"It Starts With Getting Off To A Great Start"

Coach John Cohen isn't ready to name a pitcher for Friday's bracket championship round game with Oregon State. He is able to discuss the challenge ahead for whoever steps on the hill first Friday…and the relievers sure to follow. "We're going to have to play a complete ball game, it starts with getting off to a great start."

Since most Mississippi State games this post-season have concluded with a great finish, or for that matter outstanding long-relief work, what Cohen and coaches consider a ‘great start' might not square with traditional staff concepts. At the same time the Diamond Dogs would not mind, for a change, taking charge of an opponent early and controlling start to close.

Besides, just for the same of mental preparation, somebody is going to get told today the ball is his for the bracket championship game of this College World Series. The Bulldogs (50-18) rematch with Oregon State (52-12) at 2:00 Friday, and a Mississippi State win puts them in the best-of-three championship round. The Beavers hope to force a Saturday rubber game for the same prize.

Not at all surprisingly, State is openly considering coming back with Kendall Graveman (7-5, 3.17) six days after the senior righthander started the first meeting with OSU. He lasted 4.2 innings with all four Beaver runs charged on six hits, though just half the scores were earned; a walk and two strikeouts. Graveman did not get the decision, that naturally went to Ross Mitchell who once again built on his elder's opening with brilliantly baffling relief work. And Jonathan Holder scored the 20th save of his sophomore season with the last 1.2 turns.

Five days of rest between starts is sufficient for the durable Graveman. Still Cohen was not ready to declare him the man before Thursday's morning practice. "We don't know yet, we'll know this afternoon, we'll sit down and talk about it. We do have some options there." Such as LHP Luis Pollorena, who hasn't worked since the regional round; or Monday starter RHP Trevor Fitts who had a short but lively stint; or RHP Ben Bracewell, and so on.

Oregon State earned this rematch with an elimination-round shutout of Indiana, as Matt Boyd—who took the loss to MSU in relief last Saturday—gave his team a complete nine innings. He won't be available Friday, but game-one starter Andrew Moore (14-1, 1.57) is along with just about the entire support staff.

Cohen's concern is more with the Beaver batting. They might have managed a single run against Indiana last night, on a sacrifice fly at that. But they were making good contact all evening with little to show for it, something State can respect. "I guess with their offense you have to hope the wind is blowing in again like it was last night," said Cohen. Or that deep drives die as did the opening game's ninth-inning, two-out loft by Danny Hayes caught an arms-length from the wall by RF Hunter Renfroe to end a 5-4 Bulldog win.

Even if the breeze benefits Bulldogs, that doesn't ease State's pitching challenge. "Having watched them twice, I watched the game and the replay, they do all phases well. They're a very, very good lineup. (Michael) Conforto obviously is one of the best hitters in the country and he might not be the best in their lineup because they've got other guys around them. Certainly we're going to have to pitch to those guys."

But, who? Or who first rather? State scouting and first-hand experience now stresses handling the short game as OSU will bump and run…or just take off for straight steals selectively. That demands a pitcher who can defend his position. "Ben Bracewell is somebody who might be a nice matchup. Kendall is probably our best in that area. You've got to force them into early contact, because if you don't, if you get deep into it, it allows more running stuff."

Oregon State earned its #3 national seed (they and #1 North Carolina are the only top-eight teams left alive at this College World Series) with brilliant pitching first, a sound offensive mix second, and a defense that doesn't make many mistakes. They did commit one error against State, and it contributed a three-run second inning that had the Bulldogs in front for a while.

And while a .269 Series average isn't electrifying, the Beavers borrow a page from the Bulldogs in that their offense is timely. Mostly though, "They have so much poise," Cohen said. "When you play in a program that has won national championships you say this was done before me, this can be done. These kids play relaxed, they have fun with the game, and they're good. They know that."

By the same token Mississippi State has demonstrated some pretty potent post-season poise, whether coping with the pressures of winning the first home-hosted Regional in a decade or going into a hostile setting to sweep a super regional. The Bulldogs have also trailed in both College World Series contests so far, and managed each time to push winning runs across in eighth innings before closing out 5-4 victories.

"I think it's just the belief that they think we're going to win," said Cohen of his club.

"I don't think we look to one guy, our kids aren't on the bench saying man, if so-and-so doesn't get a hit here we're not going to win this game. It's a different person every night. That's the mark of a great ball club, is not to have to feel like all your eggs are in one basket."

Which also means Mississippi State's gameplan does not hang entirely on getting off to the ‘great' start. But it surely would be fun for a tournament-time change. It will be even greater if the Bulldogs can win themselves another two-day break to prepare for the other bracket's winner and not have to prepare for a Saturday all-or-nothing rubber game. The Dogs obviously have that Friday margin to play with, but…

"I don't know if they think in those terms," Cohen said. "They just think we're going to have to play well to win. But we've been in that situation now for, it seems like, three weeks. Their deal is all about their preparation, and it's a mature group. They clearly understand what level of baseball you have to play in order to have a chance to win a game here."

After lunch, the Bulldogs were visiting Omaha Childrens Hospital, then heading to the Boulder Creek Amusement Park. There MSU officials will do their best to prevent Park officials from keeping a number of State players as permanent attractions for their beards and hair, or their antics. The mind boggles at what the Bench Mob will come up with there.

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