GAINESVILLE, Fla. — At the beginning of the season, no one anticipated the Mississippi State baseball team coming within nine outs of making it to the College World Series.
The Bulldogs, coming off a losing season and a three-year postseason drought, were picked to finish last in the Southeastern Conference”s Western Division by league coaches.
Maybe that was the source of the squad”s “scrappy” play all season.
Perhaps the “underdog” mentality turned a winless effort in the SEC tournament and a stretch at the end of the season in which the team lost four of five into the University of Florida”s worst nightmare in the Super Regional.
Florida steamrolled Manhattan and Miami in the Gainesville Regional and opened its Super Regionals series against MSU with an 11-1 win on Friday.
But the Gators faced different scenarios Saturday and Sunday, leading early in both games only to have to come from behind late in the game.
“It just was an emotional game,” Florida coach Kevin O”Sullivan said. “It took a lot of restraint, a lot of thinking. I had to try and do the best job I could.
“Everything was lined up for this team to lose. We”re playing a very motivated Mississippi State team. A lot of pressure was on us to win. It was a big relief.”
Last year, MSU rarely struck fear into an opponent. And though its 8-6 loss to Florida on Sunday will go down as one of the best games of the NCAA tournament this season, MSU coach John Cohen refused to view it as a moral victory.
“We”re basically just a couple of strikes away from changing the momentum of this game and going to Omaha,” Cohen said. “That”s a huge credit to our kids, and it”s a big jump for our program, but I can”t stand saying that because I want to be in Omaha.”
However, it was the brightest example of how far the team has come in three years under his watch.
“We were sixth place in the best league in America, (but) picked to finish last,” Cohen said. “The reason these guys bring it up is because they got a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. That”s why we are where we are. That”s why we made this jump this year.
“I”ve been there before. At Kentucky, the same thing. The kids read it: Last place. (Then) they win the league. Year three is a difference-maker. Our kids have competed their tails off. They competed hard.”
MSU started seven seniors Sunday. That group had seven of the team”s 11 hits, and four of its six RBIs.
The Bulldogs” reliance of freshmen in 2010 wasn”t much different this season. Freshman Evan Mitchell started on the mound in the postseason and outfielder CT Bradford hit leadoff. On Sunday, freshman pitchers Daryl Norris and Taylor Stark were used in relief.
The difference, though, was the influence of the senior class.
“I think the seniors played a part in helping everybody stay level-headed, especially freshmen,” MSU senior second baseman Nick Vickerson said. “When things are going great, it”s easy to get real high on yourself and think you”re doing something special. I think you”ve got to stay even-keeled, and I think that”s what the older guys did all year.”
O”Sullivan gets advice from Weis, Donovan
After Florida”s 4-3 loss to MSU on Saturday, O”Sullivan leaned on a couple of colleagues outside the game.
For the past week, assistant football coach Charlie Weis and basketball coach Billy Donovan, both of whom have won championships at the professional and college level, have offered advice in a challenging period for the fourth-year baseball coach.
On Saturday, Donovan suggested he break his normal routine.
“For lack of a better term, (Donovan told me) I had my head in my rear end and last night I needed to pick myself up,” O”Sullivan said. “Billy thought it”d be a good idea to get the team together last night, which I usually don”t do. I met with the team for 10 minutes at 7:30. I think it helped them just to know yesterday was gone and over with.”
O”Sullivan, who took Florida to the College World Series last year, said earning a return trip to Omaha is more special because of the emotions involved with the MSU series.
“I probably learned more about coaching in the last 24 hours than I did the last four year,” O”Sullivan said. “It was hard last night. How do you get a team to come back and play loose but with a sense of urgency? I don”t know if anyone has a magic formula.”
Tempers flare after the game
In the ninth Sunday, Cody Freeman flied out in foul territory to Florida catcher Mike Zunino.
During the play, Florida first baseman Vickash Ramjit collided with MSU first base coach Nick Mingione in foul territory and appeared hurt on the play.
Replay showed Ramjit tripped over Mingione, who was attempting to move out of Ramjit”s path.
A heated exchange between O”Sullivan and Cohen and MSU assistant coach Butch Thompson followed the completion of the game while Florida players celebrated on the field.
Both coaches declined comment on why the spat took place and what was said.
“Both teams battled for three hours today,” O”Sullivan said. “Everybody”s emotions are riding high. I really have no comment. I”d really hate to have that one incident be a focal point to the game.”
Said MSU coach John Cohen: “I think it was just two great teams competing their hearts out. Sometimes things happen, but it”s all forgotten in the end. That”s what competing is all about. I”m doing what everybody else in the world is doing, I”m looking at the baseball. That was my view. You have to see it on film.”