allowed three runs on four hits in 3 1/3 innings last week in a 17-9 loss to Alabama in Fayetteville, Ark. The Bulldogs never had a runner in scoring position with less than two outs as Beeks pitched to contact in his 114-pitch effort. Beeks and Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn adjusted the placement of his hands leading up to the 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. 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) used run-scoring hits from Brian Anderson, Eric Fisher, and Bobby Wernes in the second, fourth, and fifth to take the opener.
Cohen's reshuffling of MSU's batting order had less than the desired effects as the Bulldogs were shut out for the first time since an 8-0 loss to UCLA in the final game of the 2013 College World Series 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. "I'm so proud of our guys for 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."
Gavin Collins' double in the ninth inning was the Bulldogs' only extra-base hit of the game.
Sophomore Preston Brown allowed four runs in five innings (89 pitches) in his second SEC start. Ben Bracewell, who opened SEC play as the team's Friday night starter, struck out six in four innings.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.