Monday night begins the final push for Mississippi State and UCLA as they face off for the national championship. With solid fielding and deep bullpens on both sides, this one shapes up to be a defensive showdown. Mississippi State does bring some serious power at the plate, though, and will provide an intriguing matchup for UCLA's strong starting pitching. Let's delve deeper into how these two teams got here and how they match up on the field.
Path to the finals
After a blazing non-conference run, the Bulldogs stumbled a bit at the season's mid-point, dropping a series to Central Arkansas that started a 6-8 slide and included losses in the teams' first three SEC series. But they rebounded to finish above .500 in-conference, and, after a three-win showing in the SEC tourney, earned a host site in the regionals. There, they once more had to battle through a scrappy Central Arkansas squad, but advanced to face No. 6 Virginia in the Charlottesville Regional, which they swept in two games. They opened the CWS with a 5-4 win over Oregon State, then ran through Indiana before clinching their spot in the finals with another victory over the Beavers.
UCLA only lost three weekend series during the regular season, the third coming in the closing weekend at Stanford. It has been even more impressive in the tournament, where it has yet to lose a game. The Bruins swept aside the Los Angeles Regional before upsetting No. 5 Cal State Fullerton on the road in the Fullerton Super. They got a tough draw in Omaha, getting grouped in the same bracket as tournament favorites No. 1 North Carolina and No. 4 LSU, but beat both on their way to securing their place in the national championship series.
Mississippi State has been solid at the plate all year, holding a .297 team average, but has been even better in the NCAA Tournament, where it has hit .304. Five Bulldogs hold an average of .300 or higher, led by Adam Frazier, who leads the nation with 106 hits. He's not an overly talented hitter, but consistently makes solid contact and has used his speed to churn out 27 extra-base hits, including an SEC-best seven triples. Hunter Renfroe, an All-American and the No. 13 overall pick to the Padres in the MLB draft, is the superstar of this lineup. He's slugging .637 on the year with 16 doubles and 16 home runs and is also tied for the team with nine stolen bases.
Considering its lack of offensive performance, it's shocking that UCLA has even reached the finals. Its average in Omaha is a paltry .182, and there's not a single player in the starting lineup that has hit .300 this season. Yet the Bruins are a scrappy bunch at the plate, and are still a decently productive offense despite their lack of hitting. Considering their lowly .282 season average, their .354 team on-base percentage isn't bad, thanks to Pac-12-leading walk and hit-by-pitch numbers. Once they manage to get men on, they'll use a variety of small ball tactics to move them around the basepaths. Four Bruins have at least eight stolen bases on the year -- including Brian Carroll and his 30 swiped bags -- and they lead the tournament field with 14 sac bunts and six sac flies.
If you're going to keep winning low-scoring games, you have to have spectacular starting pitching, something UCLA has in spades. They pack one of the best one-two punches in the country in juniors Nick Vander Tuig and Adam Plutko, a pair that has combined for 22 wins this season and has been a major reason the Bruins lead the tournament field with a 1.36 ERA. In their six combined tournament starts, the two have surrendered just nine runs. Plutko was brilliant in UCLA's Omaha opener against the high-powered LSU offense, holding the Tigers to just one run on four hits in seven innings of work. Vander Tuig put up identical numbers the following game in the team's 2-1 win over N.C. State.
Thanks to a heavy reliance on its bullpen, it's hard to say that Mississippi State has starting pitching at all. Coach John Cohen essentially uses his starters as set-up men for his dominant relievers, and you'll rarely see a starter work past the early innings. In nine tournament games, Bulldog starters have stayed past the fifth inning only three times.
All three of those long starts came from Kendall Graveman, the staff's only true starting pitcher. In his three tournament outings, the right-handed sophomore is 2-0. Trevor Fitts will likely take the mound for Game 2. He has been servicable in the tournament, but has pitched only 7⅓ innings through his three starts.
Mississippi State has arguably the deepest bullpen in the entire country, and it gets its money's worth out of them. Cohen turns to his relievers early and often, frequently inserting them within the first four innings whether his starter is in trouble or not. So far in the tournament, the pen has handled just under half of the total innings pitched. It has been spectacular during that span, holding a sub-2.00 cumulative ERA and picking up five wins.
The Bulldogs' pen is led by Ross Mitchell, a sophomore lefty who holds a 13-0 record and a 1.57 ERA. Behind him, Chad Girodo has had a breakout tournament, racking up 32 strikeouts in his last three outtings. Closer Jonathan Holder locks down the back end of the bullpen with 21 saves and a 1.24 ERA. It has been a little shaky for Holder recently, though. He came a matter of feet from allowing a walk-off home run in his team's opening CWS game against Oregon State.
UCLA has a stacked bullpen, as well, highlighted by the nation's best closer in David Berg. A side-arming sophomore righty, he holds a 0.96 ERA on the season and has racked up 23 saves. Like Holder, though, it hasn't been all smooth sailing in Omaha for Berg. He loaded the bases twice and allowed a run to score in the ninth inning of the Bruins' last game against North Carolina, but managed to hang in and deliver the final outs in UCLA's 4-1 victory. His unique arm slot allows him to handle a high work load -- he'll make his 50th appearance of the season at some point this week. Expect to see him multiple times during the championship series.
With a .983 team fielding percentage, UCLA has been one of the strongest defensive clubs in the tournament. It has committed only five errors in its eight games and has served as a perfect complement to the team's shutdown pitching staff. Mississippi State, on the other hand, hasn't been quite as sharp in the field, committing a tournament-leading 17 errors and fielding .951. The middle infield works well together, though, as the Bulldogs have also led the tournament with 11 double plays turned. Renfroe has a rifle arm in right field, and Wes Rea shows surprisingly soft hands and quick feet for his size at first base.
Mississippi State plays about as loosely as you'll ever see. Led by a group of enthusiastic role players self-entitled the "Bench Mob," the Bulldogs are a fun-loving group who keep it light in the dugout with unchecked facial hair, choreographed rituals and even freestyle rapping. Credit Cohen, whose willingness to bend his traditionally strict approach has helped form a powerful bond between his players.
The Bruins bring an excellent amount of experience with them into the finals, this being their third Omaha appearance in the past four years. You can tell this team has been here before, as they they play with a calm confidence that allows them to excel in pressure-packed situations. Perhaps their most invaluable asset is their knack for pulling out close games, something they've done all season long. The Bruins have won 17 one-run games this season and have had a two-run margin of victory or less in five of their eight tournament wins.
This series has a knock-down, drag-out feel to it, and I fully expect it to go the distance. Look for low-scoring, tight games decided in the later innings. While that tends to favor UCLA's style of play, the Bulldogs' deep bullpen means they're perfectly capable of handling that kind of series, and this is as close to a dead-even matchup as you can get. That being said, I think Mississippi State's superior offense gives it a slight edge, although quiet bats haven't kept the Bruins from getting this far.
All things considered, I'm hesitantly leaning toward Mississippi State earning its first-ever national championship: