Renfroe’s three-run blast provided exactly enough margin of 4-1 victory over Oregon State, and advances the Bulldogs to the best-of-three championship series next week. With one timely swing the junior rightfielder transformed a one-run nailbiter into a Dogs day afternoon at Ameritrade Park.
“I didn’t think it was going out right away,” Renfroe said. “I was running out of the box and going for a double. I kind of hit it on the end of the bat, really, but was able to get enough backspin to hit it out.” SS Adam Frazier and 3B Alex Detz scored in front of Renfroe for a 4-0 lead that proved more than sufficient to seal a bracket championship.
This also is the farthest Mississippi State (51-18) has advanced at any College World Series regardless of format. They could know the opponent as early as this evening, with unbeaten UCLA playing 2-1 North Carolina. Oregon State finished their season 52-13 with a pair of Omaha losses to the Bulldogs.
“We did what we’ve always done, we got the hit when we really needed it,” Coach John Cohen said. “Of course Hunter’s ball that left the ballpark was different.” Very much so; it was the first home run for Mississippi State of the Series, only the third hit by anyone in Omaha so far.
Also different for the Bulldogs was having a healthy lead to defend. Their preceding bracket wins over Oregon State and Indiana both demanded eighth-inning rallies and clutch base hits for 5-4 finals. State couldn’t exactly coast through the last half of this one, but a three-run cushion did diminish some drama. It also made a winner of starter Kendall Graveman.
“I thought he was the story of the game,” Cohen said.
A good one too. The senior righthander, starting a second time against this same Oregon State order, was even better than the first.
“For me to see them the other day was pretty big on my part,” Graveman said. “I think once I see a team and physically face them, not just see them on video, I feel like I can discover a few more things that I can go to.”
Graveman (8-5) obviously did, working 5.2 innings (one full frame more than last Saturday’s first meeting) for the lone run allowed on four hits, a walk, with two strikeouts. The Beavers didn’t score off him until their sixth when down 4-0 already. All this succeeded in doing was bringing the crack relief tandem of Ross Mitchell and Jonathan Holder in to maintain the margin. Holder scored the 21st save of his record season on two outs in the ninth, a fly ball and a grounder with two Beavers on bases and the tying man at the plate.
“Going into the ninth inning with a three-run lead is huge,” 1B Wes Rea said. “And I would hate to face Ross Mitchell and then Jonathan Holder behind him my very next at-bat.”
Mississippi State’s order was not exactly thrilled to see Andrew Moore on the hill again for Oregon State, after his 7.1 inning turn last Saturday. That time the freshman left with a lead that his bullpen lost for him. This time Moore (14-2) was on the hook, charged with four runs on nine hits with no walks or strikeouts. All in 4.2 innings, the shortest start of the brilliant young righthander’s season.
Moore did look hittable early on, though without harm done. An out into the second Rea drove one really deep only to have leftfielder Michael Conforto rob him at the gab with a reaching grab before smashing the wall. State also left a pair unscored in their third after a DH Trey Porter single and errored Frazier grounder.
At the same time Graveman was getting it done too, both on his own and with key defensive help. He sat his first seven before Jake Rodriguez yanked a bouncer down the left line for a double. Getting to second allowed Rea to play a normal defensive positioning though. He used it to rob Max Gordon of a hit with a leaping stab, and double-off Rodriquez.
“That was huge,” Graveman said. “And the ball was top-spun a little bit so it was coming down to him just a tad, just enough to catch it and for Frazier to be at second to turn that double play.”
Rea was back up for a second swing in the Bulldog fourth of a scoreless game that soon, wasn’t. 2B Brett Pirtle had reached on a one-out single, and Moore came after Rea. The first baseman beat him with a strong drive but at a lower angle, dropping between the left- and center-fielders this time. It was covered quickly enough to stop Pirtle on third base, where he was able to score as CF C.T. Bradford reached on an infield single; his first base hit of the Series.
A fly ball to leftfield probably did score Rea on the tag, only homeplate umpire Danny Collins didn’t see the foot hit plate before a tag came down. Still Graveman could work with a lead for a change, protect it in the fifth with a more routine double-play, and return with a much more comfortable margin. All of which came with two outs.
“Then maybe I got a little bit lazy,” Moore admitted. “They had some good at-bats and got some hits.” Frazier’s got into rightfield and Detz to the other side, giving Renfroe the big chance. He was 2-of-10 for the Series yet Oregon State was handling him with great care, even when the count reached 3-1 and Moore called curveball.
“I tried to bury it because we had a base open, and just left it up. He’s a great player and made me pay for it.” Cohen said because it was a curve and came low Renfroe had to get his legs into the swing to drive without lofting, crucial against the incoming wind.
“I thought I had a chance when I got pretty close to first base,” Renfroe said. “I was watching the trajectory of it and the player got to the fence and jumped.” Not that Conforto had any chance of snagging this one as it landed in the Bulldog bullpen. It was Renfroe’s 16th homer of the season, tying him for the SEC lead now.
That blast loomed ever so much larger when a one-out walk of the nine-hole hitter did set Oregon State up to end the shutout. With two down and the runner on second base Andy Peterson singled up the box for a 4-1 scoreboard and pitching change. Mitchell entered just in time to face Conforto, and bounce a comebacker to maintain the margin.
The Beaver seventh had potential for further trouble as two were on via hits and one out. Mitchell got Ryan Barnes to bounce to shortstop, and the double-play was made easier with runner interference for the automatic out.
“As you saw the defense really backed me up pretty well today,” Mitchell said.
Oregon State’s Jace Fry kept the Bulldogs from any expansion with 3.1 innings of two-hit relief. But he wasn’t scoring anyone and neither was his offense. Mitchell stranded a leadoff walk in the eighth at third base after three ground balls, and Rea opened the ninth by snaring a Conforto liner. But after a couple of two-out singles Holder was finally summoned to score another save.
“He just talked to me, he wasn’t even aware he had it,” Rea said. “That tells you he was ready to work and ready to win us ballgames and not worry about stuff like that.”
The win really did belong to Graveman, his coach repeated. “Going out there, shoving the ball in the strike zone, moving it on both sides of the plate, having it sink to the bottom, getting a lot of early contact. That’s a very good Oregon State team we just beat, and I thought it was like a heavyweight fight.”
One which turned on a powerful punch that wasn’t supposed to depart the park…but did, so that Mississippi State will return to play for a national championship.
“I know it sounds cliché, but our kids just think something good is going to happen, and by the way so do our coaches,” Cohen said. “And it has. I think these guys are on a little bit of a roll for sure.”