The cowbells, synonymous with Mississippi State, echoed throughout the stadium. The cheers and bells permeated the air around the still-under-construction Dudy Noble Field. Why wouldn’t Mississippi State fans be happy? Their team, 5-10 in conference play and ranked last in the Southeastern Conference West standings before last weekend, just swept the No. 3 team in the country. Perhaps it was appropriate that Dudy Noble isn’t completely finished because it’s a great representation of Razorback baseball: still a work in progress.
The Hogs came into the weekend with something to prove. Having lost their two previous road series, the Diamond Hogs eyed their first road series win against struggling Mississippi State. The Hogs could shut doubters down by showing their dominance over the Bulldogs. Instead, it was Mississippi State that looked like the No. 3 team in the country.
Game one starter Blaine Knight pitched well, and a grand slam by junior outfielder Eric Cole gave the Razorbacks a 4-0 lead in the second inning. After tacking on another run in the fifth, it looked like the Hogs were going to cruise to their fifth SEC win in six tries in game one of a series, but the Bulldogs had other plans. When Knight found himself in trouble in the sixth inning, Razorback coach Dave Van Horn went to the Hogs’ closer, Matt Cronin, for a 10-out save. Cronin blew the opportunity in the eighth inning, and the worst team in the SEC won.
The game-one loss was a gut punch. No baseball team should lose a five-run lead, especially when that team is supposed to be one of the best in the country. Even after the heart-wrenching loss, the series was still up for grabs. Because of impending weather, the Hogs and Dogs played two games Saturday. Neither game would turn out well for the UofA.
In game one of the double header, the Razorbacks left 11 men on base. In the eighth and ninth innings, the Hogs had a chance to score with bases loaded but couldn’t capitalize either time.
Game two of the double header started out well for the Hogs. Three runs in the first inning made me think Van Horn had his guys focused for the final game of the series, but I was mistaken. The fifth inning of the game was a microcosm of the entire weekend for the UofA. The Razorbacks got a man to second base with nobody out. Van Horn decided to bunt the runner up to third base, and sophomore outfielder Evan Lee executed a perfect sacrifice bunt.
The Hogs had a runner on third with one out. Anyone who watches baseball knows what had to happen. The runner had to score. It doesn’t take much; a fly ball out of the infield or a ground ball to anyone besides the pitcher will most likely score the runner. Cole, one of the Hogs’ hottest hitters, stepped up to the plate with an RBI opportunity served on a silver platter before him. Instead of doing his job and scoring the run, Cole struck out, leaving the runner on third. The next batter, freshman third baseman Casey Martin, grounded out, and the Hogs lost a golden opportunity to score a run.
The same situation presented itself in the bottom of the fifth inning to Mississippi State. The Bulldogs had a man on third with one out. The batter for Mississippi State grounds a ball to the second baseman, and the runner from third scores.
Teams that win games, like Mississippi State in this series, manufacture runs. Bad teams don’t have a specific approach for every at bat in the game. Good teams hold five run leads on teams in the bottom of the conference. Bad teams lose focus and don’t score with runners in scoring position.
It’s not just this series either. The Razorbacks’ struggles on the field are evident in their fielding percentage, which is ranked No. 61 in the country. For some perspective, that ranks the Hogs behind the University Central Arkansas and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
The Razorbacks have the talent to be a good team, but talent alone doesn’t win championships. If the Hogs put it all together, then they can be a great team, but right now they just don’t have what it takes to win a championship. In baseball, you have to know when to swing for the fence and win to poke a pitch to the second baseman to score a run. The Hogs can swing with the best of them, but if they don’t start playing team ball, you can call them the “Nomahogs”.