OMAHA -- For as different Mississippi State and UCLA are off the field, the two sure are similar on the field.
Mississippi State calls Starkville, Miss., population 23,888, home. By comparison, UCLA calls Los Angeles, population 12,828,837 home. The differences go well beyond just population, too. The Bruins live in the big city with the beach nearby, the Bulldogs live in the small city where lakes, ponds and deer blinds are the way of life.
So, when the Bulldogs and Bruins met at the podium at the CWS Championship Series press conference, you knew the vast differences, and similarities, would come up.
"I don't know how much deer hunting or bass fishing they do in Los Angeles, so off the field is probably going to be a bit different," Mississippi State first baseman Wes Rea said. "But, yeah, two teams playing for a national title. I mean, they're doing something right in my opinion."
UCLA right-handed pitcher Adam Plutko and shortstop Pat Valaika also weighed in on the vast differences in funny fashion.
"We do the bass fishing on the video games, and the big game hunting, and all that kind of stuff," he joked. "So it's pretty similar."
"Yeah, I mean it's two totally different worlds. LA is the big city, you have the beach and a lot of things to do. And Starkville is Starkville," Valaika said. "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."
Perhaps for the sake of college baseball, the Pac-12 and SEC programs, respectively, will hook up for a home-and-home regular season series in the near future. But for now, the two clubs are in Omaha vying for their first national title, with MSU vying for even more. MSU doesn't have a single team national title in school history, while UCLA has a nation's best 108 team titles as an athletic department -- zero in baseball, though.
Though different in so many ways, it's quite ironic the Bulldogs and Bruins have used similar recipes to get to this point on the college baseball stage.
The Bulldogs had to get through the Charlottesville Super Regional, on the road, against Virginia, which was a national seed. By comparison, the Bruins had to go through Cal State Fullerton, a national seed, on the road, to get to Omaha. Both MSU and UCLA played exceptionally well in NCAA Super Regional action, setting the stage for magical runs to the national title series.
Here in Omaha, the two teams have used a flair for the dramatic, clutch hitting, and of course, great pitching, though in different ways, to get this far in the tournament.
The Bulldogs have approached things in rather unorthodox fashion from a pitching standpoint. Though right-handed pitcher Kendall Graveman was able to get into the middle innings last time out against Oregon State, he and fellow starting pitcher Trevor Fitts, who will start the series opener on Monday, have been asked to just give the Bulldogs a couple of innings. After that, the Bulldogs are perfectly content with turning the game over to relievers such as Chad Girodo, Ross Mitchell, Jonathan Holder, among others. Interestingly, starting pitchers Jacob Lindgren and Luis Pollorena have yet to make an appearance.
As for the Bruins, they certainly value their bullpen with right-handed pitchers David Berg and James Kaprielian leading the charge. However, they've gotten a trio of fantastic starts from right-handed pitchers Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig, and left-handed pitcher Grant Watson, making it unnecessary to put such a heavy workload on the bullpen.
Certainly different ways of doing things, but equally successful.
That perfectly describes Mississippi State and UCLA, setting the stage for what should be a terrific fight for the national title.
You won't see anyone saying UCLA has a highly productive offense, but opportunistic is a word I've used to describe the Bruins over the past couple of weeks.
UCLA only enters the CWS title series with a .182 batting average over the past week or so, but don't let that fool you -- the Bruins have the ability to score runs. The Bruins are masters at getting a runner on base and finding ways to manufacture that run home. Pretty, ugly or whatever you want to call it, it's a formula that has already proven successful enough to play for a national title.
With that said, the Bruins have a couple of hitters to watch in the title series. First baseman Pat Gallagher has been on an absolute tear in the NCAA postseason, and here in Omaha, sitting pretty with a .364 average in three games in Omaha. Meanwhile, second baseman Cody Regis, who's hitting just .233 overall this season, is the lone member of this team that was on the 2010 club that played South Carolina for the national title. Don't be surprised to see Regis get into the offensive act in this series.
Meanwhile, outfielder Eric Filia could get hot in this series. Despite hitting .111 in nine at-bats in the CWS, Filia still is hitting .400 in eight games of the NCAA postseason. Meanwhile, Kevin Williams is hitting .222 in Omaha, .269 in the NCAA postseason. Bruins leadoff hitter Brian Carroll is another guy to watch in this series. Though Carroll is only hitting .257 overall, he has excellent speed, as evidenced by his impressive 30-for-37 mark in stolen bases.
On the flip side of things, the Bulldogs have been both opportunistic and productive in Omaha, hitting an impressive .297 in the CWS.
Not exactly a shocker, the Bulldogs are led at the plate by shortstop Adam Frazier, outfielder Hunter Renfroe and vastly improved, and well manicured first baseman Wes Rea. Frazier broke the single-season hits record in Mississippi State history in this tournament, leads the nation in hits and has a .333 average with a double in Omaha, while Renfroe has one of three home runs hit in this year's CWS, and also is hitting .250 in the CWS with four RBIs.
Rea has provided the biggest boost of all in the NCAA postseason. He has made significant strides at the plate since the beginning of the spring, and is hitting .462 in Omaha with three doubles and nine total bases.
THE EDGE: Mississippi State
Just a couple of days before the College World Series began, I asked Mississippi State coach John Cohen about his unorthodox approach to the starting rotation, pointing out that he doesn't have a problem turning things over to his bullpen in the fifth or sixth innings.
Cohen's reply? "You're giving me five innings? I'll take one or two times through the batting order."
Touche, Coach Cohen. And unorthodox or not, that formula has worked to perfection for the Bulldogs in the College World Series.
The Bulldogs will send right-handed pitcher Trevor Fitts to the mound in the series opener against the Bruins. Fitts has a good earned-run average of 2.86 overall this season, but had just an average debut in the CWS. Fitts started against Indiana last week, getting lifted in the third inning after allowing two runs on two hits and striking out four and walking one.
Meanwhile, veteran right-hander Kendall Graveman has started two of MSU's three games in the CWS. He looked very good against Oregon State on Friday, allowing a run on four hits in 5 2/3 innings, while as a whole, he has thrown 10 1/3 innings, striking out two, walking four and allowing five runs, three earned, on 10 hits.
Interestingly for the Bulldogs, Jacob Lindgren and Luis Pollorena, who total 26 starts this season, have yet to touch the mound in Omaha, but that's expected to change with Graveman going last Friday and needing some rest, possibly even through Tuesday's Game 2.
As for the Bruins, coach John Savage, a pitching guru, couldn't ask for a better trio of starts from his rotation, which includes right-handers Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig, and left-hander Grant Watson.
Plutko struck out two, walked two and allowed just a run on four hits in seven innings in a CWS-opening win over hard-hitting LSU, Vander Tuig silenced North Carolina State's bats by striking out six, walking none and allowing just a run on four hits in seven innings. Meanwhile, Watson, a crafty at times lefty who sits in the mid-80s with his fastball, was somewhat of a surprise against hard-hitting North Carolina, striking out three, walking one and allowing four hits in six shutout frames.
"Pitching has been our main focus. We've had some really good recruits in the past who have passed up professional baseball, Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, significant guys who established our program," Savage said. "It's been pitching that has kind of put the stamp on the program. I learned a lot from [UC Irvine] coach Mike Gillespie. He taught me the emphasis on pitching, defense and details."
THE EDGE: UCLA
Given just how important Mississippi State's bullpen has been to its success throughout the spring, and even here in Omaha, the Bulldogs definitely get the edge in this category
The Bulldogs have been near unflappable out of the bullpen in the CWS, and it all starts with hard-nosed left-handed reliever Chad Girodo, whose sweeping slider is devastating to hitters on both sides of the plate, almost unhittable to left-handed hitters. Girodo has been phenomenal over the past week or so, striking out 10 batters in 6 1/3 innings of relief work.
Fellow left-handed pitcher Ross Mitchell, more of the crafty nature, also has been terrific in Omaha. He has appeared in 5 1/3 innings for the Bulldogs, striking out just one batter, but also allowing no runs and just seven hits in the process.
The Bulldogs also have a host of other relievers they can go to if things get dicey with Ben Bracewell, Luis Pollorena (who also starts), among others, but they love to close things out with husky right-handed pitcher Jonathan Holder. Holder, who typically sits 90-94 with his fastball, has once again shined in a tournament situation, finishing all three games of the CWS, along with a lengthier performance against Oregon State to begin the CWS, where he tossed 1 2/3 innings.
The Bruins, too, have a very solid bullpen. However, with the starting rotation consistently very good, the Bruins haven't had to rely on the bullpen much in the middle innings this season, and certainly not in Omaha thus far.
UCLA freshman right-handed pitcher James Kaprielian is a key arm to watch. Kaprielian has appeared in 33 games this season and has a 1.59 ERA in 39 2/3 innings of work. He's thrown well at the CWS and has a fastball that can get up to 93-94 at times, along with a nasty breaking pitch. Cody Poteet and Zack Weiss also are worth watching, while David Berg is the primary arm to watch.
Some have pointed to Berg's less than stellar relief performance against North Carolina as a sign he's tired. After all, he's thrown in 49 games this season. But Berg is just fine, and should prove that in the title series. Berg threw two shutout innings against N.C. State earlier in the tournament, as well as a shutout frame in an opening win over LSU.
THE EDGE: Mississippi State
Both the Bulldogs and Bruins pride themselves on playing good defense behind excellent pitching, so it shouldn't come as a surprise both teams are very good in the field.
For the Bulldogs, first baseman Wes Rea has great feet and good command of the field, as well as first base, while shortstop Adam Frazier and second baseman Brett Pirtle formulate one of the better double play duos in the country. Meanwhile, DeMarcus Henderson, C.T. Bradford and Hunter Renfroe are a very solid trio in the outfield, with Renfroe consistently showing off his plus arm.
Mississippi State enters the title series with a .975 fielding percentage in the CWS. Interestingly, the Bruins have been near perfect with a .991 percentage in three games played.
Third baseman Kevin Kramer gave everyone a glimpse of UCLA's quality defense against North Carolina with a beautiful bare-handed grab, while shortstop Pat Valaika, second baseman Cody Regis and first baseman Pat Gallagher are stable defenders. The UCLA outfield also is solid with speedster and center fielder Brian Carroll leading the charge, while Eric Filia and Brenton Allen man their positions well.
THE EDGE: UCLA
MISSISSIPPI STATE WILL WIN THE SERIES IF: The Bulldogs will have a very good chance to win this series if their starting pitching can go four or five innings. The Bulldogs don't have a problem putting Chad Girodo or Ross Mitchell out on the mound in the fourth inning, but for the sake of a three-game series, the starting pitching must give John Cohen's team at least four or five innings to stay on the safe side. Additionally, the Bulldogs could have some success from a power standpoint. Hunter Renfroe has a home run in the CWS, while Wes Rea's should've been home run was knocked down by the wind a couple of games ago. Weather elements could tilt things in State or UCLA's favor.
UCLA WILL WIN THE SERIES IF: The Bruins will take care of business in this series if they are both opportunistic and productive at the plate. In some games in the past, the Bruins have been opportunistic, but not so much productive from an overall standpoint. The Bruins have gotten this far without being ultra productive, but the game changes ever so slightly against the Bulldogs, who have the ability to put up a few runs with some power potential in Renfroe and Rea. UCLA is in business if it gives starting pitchers Plutko, Vander Tuig and Watson some cushion.