We’re getting used to tremblars in this part of the world.
Folks who follow college baseball are getting used to the one that occurred last weekend at Starkville, Miss.
The University of Central Arkansas baseball team won two out of three games at tradition-rich Dudy Noble Field, where visiting teams often wilt.
The Bulldogs were 17-0 and ranked third in the country going into the second game of the series.
A team from a mid-major conference winning one game from a major college program can be considered a fluke, especially when coaches are still experimenting with lineups and the games occur before the spring foliage is in full bloom.
Winning two of three in one of the most hostile environments in college baseball is bigtime. It shows the perpetrators belong on the same field with a top-five program and one of the favorites from one of the best conferences in college baseball.
Now, look more closely.
The Bears (12-2) never trailed in games 2 and 3 of the series. Bryce Biggerstaff threw a complete-game against Mississippi State in the rubber game, won decisively by the Bears, 7-3.
Jonathan Holder, the Bulldogs’ closer, was a consensus NCAA All-American pitcher last year with a .032 ERA. He’s hardly ever given up a run in two seasons. UCA’s Michael Marietta homered off on him Saturday and drove in two more runs with a hit off him Sunday.
College baseball is a marathon. There is a lot of ebb and flow.
The Bears, just outside of their first top-25 rating by ESPN, are growling and are for real.
Visiting teams, particularly from non-SEC conferences, just don’t go into Dudy Noble Field and do what UCA just did — win two games, while never trailing in either, and get a complete-game pitching performance.
The Bears put mufflers on cowbells.
UCA played before an average of 7,000 fans in the three-game series. Mississippi State has already drawn more than 160,000 fans for baseball this season.
“I’m from Mississippi and my family is from Mississippi,” said UCA softball coach David Kuhn. “In Mississippi, baseball is defined by Mississippi State baseball or Delta State baseball. I know how hard a place it is to win. I tweeted all weekend. No one in my family in Mississippi has answered anything.”
The Bulldogs had a 20-game home winning streak.
“We just played ball,” said third-year UCA coach Allen Gum. “Our guys didn’t look like they were nervous and they stayed with the system. The ball bounced our way on Saturday and we got a couple of breaks Sunday. We pitched really well, we defended really well and we got timely hitting.”
The Bears committted two errors in the three games. UCA batters walked nine times in Saturday’s victory. In two games, their players were hit by the pitcher 11 times.
“The walks showed plate discipline; the hit batsmen showed toughness,” Gum said. “Logan Moon got hit in the middle of the back by a fastball at 96 miles per hour. That’s being tough.”
Gum doesn’t describe his team as flashy. Although they are strong for their size, the Bears won’t win many pregames.
“We’re not big, but we play with a lot of heart and we play well as a team,” he said. “They are just good, solid baseball players who trust each other. Our pitchers trust our defense, our defense trusts our pitchers and our batters trust the system.”
“Our older guys knew going in we had a chance to win,” said Marietta. “Saturday was probably one of the most intense games I’ve ever been in. We stayed calm.”
What the Bears just did invites a conversation that would have been considered unfathomable at the beginning of the season.
The best college baseball team in the state?
It’s no longer no-brainer University of Arkansas. Currently, you could make a strong case that it’s UCA. The Bears are definitely in the thick of the conversation. The Hogs and the Bears are at least 1A and 1B, not necessarily in that order. The Bears have shown they can go toe-to-toe, batter-to-batter, pitcher-to-pitcher with them. They are not intimidated by SEC teams.
It adds spice to the question, why don’t they play? With the scholarship limits in baseball, the playing field is about as level between mid-major DI and major conference DI as in any sport.
Wouldn’t a game or two between the Hogs and the Bears at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock be really cool and good for baseball throughout the state? Throw in Arkansas-Little Rock and Arkansas State and make it a tournament. It would probably create the most baseball excitement in the state as well as a revenue-producer.
That’s a pipe dream for now, dictated by a UA policy that is out of touch with the times and the culture.
But here’s one result of UCA’s two victories at Starkville over a No. 3-ranked team: The burden of proof has for the first time shifted to the Razorbacks to prove they are the best baseball program in the state.
But the Bears can’t beat their chests too much. It’s a long season. They have to prove their the best team in the Southland Conference, whose teams have for years have often defeated major conference opponents.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at email@example.com or 501-505-1235)