"Going to Omaha and winning the whole thing was our whole goal," said 1B Wes Rea. "If you don't set your goals you're not going to reach them."
These Diamond Dogs will indeed reach their promised land, and make the program's first appearance in Omaha since 2007. It is the ninth trip in Mississippi State history; and the first for John Cohen as the Bulldog head coach. He did play there as a Bulldog himself in 1990.
Now in the fifth season as head coach, Cohen will take his own team to the title round. The date had yet to be set Monday afternoon, as two other super regionals were ongoing. One of those will provide Mississippi State's first-round opponent, either Oregon State or Kansas State. Cohen and club, who will return to Starkville Tuesday, can wait on that item.
For now taking care of an elite Cavalier club, on their field, and around weather threats, is worth celebrating. With a healthy sigh of late-game relief mixed-in.
"We came in focused on the task at hand, and we got it done," said SS Adam Frazier, the swinging star with an 8-of-11 series.
The Dogs barely got it done in time Monday. Just getting the last out of a chaotic top-of-ninth inning that saw Virginia claw within a run added the extra drama State didn't want. For that matter the post-victory celebrating was barely over when the next in a series of rain showers splashed through Charlottesville. The last thing any Bulldog wanted was an extra inning and additional delay, having waited since 10:02 Sunday evening to resume this suspended game.
In fact had the weather held off a little longer Sunday the tournament could have ended on schedule. State owned a 5-3 lead midway of the seventh inning, having won Saturday's opener 11-6. So the Bulldogs and a few hundred fans had departed Davenport Field knowing they were six outs from both victory and the CWS.
And while he never announced it, Cohen knew deep-down that pitching Coach Butch Thompson and he would put Jonathan Holder on the mound for the Cavalier eighth inning. Not just because the dup-up batters were second-half of that order, but mostly right-handed…and because State's ace stopper hadn't thrown in ten days, the whole month of June so-far. Never mind he'd sputtered in the most recent stint on May 31, this was going to be Holder's game to hold. "We just felt confident Jonathan was going to get back in the strike zone," Cohen said.
"We knew John was going to get the ball," said Rea. "I wouldn't want anybody else to get those six outs." Those outs did come, just not smoothly.
At the same time Virginia made a major gamble in their re-start pitching plan. They came back with Kyle Crockett, who'd already thrown 2.2 Sunday relief innings after State had scored the fourth and fifth runs. The lefthander had also tossed a lot of pitches in the process, including two strikes to RF Hunter Renfroe right as the rains came. Yet the Cavaliers, likely expecting their offense to force a rubber game, took the chance.
And lost. Or at least gave up what proved to Mississippi State's margin of victory. After a couple of fresh looks Renfroe fought off a strike that bounced down the first base line and past the bullpen. Not only was it worth a double but rightfielder Joe McCarthy bobbled it for an extra base. It was his first charged error of the season.
With one out, Saturday slugger Rea was intentionally walked for a double-play opportunity. CF C.T. Bradford foiled it though, sinking a liner just in front of McCarthy's glove for a RBI single.
"It was huge," said Cohen. "Because I knew they were going to score. Jonathan is a dominant guy but I knew they were going to score, they're just too good an offensive club to go through the innings that matter most without scoring." This wasn't coach-speak; Virginia has outscored opponents over three-to-one in the last thirds of games this year. So a 6-3 cushion wasn't comfortable enough for Cohen as two were left in scoring spots. Even after sitting the eighth-inning side Holder had to expect one last challenge was coming in the ninth. It did as Kenny Towns opened with a base hit, and with one out top-of-the-order Mike Papi walked. A strikeout had State right on the verge of victory, as McCarthy bounced a ball to the left side. 3B Alex Detz had to wait on it a little long, and the grounder could well have gone foul but it was too much to risk. By the time his throw got to first McCarthy was already there, and Towns had scored.
More trouble was still in store as Holder faced Brandon Downes, who'd slugged a Sunday homer and was a genuine threat to flip the scoreboard. Coaxing a grounder to the right side was a win; not handling Rea's flip…wasn't. "The feed was good," Holder said. "I looked down at the bag and had to move right, and looked up and the ball was coming. My feet came out from under me."
Papi came home on the error, leaving just one run's worth of lead and two Cavaliers on bases. Yet Holder showed why he is an All-American closer by sticking to what he'd been doing, his coach saw. "They did a great job with two strikes, but it was some weak contact." Which was what Derek Fisher gave with a grounder to Detz. The routine throw was easily in time and the Dog-piling began.
"We felt pretty good about our chances with Holder on the mound," said Frazier. "Even in the ninth we still felt pretty comfortable. They had a dangerous hitter at the plate so we knew it wasn't over. To win the thing you had to get the next guy out, and that's what we did."
Virginia Coach Brian O'Conner said the ninth-inning rally didn't surprise him at all. "That's been consistent with our team all year long." He already had his pitching plans for the ninth inning set, too. "I'm just disappointed we couldn't get a chance to play one more ball game."
The Bulldogs were thrilled to not need a rubber game and return to Starkville. LHP Chad Girodo (8-1) got the win in Sunday relief of starter Trevor Fitts, having worked 4.2 innings with two runs on five hits, a couple of walks and ten strikeouts. "Mostly on my slider," he said. "I mixed in a fastball just to keep them honest, but mostly my slider." Holder extended his season-record saves count to 18 on the 2.0 innings with two strikeouts, two hits and as many runs.
State also out-hit the home time in one fewer turn, ten to nine. Frazier had a pair of those hits, both on Sunday night, which gave him 102 for the second-best season ever (so far) at State and one short of the record. He can swing for that one this weekend. Bradford bounced back from a hitless game-one to bat his way on twice in the second game, and DH Derrick Armstrong had two hits as well. He was one of six different Dogs to score a run in the victory too.
Among them was Rea, whose third-inning blast over the leftfield trees was his seventh shot of the season. King and Towns were the only Cavaliers with multiple hits, at opposite ends of the order. Starter Scott Silverstein (10-2) took the loss and was unable to speak at all in the postgame press conference from emotion.
The Bulldogs were plenty emotive themselves, just with joy. Though Holder admitted it was scary having Rea bear-down on him to begin the dogpile. Cohen got the usual icewater shower and came to the TV cameras still soaking, though a couple of pitchers used another cooler to douse Thompson too.
Yet the obvious ambition now is to stay hot, whether at the bat—State hit .375 for the two games, 30-of-80—or on the mound. In the bullpen rather as relievers had a 2.61 ERA. Even with the late-game gaffes defense was sound enough every day and at times special.
So quite possibly the Bulldogs are peaking and at exactly the best time of the season to do so. Then again, as Rea pointed out, this has been building not just in post-season or conference season or even the regular season. "We got to school in August, and the guys meshed immediately. We felt something special and saw it in our coaches' eyes. We had a feeling we never had with a ballclub before. We're fortunate enough to make them happen." "But," Rea added, "We're not done yet."