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MSU loses to Holy Cross, splits series

 

Matthew Stevens

 

STARKVILLE -- Jake Vickerson said it's not time to press the panic button. 

 

The latest result for the Mississippi State baseball team has fans scratching their heads about the team. 

 

Mississippi State (4-4), which entered the weekend ranked No. 7 in the Baseball America poll, dropped a 6-1 decision to Holy Cross on Sunday in the final game of the four-game weekend series at Dudy Noble Field. The loss was the Bulldogs' second in a row to the Crusaders, who play in a conference -- the Patriot League -- that prohibits its member schools from giving its student-athletes athletic scholarships. 

 

On Sunday, junior right-hander Donny Murphy, who is coming off labrum surgery that kept him out of play in the Cape Cod League this summer, allowed six hits and one run in 96 pitches in seven innings. No one in MSU's lineup had multiple hits, and Vickerson, the leadoff hitter, was the only player to reach multiple times (single, walk).  

 

"I just don't think it's time to freak out, and I'm not going to say this is a problem," said Vickerson, a transfer from Shelton State. "We don't need to go into the clubhouse and feel sorry for ourselves because they beat us fair and square. We have to go back to the drawing board." 

 

Murray, who pitches to contact, was 7-3 with a 4.33 ERA last season. He held batters to a team-low .264 batting average, which was seventh in the Patriot League.  

 

Holy Cross, which opened its 2014 season in Starkville, split with the 2013 national runner-up after practicing outdoors for short segments. The Crusaders lost 12 seniors and a drafted junior from the 2013 team that claimed the program's first Patriot League regular-season title. 

 

"It's below zero with the wind chill when we're outside practicing on a plowed football field turf surface with snow banks as high as the eye can see," Holy Cross coach Greg DiCenzo said. "I can't say I'm surprised because we have some really good baseball players in our dugout." 

 

With all of those hurdles to overcome against a Southeastern Conference program, Holy Cross (2-2) looked more fundamentally sound on defense and at the plate. The Crusaders committed fewer errors (seven to two) and left fewer runners on base (37 to 34) in the series.  

 

"We think we should've won this series," DiCenzo said. "We played better than them. We think we had enough talent and leadership to come in here and win this series, but I'll take two back home." 

 

MSU coach John Cohen tried to dismiss this slow start after the game by saying the Bulldogs are in the bad segment of their season. MSU has never lost four games before March under John Cohen until this season.  

 

"We're not able to put anything together," Cohen said. "I think we'll have the chance to do that at some point, but it's just not happening. I think we're just trying too hard on offense and defensively." 

 

MSU has made an error in the past five games and is 2-3 in that stretch. Cohen said Sunday his staff will continue to mix and match lineups to find the right chemistry. 

 

"The issue is when guys are getting their opportunities they're sort of turning it into a tryout and using more effort than needed," Cohen said. "You could just play nine every day and say, 'That's it', but you can't block out the rest of your club when some of them deserve opportunities as well." 

 

Holy Cross sophomore Nick Lovullo went 3-for-5 in the leadoff spot with two runs and two RBIs. 

 

The right side of the MSU infield has five of the team's nine errors. The Bulldogs also haven't settled on a starter at shortstop and third base. MSU pitchers have thrown 10 wild pitches by the team's platoon of catchers, and the offense has left an average of 9.5 runners on in games each game. 

 

"It's not from a lack of effort from our kids," Cohen said. "We learned a lot about our left-side defense and we come out of this weekend with a real grasp at our catching situation." 

 

The last time Holy Cross defeated a SEC opponent was Feb. 25, 2012, when it beat No. 4 Texas A&M 7-3 in College Station, Texas, but lost the other two games of the three-game set. The Crusaders had only three starters that experienced that victory on the field two years later in Starkville. 

 

"Our guys coming into a place like this and playing at a high level proves we will won't get shellshocked in any environment," DiCenzo said. "Our players expect to show up at the park and compete to win. There's no other option on the table, and I think it showed this weekend." 

 

In the home dugout, Cohen continues to stress patience as the Bulldogs struggle to find consistency.  

 

"You play 56 ballgames for a reason, and if you're mentally weak you're going to let a 5-year-old say, 'You went 0-for-4' get you," Cohen said. "I'll wear all of it for our club. When we lose, it's my fault, and when we win it's because our players played great. That's how it works in our industry." 

 

MSU will practice today, which normally is an off day for the players, before taking on Mount St. Mary's at 4 p.m. Tuesday. 

 

Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.

 

 

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