Mississippi State Bulldogs vs. UCLA Bruins, Monday-Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
It was easy to ignore either Mississippi State or UCLA early in the NCAA baseball tournament, or at least to pay only scant attention to them. The Bruins were playing on a coast that had three national seeds. Meanwhile, if you look at the broader Southeast, the Bulldogs were in the same geographic region with five other national seeds, and with another regional host in South Carolina that had played in the last three championship series. It was maybe the seventh most intriguing host in the SEC and ACC footprint.
So it was easy to overlook Mississippi State and UCLA a few weeks ago. It's not so easy anymore.
Not after the Bulldogs and the Bruins swept through their respective sides of the brackets, helping wipe out the few national seeds that had managed to make it to Omaha. And not with Monday's first game of the College World Series Championship Series looming.
In a way, this is a continuation of the battle between the SEC and the Pac-12 that has dominated college baseball for the better part of the last decade. Six of the last seven College World Series champions have come from one of the two leagues. The only exception is Fresno State, which is firmly within the Pac-12's footprint. The runner-up has come from one of the two conferences four times over that same time period.
Put more simply: 10 of the last 14 College World Series contestants have come from either the SEC or the Pac-12. That will go to 12 of the last 16 tonight. And this series will serve as a sort of tiebreaker, at least for a year; the SEC has three over that time frame (two from South Carolina and one from LSU) while the Pac-12 has three of its own (Oregon State twice and Arizona once).
In most respects, you could hardly pick two different teams. Three of UCLA's most frequent starting pitchers have thrown more than 90 innings this season; none has an ERA over 3.01. Kendall Graveman is the only starter for Mississippi State who can say the same innings-wise; Graveman comes close on ERA at 3.09.
Instead, the Bulldogs have relied on their bullpen, which has pitched 51.8 percent of the innings for State this year. That's a pretty astonishing number when you consider that it translates to the average starter not getting through the fifth inning. Instead, Mississippi State has relied on its bullpen, led by Ross Mitchell, who has pitched 92 innings (good for second on the team) and holds a sparkling 1.27 ERA.
It's also nearly night and day on offense. Mississippi State is 38th nationwide in batting average and UCLA is 262nd -- out of 296 teams. Both teams walk an extraordinary number of times, with UCLA's 276 BBs pushing it up to 163rd in on-base percentage; Mississippi State, with 284 walks, ranks 35th. (Both teams are a bit weak in slugging than OBP, with the Bulldogs ranking 78 and the Bruins checking in at 252nd.)
Both teams have taken what they're good at to slightly ridiculous extremes in the tournament. UCLA scored just eight runs in its first three College World Series games this season; they allowed just three. Only Graveman has pitched more than five innings in a game as a starter in Mississippi State's tournament run, though he's done it thrice.
Essentially, it comes down to this: If this becomes a series full of pitchers' duels, Mississippi State could be in trouble. But if they can bust up the UCLA starting pitching staff, even just a bit, things start to look a lot better for the Bulldogs.
There's something about this Mississippi State team that brings to mind the kind of teams that South Carolina in particular won with -- teams that won with a knack for drama, you might even say panache, even when everyone thought they were outgunned. That might just be enough to overcome UCLA's pitching depth.
Mississippi State wins, two games to one