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Mississippi State, Indiana navigate numbers differently

 

Matthew Stevens

 

OMAHA, Neb. -- Tonight's College World Series battle is a classic battle of old school versus new school.  

 

While the Mississippi State University baseball team gathers as much information as possible and coach John Cohen evaluates that data and makes decisions based on it, Indiana University coach Tracy Smith would rather not be told what the numbers suggest.  

 

Smith said he is a simple man and isn't shy to admit he has no time for numbers, statistics, or sabermetrics, the mathematical and statistical analysis of those things. 

 

After 49 wins and a 6-0 postseason record, which includes a sweep of Florida State University in the NCAA Tallahassee Super Regional, it's hard to argue with Indiana's ways. 

 

"I'll tell you how much we use it, zero," Smith said. "How do I manage? I manage with my gut. I'm a simple human being that has been blasted on Twitter for bunting with first and second and nobody out because these numbers from something suggest that's the stupidest thing in the world to do." 

 

Asked if he knew which Indiana player had the highest on-base percentage, Smith answered with a question. 

 

"What is OBP again?" Smith said with a laugh. "We're not big on scouting." 

 

On Saturday night, Indiana (49-14) defeated the University of Louisville 2-0 to become the first team from the Big Ten Conference to win a College World Series game since the 1983 University of Michigan squad led by future Major League Baseball Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin and former MLB pitcher Jim Abbott. Left-hander Joey DeNato's complete-game four-hitter helped the Hoosiers record the program's first CWS victory. 

 

Just like his aversion to sabermetrics, Smith, the 2013 Big Ten Conference Coach of the Year, doesn't care how TD Ameritrade Park plays in terms of depth and how the ballpark nearly eliminates the home run from a team's offense. Indiana scored 21 runs against FSU in sweeping the best-of-three series. It had seven hits and didn't commit an error against Louisville to set up a game at 7 tonight against MSU (49-18) in a winners' bracket game. The winner of this game will be off until 2 p.m. Friday, while the loser will have to play at 7 p.m. Wednesday. 

 

Indiana, the Big Ten Conference's regular-season and tournament champion, made it to Omaha fueled by an offense that is 14th in the nation in home runs (53), 20th in batting average (.306), and 21st in runs scored per game (6.9). 

 

"We've read how this ballpark plays, and we don't care because our game isn't centered around the home run," Smith said. "It's not that big a deal. We're going to put our best foot forward, and I think people are going to like how this team plays the game." 

 

Unlike Indiana, MSU seeks out the numbers for every scenario and uses them when it formulates its bullpen sequence, batting strategy, pitch selection, and defensive positioning. It has been documented throughout the season that the Bulldogs don't manage or play the game in a traditional fashion and that everything Cohen and his players is based on something they've scouted. 

 

"The more our kids are informed then we feel like the more they'll be prepared for what we think they'll see during the game," Cohen said. "It's our job to put our kids in the best position to succeed. We understand there's elements of the unknown to this game, but we try to make sure at least we're prepared for the known." 

 

Minnesota Twins draftees Aaron Slegers, a redshirt sophomore right-hander, Dustin DeMuth, a junior infielder, and Ryan Halstead, a junior right-hander, lead Indiana. Slegers (9-1, 2.13 ERA), the 2013 Big Ten Conference Pitcher of the Year, likely will pitch tonight after DeNato threw a career-high 136 pitches Saturday night.  

 

"All I've heard about all week is our offense, but this time of the year I'm smart enough to know you'll only go as far as your pitching and defense will take you," Smith said.  

 

Both teams declined to name a starting pitcher, saying they'll look at the matchups, but the 6-foot-10 Slegers is second to DeNato on the staff in starts (17), innings (97), and strikeouts (54). He also had allowed 101 hits. Opponents are hitting .263 against him, which is the second-highest opponents' batting average of any Indiana pitcher. 

 

Slegers pitched the first game of the NCAA Bloomington Regional and the second game NCAA Tallahassee Super Regional. His lanky frame is unique and typically presents problems for opponents. 

 

"He is going to be coming down angle, and it's so hard to describe to normal fans how hard it is to hit a baseball coming down (rather) than a flat pitch from a shorter guy," MSU junior outfielder Hunter Renfroe said. "If he's got a nasty breaking pitch, and his numbers would suggest he does, then his arm angle may be coming from higher than the hitter's eye in center field. That's really difficult to pick it up then." 

 

MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson said Sunday at the Creighton University practice facility he hadn't spoken to Cohen about who MSU would go to as its starting pitcher. 

 

"All three of the teams in our bracket scream for our left-handed pitching to be good," Thompson said. "That's all I feel good telling you." 

 

Before the hour-long practice session at Creighton's all-turf field, Cohen said senior left-hander Luis Pollorena (6-3, 4.32), junior right-hander Ben Bracewell (1-1, 1.48), and sophomore right-hander Trevor Fitts (0-0, 2.42) are candidates to start. 

 

MSU also figures to rely on senior left-hander Chad Girodo out of the bullpen. Sophomore left-hander Ross Mitchell, who threw 2 2/3 innings of shutout relief Saturday in a 5-4 victory against Oregon State University, also could be an option. 

 

If MSU goes with Pollorena and Indiana starts Slegers, the matchup would feature two pitchers who have a 13-inch height difference. 

 

At 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, Pollorena said a few months ago he still believes his lack of height is something he can use to his advantage, especially against hitters he believes underestimate his arsenal. 

 

"I think it's the height thing (because) they see me on that mound and think, 'This guy must not be able to throw hard or get me out at all,' " Pollorena said. "It's just another thing people have doubted me about in my career." 

 

 

 

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