Jun 10, 2013; Charlottesville, VA, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs players celebrate on the field after their game against the Virginia Cavaliers during the Charlottesville super regional of the 2013 NCAA baseball tournament at Davenport Field. The Bulldogs won 6-5 and advanced to the College World Series. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
The 2013 postseason run was unbelievable for many Mississippi State fans and all associated with the program. I admit, I had chill bumps as I found myself sitting at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska and watching my alma mater win quite easily over Oregon State and hearing the announcer state “Mississippi State YOU have a game Monday night in the National Championship series!” Indeed, it was a historic win for MSU that resulted in the program’s highest finish in school history. Along the way, we got introduced to the Bench Mobb- second “b” silent of course, found out that Hunter Renfroe was considered a true “five tool” player, and became the darling of Omaha. This team won the hearts of the people of Mississippi and gave a state that has often been run down a legitimate reason to be proud of something for the right reasons. The 2013 Mississippi State baseball team will go down as the FIRST division one program in the state to play for a National Championship in any sport.
Not that Mississippi State is unfamiliar with success in sports. We have had a basketball team make a Final Four. We have won a New Year’s Day bowl game as recently as 2012 and have been to three New Year’s Day bowls since 1998 with several SEC, SEC West and SEC Tournament championships sprinkled in along the way. That said, normally the elite level success has only lasted for a short period of time- and that is one area where I think this baseball program is different. Rather than this being the height or the pinnacle of success for the program- I believe this is likely just the beginning of more and even bigger things to come for Mississippi State baseball. Now that may sound cocky, but understand that I have my reasons for this belief. So, first let’s look at our program and where it has been to gain a perspective on things.
Prior to 1976, Mississippi State had a lot of success in baseball. Even before Ron Polk, MSU drew very well relative to the rest of the country. There has always been a very strong core fan base for as long as many people can remember. And MSU had a lot of success prior to Coach Polk- including sending Willie Mitchell to the Major Leagues- the first Mississippian to ever make it, winning multiple SEC titles under multiple coaches prior to Ron Polk’s arrival, and Paul Gregory taking MSU to their first ever College World Series appearance in 1971. The collegiate postseason was very different at this time, and there were several years where MSU did not make the post season despite winning the SEC.
In the 80’s, that changed and Ron Polk came along and elevated the program into one that made it to Omaha very consistently- and by very consistently, I mean one that made it on average roughly once every 4-5 years. Improvements to Dudy-Noble Field were made at this time and it also featured the now legendary 1985 team which was filled with Major League talent. That success continued into the 1990’s, however LSU took advantage of what Polk had built as far as making the SEC viable and took it to an even higher level by winning National Championships. At this time, the rest of the SEC realized that baseball was a product worth investing in and other programs brought in better coaches and built better facilities. Unfortunately for MSU, due to poor leadership and foresight by Larry Templeton, a burned-out Ron Polk was allowed to come back and replace his successor Pat McMahon in 2001 resulting in seven mostly mediocre years by MSU standards, ultimately ending in a very bitter divorce between Polk and Greg Byrne as current coach John Cohen was hired.
When John Cohen was hired, his goal was to win a National Championship at Mississippi State. Now, I’m sure some people thought that maybe he was blowing smoke up whatever part of your body you wish to choose, but he was dead serious. And for a lot of MSU fans, playing for a National Title just seems to be something that is so far out there that maybe they weren’t sure what to make of it. That is an attitude that HAS to change. Now, I’m not saying it’s the fault of the fans that we don’t have one. Nor am I saying be unhappy with the season we had last year. Rather, there has to be steps taken to allow people to believe that winning a National Title isn’t some unrealistic out there belief that only happens on video games. And that’s exactly what this team has done under Cohen- first making it to a Super Regional in 2011, winning the SEC Tournament in 2012, and now making it to the Finals in Omaha. The fact of the matter is once people SEE that something is possible, it makes it a LOT easier to believe it. Perhaps more importantly, it makes it easier for recruits to believe it too.
I loved the team last year, but the reality is we had some holes in some spots. Namely the starting rotation. You have to give Butch a LOT of credit for using the bullpen the way that they did because a lot of coaches wouldn’t do what we did even though it may cost their team games. That said, having a starting pitcher go 1-2 innings is NOT ideal in any baseball arena. And if you do research on the teams that win National Titles, one of the things that they almost always have in common is strong starting pitching. Ideally, you would like to have two Chris Stratton types and maybe your third guy is a Kendall Graveman who is a veteran and knows how to pitch. Also, having a strong bullpen with a closer like a Jonathan Holder and the rest of pitchers that we have is needed as well. The exposure that we have acquired from being in the College World Series will help us to attract elite level pitching talent. Defensively, we had lapses at times. That is something that has to improve. I think many of the errors that we made in the postseason were due to the fact that our players were in a situation that they had not been in before whether it was getting the last outs in Virginia to go to Omaha or being the National Finals.
Again, if you do research on the teams that win the National Title, almost all of them had been to Omaha in recent years before actually winning. And by recent, I mean making three out four or five years before winning. UCLA falls into this category as well. They lost the National Finals to South Carolina in 2010, but had made it to Omaha three out of the last four years. MSU on the other hand- this was the first visit to Omaha for our current players and coaches. And I’ve noticed this trend in other levels of baseball. For example, the Cardinals lost the World Series in 2004, but they came back and won it in 2006 with a team that wasn’t as talented as the 2004 team, but they had more post season experience. And I’ve seen this trend occur in high school baseball as well. And yes, there are exceptions such as Fresno State winning a few years ago, but they are certainly not the rule.
Much was made about the lack of offense in the College World Series, and it has resulted in the NCAA going to the flat-seemed ball starting in 2015. That’s BAD news for teams like UCLA- unless they change. For Mississippi State, I think that’s GOOD news because I’ve noticed that we are bringing in more power hitting types of players. At the same time, we are continuing to bring in players that can run because we have to based on the ballparks that we primarily play in. Baseball is a sport that constantly evolves and to win, you have to be ahead of the curve a little bit. Cohen is very good at that, and we built a team that was indeed geared towards larger ball parks and it allowed us to have a lot of success.
Another thing that you have to have to win an National Title is a coach that is driven to win a National Title. John Cohen is driven to do that. While most MSU fans are excited over the new found success that we are having, I can also guarantee you that neither Cohen, the coaches, or the players are satisfied. While last season was very good by any standard, there is still another step to take. Resting on our laurels will not get us there. Rather what we have to do as a program is to continue to build by adding talent, and also build on the experience that we gained this year as well as continuing to have fun doing so as a team.
The 2014 season should be a lot of fun and hopefully this baseball team will continue to build on the success they’ve had the last few seasons.