By Brad Locke
OMAHA, Neb. – For all the similarities between how UCLA and Mississippi State play baseball, it’s the differences that delight John Cohen.
The fifth-year MSU head coach stood next to UCLA’s John Savage on Sunday as cameras snapped, the prize they both have sought resting on the table in front of them: The NCAA baseball championship trophy.
Each team’s quest for that piece of hardware concludes this week at TD Ameritrade Park, when the Bulldogs (51-18) and Bruins (47-17) meet in the best-of-three College World Series finals.
First pitch for tonight’s Game 1 is scheduled for 7, and it’ll be seen on ESPN.
Games 2 and 3 (if necessary) also start at 7 on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Both of these clubs rely heavily on pitching and defense, with MSU bringing a stronger offense to the table. Neither team was a national seed for the NCAA tournament and had to win super regionals on the road to get here.
“The way they compete is one thing that really sticks out to me,” MSU pitcher Kendall Graveman said. “They don’t give in to situations. It’s a lot like our team.”
The differences between the schools and their cities, of course, are stark. The contrast between Los Angeles and Starkville was noted during Sunday’s press conference, and Cohen waxed poetically about it.
“We’re all playing this great sport, we all want to win, and there are great, great players in L.A., and there are great, great players in the Deep South,” Cohen said. “It’s just a slice of Americana that you can’t let loose of, because it encompasses all of us. We all share this desire to want to win a national championship, and we all have this love of the game.
“I think that’s why it’s such a great sport and such a great country.”
Another difference is that UCLA has won 108 national team championships, while MSU has none. But the Bruins don’t have a title in baseball.
So winning it all is extra meaningful for both teams, but given MSU fans’ passion for baseball and the lack of a national championship in any sport, this is a bigger deal in Starkville than in L.A.
First baseman Wes Rea told a story to illustrate that. He said a good friend of his works a job that keeps him in a cornfield all summer long.
“He called me after we won the other day and said he looked across the cornfield, and everybody was jumping around, going crazy,” Rea said. “So that is the kind of thing people are doing back home.”
Fitts vs. Plutko
Each team will turn to a right-hander on the mound for Game 1. UCLA’s starter, junior Adam Plutko (9-3, 2.29 ERA), is a bit more experienced than MSU’s Trevor Fitts (0-0, 2.86). However, this will be the fourth NCAA tournament start for Fitts, a sophomore.
In State’s 5-4 win over Indiana a week ago, Fitts allowed two runs in 21⁄3 innings.
“I hope to pick up where I left off, just throw a lot of first pitch strikes and really pound the zone,” he said. “I feel that’s what propels pitchers into the game.”
Fitts hasn’t gone more than 31⁄3 innings in any of his five starts this year, but Cohen hasn’t needed him to. Fitts only needs to get the game to MSU’s stellar bullpen.
“He can go out there and attack and be who he is,” Cohen said. “That’s important to know that you have quality guys that you can hand the baseball to. That’s where it becomes a team sport.”