Fun-Loving Dogs Ready For Series Title Round

OMAHA -- This is serious stuff, playing for a national championship. It still has not changed Diamond Dog identity a bit. These pups do know how to play, in both senses of the word. "Good teams can do that, when it's time to have fun," said Wes Rea. "But they know when it's business time too. Great teams know when it's time to flip the switch, it's go-time and no time to mess around."

Rea wasn't rapping, but his comment does catch the rhythm of Mississippi State's experience in Omaha. Very good and now potentially great as the Bulldogs prepare for their College World Series showdown with UCLA. Their best-of-three series begins 7:00 Monday.

It is the opportunity this squad has sought for most of a year. Yet even as the perceived pressure builds towards the title series these Dogs have maintained sense of both perspective…and humor.

"After you have the 900th person ask what would this mean to your school and to you and your players, that's a very valid question," said Cohen. "But I think our kids are really grounded and looking forward to the opportunity. The thing they've been able to do is have fun. We're going to continue to do that."

Work and play are the interlinked stories of Mississippi State's post-season. The results prove the parallel approach works very well, because all the fun hasn't cost the Bulldogs any games. Then again, maybe the two aren't opposed aspects after all. Pitcher Kendall Graveman doesn't think so.

"The guys on this team are so competitive, that if we're playing putt-putt everybody wants to win. It's not the fact that we're goofing around and all of that, but the competitive nature of everyone on the team. I'm sure UCLA can say the same thing for their team. That's what gets ballclubs to this point."

These clubs have reached the same point from very different points of the baseball compass. The paths look similar as UCLA Coach John Savage pointed out; neither won their conference, each went on the road to win super regionals, and both have been unbeaten in Omaha.

"There are a lot of qualities I think on both sides that really sets up for a great national championship series," said Savage.

One perceived, or rather better-publicized difference, though is how much pure fun Mississippi State seems to be having. The Bulldogs' "Bench Mob" group, ring-lead by pitchers Ross Mitchell, Evan Mitchell, and Jacob Lindgren has achieved fast fame here at the end of the season. So do team antics both before the game—where R.Mitchell is literally thrown onto the field prior to first pitch—or during it with rituals and superstitions or just made up on-the-spot silliness. Such as using the confiscated beach balls in the bullpen for rally purposes.

Small wonder TV cameras spend as much time focused on Dogs in the dugout as those on the field. These shots have shown just how comic Cohen's club can be. "They're a fun ball club to watch," Bruin pitcher Adam Plutko said.

"They have fantastic beards as well," said teammate Pat Valaika, reminding how hairiness has become another State standard these ten days in town. Though the rough-cut look isn't necessarily an indicator of temper, said Plutko. "Big Wes Rea gives a hug to the umpire after he punches him out and says you missed that one, and walks away. There are not too many guys in the country that can do that."

The ‘country' angle of Starkville vis-à-vis Los Angeles inevitably got played during Sunday's press conference. With the Bulldogs playing right along in figurative comparisons of the home bases. "I don't know how much deer hunting or bass fishing they do in Los Angeles," Rea dead-panned. "So off the field is probably going to be a little bit different."

To which Plutko countered "We do the bass fishing and the big game hunting on the video games, so it's pretty similar there!"

"It's two totally different worlds," said Valaika. "LA is a big city, you have the beach and a lot of things to do. Starkville is, Starkville. I mean I can't say I've ever visited! But some bass fishing does sound pretty good so maybe after the season ends I'll hit up Starkville."

The banter showed how equally relaxed both teams' representatives were as of Sunday. Monday might become another matter once the game-faces go on. Playing for the national championship is special enough of course, but what amplifies this College World Series showdown is one team will leave with its first-ever NCAA baseball trophy. The 2010 Bruins got to the finals where South Carolina swept them; the 1985 Bulldogs were five innings and a slightly different line-drive angle away from playing for the championship.

Somebody goes home happy this week, the other has to wait for the next chance.

Cohen has seen this Series from two perspectives now, having played on Mississippi State's 1990 Omaha team. This gives him that much greater motivation to secure the championship that has eluded Bulldog baseball, so far. It is why reaching the championship round, scoring the highest-ever season finish in program history, is not enough.

Good, yes; but not good enough. "We're honored to be here," Graveman said. "We still have some work to do, it's not over. But for us to be here, and the rich tradition, the people that have gone through here that haven't had the opportunity to do what we're going to do starting Monday is something that's really special."

Rea already is hearing how special a championship would have on the home state.

"My good buddy works for Sanderson Seed, they provide corn and everything so they work in a corn field all summer long. He called me after we won the other day and said he looked across the field and everybody was jumping around, going crazy. So that is the kind of thing people are doing back home."

Whether they're leaping for join in L.A. is another question. There is a solid contingent of Bruin fans here at least, and equally optimistic…just as should be according to Rea.

"Two teams playing for a national title, I mean, they're both doing something right in my opinion. It may be different but we're both here for a reason."

"There's around 300 Division I schools and I feel great about the fact there are two left standing," Cohen said. "Neither one of us are satisfied with that. But, the minute your brain goes into what happens next you're starting to lose perspective of what got you here. I know it's a great question, but we're going to practice here in 45 minutes and that's what our focus is. I know exactly what our focus will be on next and that is what they're going to eat!"

See, even the intense head coach can crack a little comedy on the biggest stage of his baseball life. Maybe the personnel and personalities of his fifth Bulldog ball club has rubbed off in the right way. Cohen doesn't claim any such credit; it all goes to the unique nature of the 2013 team.

"Even when we're not playing baseball it could be eight or ten of us go to the golf course or go fishing, things like that. It's a special group of guys that we really don't do things alone, it's always with each other. So to get here and be around each other every day is the same just like we're in Starkville. That's the one thing I've noticed that I hadn't noticed the past three years."

"This team has been so close from day-one," said Rea. I feel like that's where our confidence came from, just the team chemistry its been unbelievable. It's like a team I've never been a part of. We've been doing the same thing all year long and it's worked, so why change it now?"

That wouldn't be any fun, anyway.

Gene's Page Top Stories