OMAHA, Neb. — There aren’t many experts who expected to see the Mississippi State Bulldogs to advance to the College World Series. Even fewer expected to see their opening-round opponent, Washington, take the field here at TD Ameritrade Park.
The Huskies (35-24) are an underdog here — the lowest-RPI team in the field of 64 to receive an at-large bid.
They’ve never been to Omaha before. Hell, they’d never been to a super regional before last weekend. So how did they get here, and what can we expect from them now that they are? Let’s take a look.
Scouting the Huskies
Washington is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Pac 12 — they get no respect. In three of the last four years, the Huskies have finished in the top three in the league, despite its coaches picking them to finish in the bottom half.
It’s a team that was 20-19 at the start of May but has heated up in the last month for several reasons.
For one, it has taken a while for the 14 freshmen (and 16 total newcomers) to adjust to the Division 1 level, but they have. None more than freshman Braiden Ward, who hit .270 in the regular season but has hit .330 in the post-season and scored a team-high eight runs.
The Huskies have also overcome a ton of injuries.
The projected starting lineup from February of Willie MacIver (first base), Levi Jordan (second), A.J. Graffanino (shortstop), Ben Baird (third base) never was in the lineup at the same time. Graffanino, the team’s top hitter, missed 32 games with a pulled hamstring. Baird is the only one of the four who is still out, and he’ll miss the rest of the season with a wrist injury.
Over the course of the season, the Huskies have started six different players at second base and five different players at third base, first base, and in left field.
Now, the Huskies are as healthy as they’ve been all year.
Oral history: Belief, rally bananas and Mississippi State baseball
Who’s got the hot bat?
In short, everyone.
The Huskies hit .274 as a team and averaged five runs in 59 games. Through six post-season games, they’ve hit .332 and averaged better than seven runs per contest.
The middle infield has been stellar. Second baseman A.J. Graffanino is hitting .500 in the post-season with 13 hits in six games and shortstop Levi Jordan is hitting .423 with four doubles. Neither has committed an error.
The Atlanta Braves drafted Graffanino, the son of former MLB veteran Tony Graffanino, in the eighth round of the draft two weeks ago. Jordan went in the 29th round to the Chicago Cubs.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for Washington has been senior designated hitter Joe Wainhouse. If the name is familiar, it’s because the Kent, Washington native played his freshman year at Ole Miss before transferring to Bellevue Junior College and eventually to Washington.
He played in 19 games as a freshman for the Rebels, hitting .125 with 12 strikeouts in 24 at-bats in 2015. He doesn’t swing and miss nearly as much these days — he’s hit .312 as a senior with team highs in home runs (19) and RBIs (59) and 69 strikeouts in 221 at-bats. More impressive, 13 of those home runs have come in the last 18 games.
“You have to get hot at the right time to get here,” MSU reliever Cole Gordon said. “And they’ve done that… To win in Omaha, you have to beat a good team. We know they are going to play hard and they want it just as bad as we do.
“We’re going to have to bring it, because they aren’t going to give in.”
Story continues below
The pitching matchup
Statistics suggest Washington starter Joe DeMers (pronounced Duh-Meers) is one of the best pitchers to ever come through the program, and he’ll get the ball when the Huskies and Bulldogs take the field at 7 p.m. Saturday.
The crafty right-hander from Martinez, California is 7-3 in 16 starts with a 2.56 ERA, 92 strikeouts and just 20 walks. His fastball is routinely in the 90-92 mph range, his go-to breaking ball is a plus slider and he often employs a changeup.
He was drafted in the 11th round by the Oakland A’s earlier this month.
Mississippi State coach Gary Henderson said Friday he’ll hand the ball to third-year sophomore left-hander Ethan Small.
Small is 5-3 in 16 appearances with a team-best 3.11 ERA among starters. Since April 1, Small’s 3.70 ERA is the best among the four players who have started games.
He has pitched at least six innings in three of his last five starts and has not earned a decision despite allowing three earned runs or fewer in all five.
Henderson said Konnor Pilkington will start MSU’s second game, win or lose.