OMAHA—Flanked by four of their players, Mississippi State coach John Cohen and UCLA coach John Savage stood on the podium in the TD Ameritrade Park media room with the national championship trophy between them, their faces stern while photographers snapped away.
Then a photographer called out in a deep Mississippi drawl, “I hate to ask this, but could y’all smile?”
Cohen turned to Savage and quipped, “I bet you won’t be able to guess where he’s from. Is that a SoCal accent?
“South Orange County,” Savage retorted with a grin. “I think you guys have a little bit more media here than we do.”
Los Angeles might be one of the nation’s largest media markets, but Starkville (population: 23,888) dwarfs L.A. when it comes to coverage of college baseball. The Los Angeles media presence has been shamefully non-existent in Omaha, while a strong contingent of MSU beat reporters have been hard at work filing daily dispatches for a fan base that is always hungry for more coverage of their beloved Bulldogs.
Mississippi State averaged 7,294 fans per game this season, and drew more than 11,000 fans twice in regional games. UCLA did not qualify for the national attendance rankings (which require a minimum of 1,200 fans per game), and its largest regional crowd was 1,749.
So it’s fair to say there are some significant cultural differences between Mississippi State and UCLA, the two teams who will face off in the best-of-three College World Series Finals, starting Monday night.
“I don’t know how much deer hunting or bass fishing they do in Los Angeles, so off the field it’s probably going to be a little bit different,” MSU first baseman Wes Rea said.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s two totally different worlds,” said UCLA shortstop Pat Valaika. “L.A. is a big city; you have the beach and a lot of things to do. Starkville is . . . Starkville. I mean, I can’t say I’ve ever visited. But some bass fishing does sound pretty good, so maybe after the season ends I’ll hit up Starkville.”
UCLA ace Adam Plutko searched for common ground.
“We do the bass fishing on the video games, and the big-game hunting and all that kind of stuff, so it’s pretty similar there,” Plutko joked. “You know, it’s the style of baseball. Where you’re from doesn’t matter. Major League Baseball proves that—guys from the Dominican that have nothing or guys from here that have everything. It’s just baseball, when it comes down to it.”
Neither one of these schools has ever won a national championship in baseball, but UCLA has won more NCAA team championships than any other school in all sports combined: 108. Mississippi State has never won a team championship in any sport. Its baseball team has a storied baseball history, with nine trips to the College World Series, but this group of Bulldogs has already taken the program to new heights just by reaching the Finals for the first time ever.
“For us to be here and the rich tradition—the Rafael Palmeiros, the Will Clarks, the people that have gone through here that haven’t had the opportunity but have been great ballplayers at Mississippi State—to have the opportunity to do what we’re going to do starting Monday is something that’s special,” MSU senior righty Kendall Graveman said. “It really resonates with Starkville and the people of Starkville.”
Rea expanded upon that point with an anecdote about a friend who works in a corn field.
“He called me after we won the game the other day and said he looked across the corn field, and everybody was jumping around, going crazy,” Rea said. “So that is the kind of thing people are doing back home. It’s just a small-town type living, and they haven’t been able to say we have a national championship to claim.”
The Bulldogs are making their first trip to Omaha since 2007, but the Bruins have been in three of the last four seasons. Senior second baseman Cody Regis is the lone holdover from the 2010 UCLA team that reached the Finals and lost to South Carolina, and Savage said Regis has given the younger players some insight about what to expect.
Savage himself has plenty of experience facing Southeastern Conference powers in Omaha, dating back to his days as Southern California’s pitching coach in 1998 and 2000. When he took the Bruins to the Finals in 2010, they were just establishing themselves as a national power. Now, they are firmly established, and only one hurdle remains.
“A national championship is always going to hang over any program that’s an elite program that hasn’t won one,” Savage said. “You could probably mention 25 schools. We just happen to be playing for that one prize. You have to have at least a shot on goal, and we both do have that opportunity—but both teams have earned that right.
“There are a lot of qualities on both sides of the ball that really sets up for a great national championship series.”
Here’s a look at how the teams match up:
Good luck finding another finalist in college baseball history that approaches pitching the way Mississippi State does. With the exception of Graveman (who started Friday and will not be available again until at least Tuesday), no MSU starter is expected to pitch deep into the game—or even into the fifth inning. Mississippi State’s starter is essentially just the first member of its pitching committee. Cohen indicated he would likely start sophomore righty Trevor Fitts (who exited in the third inning in each of his three postseason starts) in Monday’s opener, but the rest of the “rotation” is TBD.
“Certainly I always feel like that is the question that always gets asked,” Cohen said. “But for us, it’s as important who is available for us in the middle of the game. Certainly Chad Girodo and Ross Mitchell, among others, will be available.”
UCLA has a conventional staff, with three outstanding starters who are well rested and lined up for the Finals: junior righties Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig, plus sophomore lefty Grant Watson. That trio has allowed just two runs total in 20 innings in Omaha.
Both teams are exceptional in this area. It’s no coincidence that the last two teams standing feature Baseball America’s first-team All-America closer (UCLA sidewinder David Berg) and second-team All-America closer (MSU’s power-armed Jonathan Holder). Both of them have had some adventures in the postseason—Berg blew a save against Cal State Fullerton in the super regional but pitched well in extra innings to earn the win, while Holder nearly blew a save against Virginia, allowing two runs in the ninth and throwing wildly to first base with the tying run on third, but getting saved by Rea’s great pick.
Holder has been characteristically dominant in Omaha, while Berg has had to work his way out of jams in all three of his CWS appearances. Not that UCLA is worried about him—nor should it be. Berg’s next appearance will be his 100th in the last two seasons, with 50 last year and 49 thus far in 2013. The single-season NCAA record is 51 (Connor Falkenbach, Florida, 2005), and Berg already has tied the single-season saves mark with 23.
“I would say he’s been pushed, but come on—you get run out there as much as he does, you’re not going to go 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Things are going to happen,” Savage said Friday. “Hey, he’s our guy, that’s who we’re going to go to. He’s one of the major reasons why we’re here. And he can screw up every now and then, it’s OK. I mean, we give him a little opportunity to get out of trouble . . . He’s had a lot of clean innings, and (Friday) it wasn’t a clean inning.”
UCLA has a pair of power-armed setup men in righties James Kaprielian and Zack Weiss, helping bridge any gap between the starters and Berg.
Mississippi State leans even more heavily on its bullpen, using lefties Mitchell and Girodo to get from the third or fourth inning until the late innings. Mitchell embodies the term “crafty lefty,” with an 82-84 mph fastball and a breaking ball that can come in as slow as 66 mph. He has worked 5 1/3 scoreless innings over two appearances in Omaha, and he is 13-0, 1.27 in 92 innings over 33 appearances this season. He has not allowed a run in 14 innings this postseason. Girodo, a low-slot lefty with a killer slider, has been particularly dominant in the NCAA tournament, racking up 34 strikeouts and five walks in 19 innings. He struck out 10 in a long relief stint against Indiana last week.
“Their bullpen is as good a bullpen as there is in the country,” Savage said of the Bulldogs. “When you have two guys coming out of the bullpen with 22 wins and zero starts, that’s hard to describe.”
The styles are different, but the bullpens are major strengths for both of these clubs. But we’ll give a miniscule edge to MSU because it asks more out of its bullpen, and because Holder has looked a bit sharper than Berg in Omaha.
Slight Edge: Mississippi State.
By now, everybody knows UCLA is hitting .248 as a team and .182 in Omaha. As Savage has repeatedly stressed, the Bruins aren’t a bad offensive team. They are opportunistic, they consistently turn in quality at-bats, they hit situationally and draw walks and execute the bunting game. In sum, they scratch and claw for nine innings to push across a few runs by any means necessary. When opponents make mistakes, either by issuing walks or making errors, the Bruins capitalize.
But clearly Mississippi State is the more formidable offensive team. Adam Frazier is a dynamic catalyst. First-round pick Hunter Renfroe is one of college baseball’s most dangerous power hitters, as he showed Friday against Oregon State, when he smacked a three-run homer through a fierce wind. The hulking Rea (seven home runs) has plenty of power in his own right, and he has racked up clutch hits in the postseason. All three of those stars, plus Alex Detz, Brett Pirtle and Demarcus Henderson, are hitting .324 or better in the NCAA tournament.
“Offensively, they’re tough-minded,” Savage said of MSU. “They’re versatile. They can run. They have lefthanded hitters, righthanded power, of course.
“We just don’t have the physicalness, as I look at it, of the Southeastern Conference, and the bodies, and the speed. You look at our teams, and sometimes I look out there and say, ‘Oh God, we’re stretching.’ It’s not a real physical-looking team. I think everybody in the room knows that, but they’re ballplayers. We have good players, and we have talent. But it’s just a little different way of creating a team.”
UCLA’s way has worked time and again in the postseason against more physical teams with better offensive numbers, from Cal Poly and San Diego in the regional, to Cal State Fullerton in the super regional, to LSU, N.C. State and North Carolina in Omaha. When your pitching staff allows just 13 runs in eight postseason games, it simply isn’t necessary to have an elite offense.
Edge: Mississippi State.
UCLA is one of the best defensive teams in college baseball, with a .980 fielding percentage (fifth in the nation). Valaika and Kevin Kramer are true standouts on the left side of the infield, while Carroll has superb range in center, and every other position is solid.
Mississippi State has its own standouts at shortstop (Frazier), first base (Rea), and in the outfield (Bradford and the rifle-armed Renfroe). But the Bulldogs will need to be better defensively at third base and off the mound to defend against the bunt-happy Bruins. MSU is a good defensive team, but with a .972 fielding percentage, it is not elite.
Both teams are loose, confident and hot. The antics of Mississippi State’s “bench mob” evoke South Carolina’s recent title teams, but the fun in the dugout and outside the ballpark does not distract from MSU’s focus on the field.
“I think good teams can do that when it’s time to have a little fun, but they know when it’s business time, too,” said Rea, who was voted a co-captain as a sophomore. “So I think all great teams know when it’s time to flip the switch on.”
Between Regis, Plutko, Vander Tuig, Berg and Valaika, UCLA has a veteran core with more Omaha experience than Mississippi State has. But it’s tough to give either team an edge in this category.
“Mississippi State’s a great team,” Valaika said. “They play real loose and have a lot of fun. We have a lot of respect for them . . . They have fantastic beards as well.”
UCLA might not be able to compete in the facial hair category, but it’s clear that both of these teams know how to have fun—and know how to win.