2013's College World Series fan favorites set their sights on a return trip to Omaha to prove that last year was anything but a fluke.
Two men are on, and there are two outs in the top of the ninth inning on a warm June afternoon at TD Ameritrade Park. Jonathan Holder, Mississippi State's free-spirited closer that makes Kenny Powers look like he goes to Greg Maddux's stylist, toes the rubber for the second straight inning, looking to earn his school-record 19th save of the season. As the fireballer in maroon stares into the eye of the mitt, his gaze falls just beyond Danny Hayes — the second of Oregon State's two towering, behemoth batters in the lineup. Hayes hasn't had the best of days at the plate, but his physical build like a great northwestern lumberjack means that he's capable of taking the puny aluminum stick in his hands and parking a baseball in the outfield bleachers at any point.
This is it for Mississippi State — the quintessential moment when things typically take a turn for the worst. State fans know it; Oregon State fans would surely know it soon as well if they did not already. Tight games in big situations had been kryptonite if the Bulldogs were Clark Kent's alter-ego, and as the beloved Bulldog closer hung a 3-2 curve ball, it looked like Superman might be crippled once again.
It's still going
Oh man it's still going
This can't be happening
We were so close to a win
It looks like it's gone
And then it wasn't. The ball would fall harmlessly into the glove of MSU outfielder Hunter Renfroe just feet short of the right field fence, and just like that, Mississippi State had won its opening game of the 2013 College World Series. How the Bulldogs got to that point is a great story in itself— one with ups, downs, and lots of facial hair— and where they were going from there would prove to be just as memorable, if not more. But what this one game, this moment, signified— what it showed not only to an MSU fan-base hungry for baseball success again, but to a national audience as well —was that this MSU team was special.
As State fans, we had come that far before only to fall short and find ourselves settling for just being happy to be back in Omaha. The 2013 team though showed us that Mississippi State could be more than that — that we could be champions as well. Sure, the maroon and white would ultimately fall just short of the ultimate prize to a school that has approximately 8,000 championships, but the second place finish was enough to show MSU baseball fans two things —1) MSU baseball was back, and 2) MSU baseball was capable of winning a national championship.
2013's team was fun, and that fun was led by the bench mobb
As the diamond dogs returned home from Omaha, the awaiting welcome home ceremony was great, and then before we knew it the stars and the Seniors all were gone. Summer turned into fall, which then turned into winter, and just like that, we find ourselves here yet again—here again in the month of February—on the doorstep of another season of MSU's greatest sport and America's past time. We know this year's team will not be like the team of last summer, because key pieces to the magic have moved on, but we also know 2014's squad has a chance to be special as well as guys like Wes Rea, Demarcus Henderson and Ross Mitchell all come back for another year to take another shot at a crown.
What will 2014 bring for MSU? State fans hope that lightning strikes the same team twice and that the Bulldogs can reach Omaha for a second straight season. While those expectations put a lot of pressure on MSU for this season, it's the laid back attitude of this team that may help them reach those heights again while simply having fun between the chalk lines. Can the Bulldogs replace stars like Hunter Renfroe and Adam Frazier? How will the pitching staff fare without ace Kendall Graveman? These questions and more face the Diamond Dogs as they get ready to kick off the new season this Friday, but rest assured, this team— this Bench Mobb (second b silent) —is ready to put on a show for the Bulldog faithful yet again.
Dave Weaver – USA TODAY Sports
While big pieces from 2013's CWS run move on, a large portion, led by Wes Rea, returns, to join forces with new faces in chasing the dream of Omaha again this year.
There's no sugarcoating that it will be hard for Mississippi State to replace its shortstop and right fielder from last year's run. Adam Frazier (.352 - 107 hits - 38 RBI) and Hunter Renfroe (.345 - 88 hits - 65 RBI) combined to form the linchpin for the Bulldog offense in 2013. Renfroe proved to be the rare five-tool (thanks, ESPN!) player that comes along only ever so often for even the greatest of baseball programs, and it didn't take State fans long to realize that 2013 would be his last year in maroon. Frazier, who'd been as steady as the day is long at shortstop over his MSU career, put the Bulldogs on his back in the 2013 super regional against Virginia— catching fire to the tune of one 6-for-6 game— that helped MSU make the jump from the regional round in Starkville to Omaha. They're two of the finest players to ever put on the maroon and white, and State will miss them dearly. We also can't forget guys like C Nick Ammirati, 3B Sam Frost, C Mitch Slauter, and DH Trey Porter, and what they contributed to last year's national runner up.
As for who is coming back in 2014, that group is highlighted by none other than first baseman Wes Rea. Rea, whose hitting and stature made him a fixture and fascination for ESPN's narration at the 2013 College World Series, returns to Starkville for his Junior season coming off a great Sophomore campaign where he hit .291 with seven home runs and 40 RBI. Rea's growth as a hitter last season was never more on display than in the CWS, as he came up big for the Bulldogs time after time to help them reach the championship series. Despite his unquestioned growth last season, State will look to Wes to be even better at the plate this year as the leader of this offense.
Joining Rea as returning starters in 2014 are 3B/DH Alex Detz (.318 - 76 hits - 31 RBI), 2B Brett Pirtle (.310 - 71 hits - 20 HBP), CF C.T. Bradford (.281 - 73 hits - 23 RBI), and OF Demarcus Henderson (.274 - 48 hits - 23 RBI). While none of the four Seniors' numbers will jump off the page at you, all four came up big in spots for State last season. In his first season at MSU after playing at Cuesta [CA] College, Detz immediately showed his knack for getting on base by any means possible. Over the course of last season, he put together an impressive .449 OB%, which was aided in large part by his cool team-leading 53 walks. Detz's eye and patience as a hitter fits John Cohen's style to a T — get on base however you can, and we'll do what we have to to move you around.
Joining Detz in his quest to always get on was Brett Pirtle, who chose another method to help him gain a free pass. Pirtle led the team in HBP with 20 while no other Bulldog registered even 10. Pirtle's immovability at the plate made him a stalwart in the lineup as well, and his nose for getting on base like Detz should again put him in the front end of the lineup, where MSU will try to strike early every game for a few runs. Henderson came on in a big way as well, as the Senior outfielder was one of the more unsung heroes of last year's run.
Demarcus will most likely take a starting spot in the outfield, and joining him in center should be Senior C.T. Bradford (.281 - 73 hits - 27 RBI). As for the last outfield spot, that could go to either Sophomore Jacob Robson or junior college transfer Jake Vickerson, brother to MSU legend Nick. Overall, we should see a lot of different faces in the outfield early on as players fight for starting positions, including others like Derrick Armstrong or freshman sensation Joey Swinarski. With a lot of talent and options, John Cohen will probably try out a variety of combinations during the non-conference schedule to see what works best.
As for who will take Adam Frazier's spot, that looks like it will go to Junior Matthew Britton. Britton is a guy who has been around the program for what seems like a while, and according to those who watched him play this fall, he's really turned a corner towards becoming a solid, everyday player. John Cohen even went so far as to say that Britton could be the best defender in the SEC when he's at his best. The catcher position— where Cody Walker and Daniel Garner should both see time, as well as possibly Freshman Gavin Collins—rounds out the Bulldog lineup. Coach Cohen has already stated that we'll see all of these guys at catcher early on, so it could be awhile before a starter emerges from the trio.
As for how this team looks hitting wise for 2014, there's actually a chance that, talent-wise, they could be better top to bottom, at least for the full roster. Daniel Garner, who could see time at DH and C, has been getting rave reviews as another power stick in this lineup, which could help replace Hunter's pop. He and Wes Rea will likely be the power guys stacked in among a group of hitters who are smart at the plate and fast on the paths. John Cohen likes to play small ball, and this lineup again looks overall to be built for it with guys like Pirtle, Henderson, Bradford, Vickerson, Robson, and others. Other names you could see get some cuts are Freshman Reid Humphreys, who could split time at DH and 3B with Alex Detz, as well as the previously mentioned Swinarski, and possibly fellow freshman sensation Gavin Collins. As I said, a lot of players will see time early on in the season, so this list is woefully short of who all will play at least for the first half of the schedule.
I would expect this team again to be one that focuses on getting players on and moving them around. John Cohen ball isn't the sexy LSU gorilla ball of the 90s, but it gets things done with smart hitters and for a pitching staff that you know can hold a lead. I would expect to see Jake Vickerson lead things off with his plus speed, followed up by the familiar faces of Detz, Rea and Pirtle. So many people last year found it fascinating that Rea hit third, and Pirtle hit fourth, but again that arrangement works beautifully in Cohen's system. As you remember, ESPN so subtly pointed out last summer that Brett is not a stereotypical cleanup hitter. The back half the lineup this year should be pretty strong as well with Henderson and C.T. anchoring the 8-9, and some combination of Garner, Humphreys, Britton, and Gavin Collins tucked in between at the 5-6-7. Hopefully State can find a combination that works for them like last year with the overall goal of manufacturing runs (and hopefully mixing in some Wes Rea bombs as well).
On defense, the biggest replacements will again be Adam and Hunter. Even though Adam Frazier was one of the toughest outs to get in America last season, his contributions as an infielder may be missed even more than his hitting. Frazier and Pirtle combined to turn 80 double plays last year, getting MSU out of jam after jam in a 51-win season. Replacing that kind of chemistry in the middle is hard to do sometimes, but State fans are hoping that Matthew Britton and Pirtle can pick right up where Brett and Adam left off.
In the outfield we'll mostly see a lot of the same faces, so there won't be much changed there. One thing to watch, though, will be if anyone on this team has a plus arm that can take the place of Hunter Renfroe's. State has seemingly always had one guy with a "cannon". At third base the battle looks to be between Detz and Freshman Reid Humphreys.
In 2013, MSU's staff was able to keep the ball down and manufacture lots of ground ball outs. Assuming that they can do much of the same this year, it will be key for Britton and Pirtle to be on the same page this season. Again, Britton has been getting phenomenal reviews from the fall and spring, so there's a lot of hope that the middle of this Bulldog infield could be really good again. At third, you get a reliable field whether its Detz or Humphreys, and Rea is a fantastic fielding first baseman. With any sort of productivity from the catcher position, this infield could be even better than they were last year. The same goes for the outfield, although someone out there is going to have to make me believe that there is another arm near the level of this one.
Bruce Thorson – USA TODAY Sports
You can have all the great starting pitching in the world, but if you don't have a solid bullpen, you don't have jack. MSU had bullpen in spades in 2013, and with Holder, Mitchell and more returning, the back side should be protected again this season.
Typically, a pitching staff's work during a game of baseball looks like this: the starter goes 5-6 innings, you have middle relief for 1-2 innings, and then if the game is close, your closer comes in to finish off the opponent for the win. I guess it's more fair to say that is how a game of baseball works for most teams, but that was not the case for State in 2013. On their way to Omaha, MSU flipped the script on traditional pitching roles, using starters for 1-2 innings, and utilizing an absurdly talented bullpen for deep middle relief appearances, setting things up for the All-American closer at the end.
While MSU utilized that unique strategy to gain entrance into the championship series last summer, we should see State transition back to a traditional approach to start the 2014. That means the focus shifts back onto starting pitching, where State has some big shoes to fill. Gone after a great career at MSU is Kendall Graveman, who anchored State's group of starters throughout last year. Stepping in to try and fill that anchor role for the front end of the staff this season will be junior Brandon Woodruff. Woodruff, whose 2013 season was cut short due to injury, has long been dubbed as having the best arm on the staff, but injuries, at least so far, have kept him from becoming the pitcher he can be. For MSU to be successful in 2014, they will rely heavily on Woodruff to be the ace of the pitching staff, and from fall reports and talk so far this year, it looks like Brandon is primed to take on that role. Brandon has the stuff that a staff ace needs to take on that role - a high 90s fastball and three big league-caliber secondary pitches. If he can stay healthy and keep command of that impressive repertoire, there's no doubt that he can elevate himself to becoming a Chris Stratton-type ace for this staff.
After Woodruff, the other starting pitching spots are wide open and should be heavily contested between a large group of pitchers. Among those vying for a starting spot are Senior Ben Bracewell, Junior Trevor Fitts, Freshman Dakota Hudson, and Freshman Austin Sexton. The versatility of Bracewell could see him again be a key cog for the bullpen, but if he's earned a spot in the starting rotation then don't be surprised to see him there as well. Fitts came on late last year as that early innings "starter" during MSU's hot streak, and with his success at getting groundball outs, we could see him claim a spot in the rotation as well. Hudson is a kid whom so many are excited to see, as the freshman was a big part of MSU's top ten recruiting class last year. He, like Woodruff, has an upper 90s fastball, and he if he can maintain control, he could be one of the better third starters that MSU has featured in some time. I would imagine John Cohen will utilize a number of pitchers in the starting roll throughout the duration of the non conference schedule, but I would look for him to nail down a three-to-four man rotation before the Bulldogs travel to Georgia in mid-March.
As for the midweek spots, we could again see Cohen opt to try out a few different pitchers here. The likely candidates could be Austin Sexton and Preston Brown, who both could also challenge for that final weekend spot as well.
Led by college baseball’s best bullpen and outstanding team athleticism, Mississippi State looks like a strong contender to get back to Omaha -Aaron Fitt
As for the bullpen — well, what do you say other than MSU's bullpen was simply fantastic in 2013, and 2014 should be more of the same. There are few bullpens in America who could lose a reliever like Chad Girodo and get stronger, but MSU may be one of those teams this year. The Bulldogs return bench mobb co-creator and middle relief whiz Ross Mitchell as well as dynamic closer Jonathan Holder from a 2013 bullpen that helped MSU go 41-1 in games that they lead after six innings last year. Joining those two as a Bullpen anchor may be 2013 starter Jacob Lindgren. Depending on how the starting rotation shakes out, Lindgren's use in the bullpen could be a huge addition to this team, and could help cover for the loss of Girodo. Others that we could see MSU trot out from left field this spring are sidewinders Will Cox and Myles Gentry, junior college transfer Paul Young, Sophomore John Marc Shelly, and Jacob Billingsley. That kind of depth in the 'pen is simply unparalleled in college baseball outside of maybe Nashville and one or two other towns, and it should again be a strong point for MSU this year.
Now that we know the players, what are the expectations for this year? A look at where this Bulldog baseball team can go in 2014.
No matter how much we want to turn back the calendar, we can never go back to the summer of 2013. We cannot relive the fun that was last year's squad, even though there is no doubt that we all want to taste that euphoria once more. While it is important to remember that this year's team is not last year's, many of the pieces have returned for 2014. Some starters are gone, but many starters also return, and most importantly, MSU returns the majority of the bench mobb, whose antics and laid back personalities fueled this team's fun-loving identity last season. So in this season where old combines with new to try to win it all, what can we expect?
Looking at the schedule, there's no doubt that MSU has its hands full in 2014. After the Bulldogs open with a 16-game home-stand that should be manageable, they head out on the road to Tuscon to play UC-Santa Barbara and Arizona in the Hi Corbett Classic. The Gauchos of UCSB were Corvallis Regional participants last year, while Arizona missed out on the NCAAs. Still, the Wildcats are just two seasons removed from winning a national championship, so the Bulldogs will be up against a major challenge early in the season. That kind of test is one that will help MSU gauge where it is in comparison to last season, and it will tell what needs to be fixed heading into the always tough SEC schedule.
As things transition over to the SEC slate, MSU will face a schedule that pits them in series against five teams ranked in the initial Baseball America Top 25. The good news is that three of those five (Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Texas A&M) are at home this year, and State also gets the luxury of avoiding South Carolina and Florida — two teams that have been thorns in the Bulldogs' sides in years past. Overall, the road is much smoother for MSU this season than it was last year, so the opportunity is there for MSU to rack up wins if they can take advantage of an easier schedule. Overall, I could see State finishing up the regular season somewhere around the 40-win mark. That seems incredibly lofty, but with a favorable non-conference schedule to open and a conference schedule that features Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee, the opportunities are certainly there.
Looking at this team as they head into the opening weekend, they certainly feel like a team capable of Omaha again. The hitting— while missing Frazier and Renfroe —may be even better top to bottom than it was last year. Pitching, barring injuries, will no doubt be improved as State looks to add front-end, starting depth to a ridiculous bullpen. The key will be whether or not the Bulldogs are able to avoid injuries and any idea that this season's success is a given. With Wes Rea and Jonathan Holder as the team's leaders this year, I feel like they are in good hands to stay focused and grounded with their minds solely focused on returning to Omaha. The talent is surely there, and if MSU can somehow wrap up the season as a national seed in the NCAAs, then it's back to Starkville where a raucous crowd gives MSU the advantage to get back to supers and then, hopefully, to Omaha.
Can we go back to 2013? Sadly, no, but what we can do is hope for more of the same in 2014. Whether you enjoyed the fun or the fundamentally strong baseball last summer, it looks like we'll get more of the same this year. Replacing All-Americans is never easy, but it helps when you have a few others coming back to guide a team that features some new faces as well as those old ones we feel like we know so well. With this team, expect there to be Vines, fun, and dugout antics, but also expect lots of good pitching and timely hitting. The question lies in whether or not this team wants it badly after coming so close last season. Something tells me they do though. To quote the great Slim Hossy (Ross Mitchell):
We'll make our presence heard We'll make our presence known Shoot I think we're / the one's who deserve the dawg bone.
Go get that bone fellas. And that bone is? A College World Series Championship, of course.