Mississippi State, UCLA seeking first baseball titles, but who wins?
What would it mean to win a national championship?
Mississippi State coach John Cohen and UCLA coach John Savage could only imagine as their teams prepare to meet in the College World Series for the 2013 title.
Neither the Bulldogs nor the Bruins have ever won a baseball championship, although it seems as though everyone around them has done it.
Mississippi State has watched SEC rivals win three of the past four years. South Carolina won back-to-back titles in 2010-11. LSU won the school's sixth title in 2009.
UCLA knows only too well that Pac-12 rival USC has won 12 titles, twice as many as any other school in the nation.
Asked if it's a surprise that UCLA hasn't won a title (the Bruins finished as runner-ups in 2010), Savage said, "It's not a surprise because there are only a few teams that have one, certainly USC having 12 and LSU and it goes down from there. ... It's not like they hand them out. You have to earn it."
Cohen was pretty much out of patience "after you have the 900th person ask you what this would mean to your school and you and your players."
How about they go find out and then get back to us?
Here's a glance at the Bulldogs and the Bruins heading into the best-of-three championship series:
Mississippi State (51-18)
The Bulldogs don't have a rotation in the traditional sense. They have starting pitchers only in that someone has to throw the first pitch, but it isn't unusual for the middle relievers to arrive early and stay late.
Cohen said sophomore righty Trevor Fitts (0-0, 2.86 ERA) will start the opener against UCLA, although don't expect him to hang around long. Fitts has not pitched past the third inning in his three postseason starts. The Game 2 starter likely depends on what happens in Game 1. Senior righty Kendall Graveman (8-5, 3.09 ERA), who started Friday's against Oregon State, will ask for the ball on short rest.
This is where it gets interesting. The team's biggest winners are lefties Ross Mitchell (13-0, 1.27 ERA) and Chad Girodo (9-1, 1.56 ERA). Mitchell has made 33 appearances and Girodo has made 35, although neither one has started a game all season. They are the bridge to one of the nation's top closers, sophomore righty Jonathan Holder (2-0, 1.24 ERA, 21 SV). If any other relievers are in the game, it means things aren't going as planned for the Bulldogs.
TD Ameritrade Park has yielded only three home runs in 12 games during the series, but it couldn't contain junior right fielder Hunter Renfroe (.355, 16 HR, 65 RBI, 9 SB). The Padres' first-round draft pick displayed uncommon power with a three-run homer into the wind in Friday's 4-1 win over Oregon State. Big first baseman Wes Rea (.300, 7 HR, 40 RBI) doesn't have Renfroe's power, but he can produce runs nonetheless. A group of junior infielders -- second baseman Brett Pirtle (.312, 33 RBI), shortstop Adam Frazier (.358, 38 RBI, 9 SB) and third baseman Alex Detz (.320, 31 RBI) -- get the Mississippi offense going at the top of the lineup.
Why They'll Win
Mississippi State plays loose -- a group of reserves called the "bench mob" sees to that -- and possesses an unyielding quality that sooner or later leads to run-scoring opportunities. And if the middle relievers get a lead to Holder, it's over.
Why They Won't
Mississippi State is not the most accomplished defensive team. UCLA will exploit this with bunts and stolen bases to pressure the Bulldogs into making costly mistakes.
Junior righties Adam Plutko (9-3, 2.29 ERA) and Nick Vander Tuig (13-4, 2.31 ERA) and sophomore lefty Grant Watson (9-3, 3.01 ERA) represented just about the best 1-2-3 punch in the nation during the regular season and they've carried it through the postseason. They have combined to allow just two runs over 20 innings in Omaha and are all ready to go after 2-1, 2-1 and 4-1 wins over LSU, North Carolina State and North Carolina, respectively.
Like Mississippi State, the Bruins have outstanding middle relief serving as a bridge to one of the country's best closers. Righties Zack Weiss (2-1, 2.27 ERA) and James Kaprielian (0-0, 1.59 ERA) are the first two out of the 'pen, although freshman lefty Cody Poteet (4-6, 4.84) could get the call if the situation calls for it. Sophomore righty David Berg (7-0, 0.96 ERA, 23 SV), the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year, will set an NCAA single-season record with one more save. Berg hasn't had the cleanest outings in Omaha, but he did extricate himself from a bases-loaded, no outs predicament in the ninth inning Friday against North Carolina by allowing just one run.
The UCLA offense was the least productive of the eight teams to reach Omaha. The Bruins have batted a collective .247 (only .182 in three CWS games) with 19 homers while averaging 4.7 runs/game. But the Bruins are resourceful and opportunistic, with sophomore third baseman Kevin Kramer (.276, 3 HR, 41 RBI, 9 SB), junior shortstop Pat Valaika (.250, 5 HR, 46 RBI, 8 SB) and junior centerfielder Brian Carroll (.257, 20 RBI, 30 SB) leading the way. Senior second baseman Cody Regis (.233, 19 RBI) doesn't have the best numbers, but this is his third trip to the CWS in four years and that has to count for something.
Why They'll Win
The UCLA pitching staff continues to allow just one run a game and the offense creates something out of nothing -- taking advantage of an error here or a sacrifice fly there -- to score twice.
Why They Won't
If Mississippi State puts up three or four runs early, the Bruins have rarely displayed the offensive ability to get back in a game.
UCLA over Mississippi State in three games.
The Bruins have won more national championships (108) than any school in the nation. It's about time the baseball team got one.