The Central Arkansas Bears came up just short of becoming the first ever Southland Conference program to appear in an NCAA Super Regional on Monday night, falling to the Mississippi State Bulldogs by a score of 6-1 to end the best season in school history with their first NCAA Tournament appearance and a record of 42-22. The Bears exit the regional with a 3-2 record having eliminated a pair of conference champions in Mercer (Atlantic Sun) and South Alabama (Sunbelt).
"It's been a ride," said outfielder Forrestt Allday after the game, "I couldn't ask to be a part of a better group of guys. It's been a great season, so there are no regrets." The sentiment was echoed by pitcher Bryce Biggerstaff, who said, "It's been a great season. Coach talks about doing things that have never been done before and I think we've done a lot of things that have never been done in Central Arkansas history." Asked if he thought he'd ever be a part of something as special as this season has been for the Bears, Allday replied, "We're so close-knit, probably not. It's hard to explain it."
Mississippi State (46-18) jumped out to an early lead, plating a pair of runs on two hits and a Central Arkansas error in the bottom of the first inning. A ground out started the inning, before designated hitter Alex Detz singled through the left side. After Detz advanced to second on a wild pitch, right fielder Hunter Renfroe moved him to third with a bloop single to shallow center field. The Bulldogs plated the game's first run when second baseman Brett Pirtle grounded out to first base, scoring Detz and moving Renfroe to second. First baseman Wes Rea then hit a hard ground ball to third base. Central Arkansas third baseman Garrett Brown fielded and fired a low throw to first base. First baseman Scott Zimmerle was unable to corral the throw, allowing Renfroe to hustle home from second to extend the lead to two runs. A strike out ended the frame.
The Bulldogs added to their lead in the bottom of the second inning, grabbing another run on one hit and another Central Arkansas error. Third baseman Sam Frost hit a soft grounder down the first base line that glanced off of Zimmerle's glove. Following a pop up, catcher Nick Ammirati poked a single through the left side of the infield on a hit-and-run, allowing Frost to move all the way to third. Another ground out, this time to second base, drove in Frost to extend the Bulldog lead to 3-0. A ground out to first ended the inning.
After Central Arkansas left the bases loaded in both the third and fourth innings, Mississippi State took advantage of the missed opportunities to extend their lead in the bottom of the fourth. After a lineout started the inning, left fielder Demarcus Henderson hit a pop up to shallow right field. Allday attempted to make a sliding catch on the play, but came up just short. Henderson ended up at second base when the ball bounced over a sliding Allday. Biggerstaff got a ground out, but a single to left field scored Henderson from second, pushing the Mississippi State lead to 4-0. Detz hit a single deep in the hole, and shortstop Adam Frazier went first to third on the throw. Right fielder Hunter Renfroe laced a single through the left side, scoring Frazier and extending the lead to 5-0 in favor of the Bulldogs.
Mississippi wasn't quite finished, getting one more run in the sixth inning. A strikeout and a flyout started the inning before Frazier collected an infield single. Detz was hit by a pitch to move him to second and Renfroe roped a single to left to score him and push the lead to 6-0.
Central Arkansas didn't go down without a fight though. Third baseman Garrett Brown got the top of the ninth inning started with a double to right field before a pair of strikeouts put the Bears down to their final out. Allday laid down a bunt and won a foot race to first. Pitcher Chad Giordo lunged to make the tag and the ball popped out of his glove. He picked it up and fired to home in an attempt to get Brown, who was racing to the plate. The throw sailed high and wide, allowing Brown to score and pull the Bears to within 6-1. A final strikeout ended the game.
Biggerstaff (6-5) took the loss for Central Arkansas, working 3.2 innings and giving up five runs on seven hits and a walk. He struck out one. Blake Clayton threw 3.1 innings, giving up one run on three hits. Clayton didn't allow a walk and struck out three. Clint Green threw a scoreless eighth inning, allowing one hit.
Ben Bracewell got the start for the Bulldogs and lasted 2.1 innings. He allowed one hit and two walks while striking out five. Giordo (7-1) got the win in relief, throwing 6.2 innings and allowing just one run on five hits and two walks. He struck out 12 batters
"We faced a really good arm tonight, and we made a couple of errors," said head coach Allen Gum after the game. "You've got to have a timely hit, and it just didn't happen for us tonight. Asked about the Bears record setting season and if this was the best team to ever play for Central Arkansas, Gum answered, "There's no question. I don't know about the most talent, but definitely the best team. We didn't pitch or hit or field our way here, we toughed our way here. We got tough guys that love each other and they grinded it out to get us here."
Following the game, the All-Tournament team was announced, and the Bears were well represented. Central Arkansas placed four players on the team, second only to Mississippi State, who saw six players receive All-Tournament honors. Freshman Connor Gilmore, who threw a complete game, four hit shutout against South Alabama took one of the two pitcher spots. Catcher Michael Marietta, who hit .316 with three RBI in the tournament, shortstop Justin Treece, who drove in two runs with a double, and left fielder Ethan Harris, who hit .368 with two RBI and three doubles were also honored.