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Loss pushes MSU to brink of elimination


Matthew Stevens



STARKVILLE -- Like it or not, the Mississippi State University baseball team has one more game left at Dudy Noble Field this season. 


A 5-2 loss to the University of Central Arkansas on Sunday night forced an elimination game at 7:05 tonight that will end the season for one program and put the other two victories away from the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. 


Twelve errors in the past five games, including eight in two games against UCA in the NCAA Starkville Regional, have contributed to the top-seeded Bulldogs' inability to close out their 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 listening to Pirtle and senior third baseman Sam Frost talk about the team's mental difficulties for nearly 10 minutes, MSU coach John Cohen couldn't hold his tongue. 


"I don't see that at all," Cohen said when asked if his players were nervous or pressing Sunday. "When you have 0.4 seconds to think on a 90 mph 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." 


The Starkville Regional is one of five of the 16 regionals still in action. Top-seeded University of North Carolina and second-seeded Vanderbilt University also will try to avoid elimination at home against Florida Atlantic University and Georgia Tech University, respectively. 


Cohen has seen been in this situation. Cohen was a member of MSU teams in 1987-89 that failed to advance out of the NCAA Mideast and South Regionals at Dudy Noble Field. A loss tonight would mark a similar end to the 1989 season in which MSU defeated Western Carolina University and Nicholls State University before losing two of three games to the University of North Carolina. 


After a four-error performance Sunday night, which included two by shortstop Adam Frazier a week after he was named to the Southeastern Conference's All-Defensive team, Cohen expressed confidence about MSU's ability to rebound. 


"I guess 63 games, in which we won 45 of them," Cohen said. "That should give us a little confidence." 


MSU has lost in the regionals four times (1983, 1989, 1991, and 1992) after it won its first two games. Those regionals involved six-team formats. In the current four-team format, MSU has never lost a regional after it won the first two games. 


MSU, which will be the home team tonight, will face an opponent that has three victories in five games against it this season. 


"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 crowd of 10,226 hoping to see MSU (45-18) advance to the program's fifth Super Regional, MSU hit too many fly balls.  


"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," Cohen said. 


MSU, which has struggled to get quality starting pitching performances in the past two months, didn't name a starting pitcher. Sophomore left-hander Jacob Lindgren (4-3, 4.18 ERA) is one possibility, but he has failed to pitch more than two innings in three of his past five starts. Lindgren failed to get a victory in the final six weeks of the regular season after serving as the team's starting pitcher on Sundays in SEC play. 


Cohen and MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson have avoided throwing a left-hander against UCA's right-handed lineup. MSU may have no choice, unless it wants to start junior right-hander Ben Bracewell (1-1, 1.61). Bracewell walked two and allowed two hits without retiring a batter in his only start of the season (19 games), a 3-1 loss to the University of Arkansas on March 31 in Fayetteville, Ark. He threw a career-best five innings in a 7-6 victory against the University of Mississippi on May 12. 


When asked about his team's starting pitcher, Cohen named relievers Jonathan Holder, Chad Girodo, Bracewell, and C.T. Bradford. 


"I believe in our pitching depth, and if we ram it in the strike zone and make plays behind him, then we should be OK," Cohen said. 


After back-to-back complete-game efforts from starting pitchers, UCA coach Allen Gum will try to piece together a pitching strategy that helps UCA (42-21), which is in its first NCAA tournament, earn its ninth-consecutive victory in elimination games.  


"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 in the bullpen will be available, Gum said all of his pitchers want the baseball to help the team continue a historic season. 


"Maybe 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."



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