“You can call that luck; you can call it getting it done,” said 1B Wes Rea. “We just didn’t get it done tonight.”
The Bruins did get it done, whether with help or without. A fluke carom of a dirtball put their first run on base to be batted-in; and mishandled bunt set up the other, winning, and unearned scores. It was the same opportunistic offense which, combined with steady pitching, brought UCLA (48-17) to the Omaha finals. And now, to the brink of a championship.
Mississippi State (51-19) will try to extend this series to a third game in Tuesday’s 7:00 rematch. First they must get over the sting of what happened in the opener. “It’s frustrating,” Coach John Cohen said. “You feel you put yourself in a great chance to win the game over and over and over again.”
Almost all those chances went wanting. The only Bulldog score came on a bases-loaded walk of CF C.T. Bradford, in the fourth inning. That cut the deficit to two runs, reasonable against most opponents and certainly something Mississippi State has handled before. Including here at the College World Series, with a pair of comeback victories en route to the finals.
But those were against opponents not able to cope so well with sustained attacks. UCLA was an entirely different case, and Mississippi State knew it already after watching them baffle big-swinging LSU and North Carolina. Yet the Bruins did it again, seizing on just a couple of Bulldog breakdowns and making it hold up.
And, doing so in ways that mocked the box score. For one thing both teams had six base hits yet the Bulldogs made better contact on the whole with a lot less to show for the swings. State batters struck out only twice all night, both times RF Hunter Renfroe. The Bruins were fanned a dozen times total by two MSU pitchers.
Still the scoreboard titled UCLA’s way when it counted. “We played a very good team tonight, which is what I expected,” Cohen said. “Some things didn’t go our way but that’s the way the game works.
“They hit balls that found grass. And we hit balls that found gloves. We punched out twice, they punched out 12 times. Their error didn’t cost them a run, our error cost us.”
Bruin starter Adam Plutko (10-3) earned the win with 6.0-plus innings of four-hit work, taking the only State run with a walk and the two fannings. Ten of his 18 outs came on airballs; not a ridiculous ratio but still frustrating (that word again) to a Bulldog order that had advanced on the strength of keeping contacts lower to or on the ground.
“He was elevating, and we were trying to do too much at the plate,” said 2B Brett Pirtle, the only Bulldogs with two base hits. “He didn’t have anything overpowering. He was leaving it up and we just did too much, just thought it was there.”
What Bulldog batters thought were pitches coming into the zone did stay up, at the top of it and too close to take very often. For the first five frames it was a cruel choice, to hack at a first pitch and fly out or take it for a called strike. Platko was going to win either way. “He executed his game plan,” Rea said. “We didn’t adjust quick enough to that.”
State starter Trevor Fitts (0-1) didn’t have time to adjust, lasting 1.1 innings with the first-inning run charged on three hits, no walks, and three strikeouts. It was reliever Chad Girodo who deserved better by working the other 7.2 turns with three hits, two walks, and nine strikeouts. Both runs on his line were unearned scores.
“Chad was spectacular tonight,” Cohen said. “For me he is the pitcher of the game. He gave us every opportunity to win, we just didn’t do it.”
For that matter Fitts wasn’t fully at fault for the first-inning run. After striking out his first-faced he did the same to Kevin Kramer on a bouncer. The trouble was Kramer swung at it and missed entirely. Had he made contact it would have been a foul ball and do over; instead the carom went right into C Nick Ammirati’s mask and glanced over the left shoulder for an easy reach.
So Eric Filia and Pat Valaika were batting with a teammate on the base, and hitting Fitts for a double and RBI-single respectively. Rea did the most to keep it a one-run deficit by diving for a bouncer and, lying prone, throwing to covering Fitts. Still it was a bad sign of things to come.
“There’s about three different things that have to happen for that run to score,” Cohen said. “Those things happen and you have to react to them.”
Fitts was finished with one on, an out, and a 2-2 count to the ninth batter in the second inning. Girodo threw the last strike for that out and stranded a pair. He also got away with a leadoff plunking and single in the Bruin third. But support was absent as Platko went in-order the first three turns, and came back for the bottom of the fourth with a 3-0 lead.
A one-out single brought up order-topper Carroll again, in a bunt situation. Ammirati fielded the short roller on the third base line only to throw wildly at first where Rea tried to save it as Carroll bore-down. The knee-to-knee collision put both down, Rea a little longer; and had Bruins on corners on the error. With two outs Carroll was allowed to steal second unchallenged, meaning he joined Allen in a scoring position.
Filia did just that with a full-count single to rightfield. He was run-down after rounding first too far but the damage was done. “It wasn’t one of my best pitches,” Girodo said. “But he did a god job of hanging in there on my slider and took a good swing on it. I wish I had it back.”
State did have a huge chance in their half of the fourth. 3B Alex Detz broke up the no-hitter with a one-out single, and Pirtle joined him with a base hit. Rea took a fastball to his left elbow that meant another sore limb for him and loaded bases for the Bradford. The centerfielder and Platko battled eight pitches before the fourth ball pushed Detz across.
The entire evening hung in the balance as DH Trey Porter made fine contact on Platko. For an instant it seemed gap-bound before rightfielder Filia drifted over for the inning-ending catch to strand three. “We got the pitch he wants and absolutely hammers a ball,” Cohen said. “That’s how the game works.”
Henderson reached in State’s fifth on an error and was left on second base, while Pirtle’s sixth-inning hit led to nothing. It was Porter’s leadoff single in the seventh that had UCLA going to the bullpen for James Kaprielian to roll a double-play after walking Ammirati. Henderson failed twice to bunt and bounced to a second baseman who on 0-2 had shifted into perfect position for the grounder.
“You can all anything luck in baseball,” said Rea. “If Demarcus gets a bunt down in the seventh, we have the best hitter I’ve ever played with chomping at the bit to get an opportunity.” Instead Frazier was swinging with two outs and a runner left at third on his bouncer.
Ace closer David Berg took over after a one-out drilling of Renfroe in the eighth and coaxed another twin-killing, off Pirtle this time. The ninth didn’t go as smoothly as Bradford and pinch-hitter Sam Frost both singled with one out. A fly ball by Ammirati and comebacker by pincher Jacob Robson negated them and ended the game.
UCLA had the right timing on its offense as 3-4 batters Filia and Valaika both had two hits with the three RBI combined. State’s hits were scattered and it showed in the lack of scoring, with eight un-scored Dogs. Berg left two of them to earn his 24th save of the season, a NCAA record.
Cohen agreed there were some aspects to the loss not necessarily within control, most obviously the flukish bounced pitch with a covering swing that kept Ammirati from a stop. Girodo pointed to Porter’s big swing and easy catch to leave tying and leading runs on bases. And Pirtle thought State just let the high hard stuff take them out of character at the plate.
Bottom line, “We just didn’t beat the game,” Cohen said. “The game beat us. If you look at all the little things and say who is winning those battles, we won that battle. Yeah we hit too many fly balls but we put a whole lot more balls in play. You look at the percentages, the game just beat us and we have to come back tomorrow and beat the game.”
Winning game-two and forcing a rubber rematch almost certainly requires a better start pitching wise. At this point Cohen won’t list Kendall Graveman, who threw Friday’s win over Oregon State, as an option. But neither was he saying who will have the ball just yet.
“I don’t know who we’re going to start. Maybe Ben Bracewell or Will Cox. But it will be the same plan as today, we’ll have Ross Mitchell out of the bullpen and hopefully he can give us the same type of outing Chad did.”
Big picture, “We have to go and win two ball games and that’s what we’re going to be focused on,” said Rea.