Bulldogs Setting Sights On The Ultimate Prize

Their June whirlwind isn't slowing down. Just the opposite. Still the Diamond Dogs are staying grounded. "We're blessed enough to be part of the elite," Hunter Renfroe said. "But I believe this team has a chance to win the whole thing."

The ‘whole thing' of course being the College World Series, which begins Saturday afternoon at TD Ameritrade Park. With, coincidentally enough, Mississippi State meeting Oregon State in the very opening game, 2:00ct. These are two of Renfroe's elite eight assembling in Omaha for college baseball's national championship.

"We've made it there," RHP Jonathan Holder said. "Now we just have to have fun, and win it."

Preferably both. Or as Coach John Cohen said, "This isn't a vacation. It's a business trip." And this really is the business Cohen has coached for ever since returning to his alma mater in 2008. Five seasons later, he is taking a team to the place where he himself played as a 1990 Diamond Dog senior. On a different field albeit; Rosenblatt Stadium was retired three years ago.

Maybe though a shining new venue accords this Bulldog team the chance to write another and bigger page in program history, Cohen suggested. "The only thing we haven't done is win a national championship. That's a great motivation for our players."

Perhaps a ninth time will turn the championship trick. Mississippi State (48-18) has advanced to the Series with victories in the Starkville Regional and Charlottesville Super Regional. They were favored in the first, but had to upset #6 national seed Virginia to reach Omaha. They did so with an impressive sweep and 11-6 and 6-5 wins.

For that matter State is now 8-2 in all tournament games, whether SEC or NCAA, and is coming off consecutive weekends winning tournaments extended by scores or weather into extra dates. Nothing has thrown them off their stride so far. "It's been an exciting trip so far," Holder said, "and all our ups and downs. We played some pretty solid baseball here lately."

Of course, Holder added, "Everybody that is going to be in Omaha is a good team, and we're going to have to play our best baseball."

Oregon State isn't a merely good team. The Beavers (50-11) are the #3 national seed and Pac 12 champions after running through their league 24-6. And this program has won a national title; two of them in fact, with consecutive crowns in 2006-07. They bring an offense batting at a .291 clip with five regulars hitting better than .300. The home run numbers won't open any eyes, but there's so much more and other than meets the stat-sheet eye.

"They present a lot of different issues," Cohen said. "They're so efficient in the short game, they run well. They have a nice combination with power in the middle and runners around the power. They'll bunt in any situation, run in any situation. That's sort of their identity and it works for them." The coach doesn't mean Oregon State is a base-stealing machine; more that they simply pressure opposing pitching. If this sounds a lot like State's own offensive approach…

Yet there isn't much direct comparison to the pitching plans. OSU can throw down some trump-aces in Andrew Moore (14-1, 1.36), Matt Boyd (10-3, 2.13), or Ben Wetzler (9-1, 2.11). Relief options include Max Negelbrekt (5-1, 5 saves) and Scott Shultz (2-1, 10 saves). This staff not only doesn't walk many, but they've only been hit at a .213 rate all season.

"They have a righthander with a phenomenal arm, and two lefthanders who know how to pitch at the front of their rotation. And they have a closer," said Cohen. More than this though, "It's a team that has won." And done so in a team that had two other Regional hosts in Oregon and UCLA, as well as the defending CWS champions Arizona. Only the ACC and SEC had higher collective power-ratings this season.

Of course Mississippi State scored one for the SEC this past weekend by beating Virginia, a team that was heavy on pitching too. But Cohen won't draw direct relationships here either. "Oregon State wins, in a different way than Virginia but equally effective. And we're not playing a two-of-three, we're looking at playing differently in a mini-regional. We spent a lot of time on the phone and looked at a lot of scouting reports, and we feel we're going to be prepared."

The Bulldogs should be healthy too, allowing for the inevitable stresses of a long schedule. RHP Ben Bracewell reported to media interviews Wednesday with right foot in a boot. He's been wearing it for weeks, though, and did not even throw at Charlottesville. He did toss a Wednesday bullpen and was fine per the coach. LHP Jacob Lindgren's ankle is better, and 1B Wes Rea's thumb won't be an issue.

"This time of year everybody has five, six, seven kids with nagging things going on," Cohen said. "I don't think any of them will hinder playing time for our kids."

Actually it would take bones sticking out or even missing limbs for Bulldogs to stay sidelined. This is exactly what they've played for all season, or long before in several senior cases. True, every college club takes the February field talking about Omaha…yet in Mississippi State's 2013 case every word was sincere. In fact, said RHP Kendall Graveman, it is what Bulldogs told each other in their pre-season team meeting.

"My speech was, if we believe we can achieve," said the co-captain. So, "It's a special time for this team, this town and this University. It's something we take pride in and we've worked hard to get to this point." Graveman wasn't just lip-servicing the fan base either, as a bunch were still waiting their return from Charlottesville despite two takeoff delays. Yet, "It wasn't shocking to us," Graveman said ot the support. "There's not any better college baseball fans than here in Starkville, Mississippi."

Many of whom are heading north Thursday and Friday to join their team in college ball's promised land. After all, this will be their own first exposure to Ameritrade Park…though doubtless veteran fans will glance longingly at that hillside by the highway where they saw previous Bulldog ballclubs perform.

All that is history though. This is Mississippi State's turn to write a new College World Series chapter, specifically for a 2013 squad that has honed its game over the regular season and heated-up just in time for the post-season run. "We're all just blessed to be a part of this team," said LHP Luis Pollorena.

"We had stretches we didn't play the best baseball but at the end of the year we got hot. So we're having fun with it."

And nothing is more fun than winning a championship. Bulldog teams have taken tournaments for three years now; a Regional in 2011, the SEC Tournament in '12, and both a Regional and Super Regional in '13. So, why slow down this whirlwind of a June ride?

"It's just an unreal feeling to see all this work pay off," said RHP Trevor Fitts. "One day it will be fun to look back. Right now we just want to get another dog-pile, at Ameritrade."

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