MSU, UCLA will face off for first national title

June 24, 2013 10:43:39 AM

Matthew Stevens - mstevens@cdispatch.com

 

OMAHA, Neb. -- Asked if he felt frustrated by the fact his program is one of the few at UCLA that has never won a national championship, fifth-year baseball coach John Savage was more than honest.  

 

"It's not like they hand them out," Savage said. "Let's be clear on that. You have to earn it." 

 

UCLA leads the nation with 108 team championships (129 total national titles) in 17 sports. Savage has plenty of experience facing Southeastern Conference powers in Omaha, dating back to his days as the pitching coach at the University of Southern California in 1998 and 2000. When he took UCLA to the College World Series title series in 2010 against the University of South Carolina, his program was developing into a national power.  

 

At 7 tonight (ESPN), Savage, who Sunday called legendary UCLA men's basketball coach John Wooden an "idol," will get another crack at the national championship trophy when UCLA (47-17) takes on Mississippi State University (51-18) in game one of the best-of-three championship series at TD Ameritrade Park. 

 

"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." 

 

Wooden played an integral role in the UCLA men's basketball program winning 11 national titles. The school's men's volleyball (19) and men's tennis (16) programs have helped men's sports amass 71 national titles, while the softball (11) and women's water polo (seven) programs are part of a women's athletic program that has 38 championships. 

 

Meanwhile, MSU is shooting for its first national championship in any sport. MSU baseball coach John Cohen, who played in the College World Series in 1990 as a player at MSU, is tired of being asked what a national championship would mean for his alma mater.  

 

"This is a very valid question, but you have been the 900th person to ask what would this mean to your school and to you and your players. I still can't answer that," Cohen said. "The minute your brain goes into what happens next, whatever, three, four days from now, you're starting to lose perspective of what got you here. It's kind of like a chess game of whoever loses that perspective first is going to have a disadvantage in this series." 

 

A national championship for MSU would be the first consensus Division I national title for a team from the state of Mississippi. The University of Mississippi regards its 1959, 1960, and 1962 football teams as national champions. 

 

While the teams are similar in style, their pitching staffs can be described as conventional versus unique. UCLA has three outstanding starters -- junior right-handers Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig and sophomore left-hander -- who are well rested and lined up for this final series. Plutko will start tonight, while Vander Tuig likely will start game two. Watson, who pitched six innings Friday in a 4-1 victory against No. 1 national seed University of North Carolina, could be available to start game three. That trio has allowed two runs in 20 innings in Omaha. 

 

"Pitching has been our main, I don't want to say focus, but it's been pitching that's kind of put our stamp on our program," Savage said.  

 

MSU leans more heavily on its bullpen. Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson have relied on left-handers Ross Mitchell (92 innings in 33 games) and Chad Girodo (52 in 35) to come in the fourth or fifth innings to help the Bulldogs piece together games. Mitchell (13-0) has worked 5 1/3 scoreless innings in two appearances in Omaha and has a 1.27 ERA. He hasn't allowed a run in 14 innings in the postseason. Girodo, whose delivery from a lower arm angle makes his slider more effective, has 34 strikeouts and five walks in 19 innings in the NCAA tournament.  

 

"Our kids feel really comfortable in that role," Cohen said. "When we've removed from those roles, we've taken Ross (Mitchell) and made him start and just the comfort level hasn't been there. It's a combination of things, what our club needs and what the young man is comfortable with, and we're trying to make both of those things work." 

 

MSU's offense has come to live in the past five games to back up the pitching staff. Adam Frazier, Wes Rea, Hunter Renfroe, Brett Pirtle, Alex Detz, and Demarcus Henderson are hitting .324 or better in the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs are hitting .297 average in the College World Series, which is the best average of the eight teams. Rea is hitting .462, which also is best for individuals who have played in three or more games, while Pirtle is hitting .417. 

 

Renfroe, who is tied for the SEC lead with 16 home runs, is someone Savage doesn't want to beat his team. 

 

"I think when we were here at 2010 at the old Rosenblatt Stadium, you saw home runs like Renfroe's against Oregon State maybe six or seven times a game," Savage said. "Now, you realize that one hit like that can win you a ballgame." 

 

A key will be if MSU can continue to play with the care-free nature that has propelled it on an 11-2 postseason run. 

 

"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, a co-captain as a third-year sophomore, "so I think all great teams know when it's time to flip the switch on." 

 

Whether it's MSU's "Bench Mobb" or the pregame traditions it uses to put it in the right frame of mind, MSU and UCLA will need to stay focused and limit mistakes with the entire country watching. 

 

"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 this opportunity but have been great ballplayers at Mississippi State," Graveman said, "to have the opportunity is special. It really resonates with Starkville and the people of Starkville."