By Eric Olson/The Associated Press
OMAHA, Neb. — The star-studded 1985 Mississippi State baseball team has cast a long shadow over every Bulldogs club that followed. Now the 2013 team is poised to do what no other Mississippi State team in any sport has done — win a national championship.
“They feel like they’re on a mission,” Bulldogs coach John Cohen said Saturday. “They feel like things are coming together for them and they want it all.”
The Bulldogs (51-18) will be playing a UCLA team going for its first title in baseball and the school’s NCAA-record 108th in a team sport when the best-of-three College World Series finals begin Monday night.
Mississippi State’s 1985 squad was talent-laden with future major-league All-Stars Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiero, Jeff Brantley and Bobby Thigpen, who led the 50-win Bulldogs to Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament championships and then to Omaha, where they won two games under Ron Polk.
Their images remain prominent around the baseball complex in Starkville, Miss., and all have sent messages to Cohen wishing the team good luck.
“You hear about Palmeiro and Brantley and those guys who were on that club, and it’s great to be in that company,” first baseman Wes Rea said. “But then again, we’re trying to leave a legacy as well.”
Mississippi State and UCLA (47-17) both went 3-0 in bracket play at the CWS, and the finals figure to be low-scoring at TD Ameritrade Park, where a strong south wind has been blowing in and offense has been at a premium.
UCLA will send junior right-hander and No. 1 starter Adam Plutko (9-3) to the mound for Game 1. Cohen was undecided on his starter.
The Bulldogs have won 10 straight one-run games, including two in the CWS, and have won 15 of 18 this season. UCLA in 17-2 in one-run games and is 30-1 in games in which it holds its opponent to two runs or fewer.
The Bruins will try to squeeze as much as it can out of its limited offense. Their .248 season batting average is 262nd out of 296 teams in Division I, and they’re batting just .182 at the CWS. No national champion has had a CWS batting average of lower than .249 (1988 Stanford) in the metal-bat era that started in 1974 or lower than .208 (1970 Southern California) since the championship started in 1947.
With eight total runs, the Bruins have matched 1976 Eastern Michigan for fewest by a team in the metal-bat era that won its first three CWS games.
UCLA coach John Savage said his team is better offensively than the numbers indicate.
“It’s a combination of offense, it’s a combination of quality at-bats, it’s the opponent making a mistake,” he said. “That’s the kind of team we are. We’ve kind of taken advantage of every little (break).”
UCLA has walked 12 times, advanced runners eight times with sacrifice bunts, stolen three bases and scored on a sacrifice fly. And 14 of its 16 hits have been singles.
“I think the park kind of fits into what we try to do,” Pat Valaika said. “We’re not a home run-hitting team — we don’t even have that many doubles. We try to just get runners on and move them over, and get a single and score them. That’s how we’ve done it all year, and that’s what we’ve got to continue doing, because at TD if you put the ball in the air, it’s not going anywhere.”
Plutko and fellow starters Nick Vander Tuig and Grant Watson and three relievers have combined to allow three earned runs, and the Bruins have committed only one error.
The 6-foot-5, 272-pound Rea has led the Bulldogs, going 6 for 13 with three doubles and three RBIs. San Diego Padres’ first-round draft pick Hunter Renfroe hit one of the three home runs at the CWS and has driven in four runs, and Brett Pirtle is 5 for 12 and has reached base in 42 straight games.
The Bulldogs’ “village of pitchers,” as Cohen calls it, hasn’t had a starter get out of the sixth inning. But reliever Ross Mitchell has pitched a combined 5 1-3 innings of shutout relief over two appearances, Chad Girodo struck out 10 in 6 1-3 innings of relief against Indiana, and Jonathan Holder has recorded three saves to extend his school record to 30.
Renfroe said time will tell if the 2013 Bulldogs will produce as many prolific major-leaguers as the ’85 team. But this squad already has won one more CWS game and is on the cusp of bringing home the school’s first national title.
“You have the Palmeiros and Will Clarks,” Renfroe said. “But we have depth in the pitching, we have unity and real balanced offensive and defensive strategies. I think we’re one of the greatest baseball teams to come through Mississippi State. I guess they’ll be talking about us in later history.”