Bulldogs unexpected CWS favorites


OMAHA, Neb. -- Early Thursday morning, you couldn't hear much in the middle of Creighton's downtown campus other than wind whipping through the concourses.

A couple of birds chirped from the trees. A few students dragged tired feet across pavement. A lawn mower yawned in the distance. But mostly, silence.

At 9:15 a.m., a Mississippi State bus pulled up. "Let's gooooo," a Bulldog yelled as they set out to stretch. Soon, balls were whizzing across the diamond in drills, popping leather at their destinations. Baserunners were yelling at pitchers on first-and-third plays, begging them to break down and balk under pressure.

"Come on, good feeds, good feeds, play catch!" head coach John Cohen hollered.

This is Mississippi State -- loud, brash, fun. The Bulldogs, undefeated in Omaha and awaiting Oregon State on Friday afternoon, have become the beautifully bizarre and eccentric team at this College World Series. They wear thick beards. Some go shirtless under their jerseys. They have a "Bench Mob." It's unorthodox and perfect.

"There's a saying in recruiting: You don't always get who you want, but you get who you are," Cohen said.

Mississippi State is something else in so many ways, and it's also this: the last SEC team standing in Omaha, the lone remaining participant from the proclaimed greatest conference in the country and a single victory away from the championship series.

This was supposed to be Vanderbilt, the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and the team that didn't lose a series in the 2013 regular season. But the Commodores couldn't escape Louisville in their own super regional.

This was supposed to be LSU, the team that beat Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament and arrived in Omaha marked as favorites. They were beaten and bounced after two games.

If not those two, maybe it would be South Carolina, who has developed a recent annual ritual of playing for national championships. Maybe it would be Arkansas, with its arms tearing through everything that lives on the Nebraska border, much like UCLA's pitching staff is doing now.

However it sorted out, most buried the Bulldogs somewhere in the back of the SEC favorites line. How does Starkville sound for the home of a national champion? Try Nashville. Try Baton Rouge. That was the script, anyway.

Now, the Bulldogs are the ones here, winning close games and believing all along they can do something this program has never done, believing they can keep winning through their final game.

"We don't depend on one guy," Cohen said. "That's the mark of a great team -- not having to put all your eggs in one basket. And our kids are confident in [close games]. It's just the belief that we're going to win."

It's a little difficult to pinpoint who stirs this pot of moxie with which the Bulldogs approach the game. Maybe the genius is that there isn't one guy to whom this group looks.

But Wes Rea seems to have a gravitational pull embedded inside him. He's only a sophomore, but at times it looks like his teammates rotate around him, following his footsteps and his presence. Some of it is his size. Rea is 6-foot-5 and 272 pounds, a former football player and a hulking man at first base. People look at him and wonder why he's not on Dan Mullen's offensive line in Starkville. They see the body and believe they understand what motivations mix in the head on top of it.

"Coach Mullen teases him relentlessly about being a sissy [and not playing football], but it's all in good fun," Cohen said. "He came here to win a national championship in baseball. People think, because of his body type, that he's just this brute. He's not. He's a baseball savant."

Rea lurked around first base Thursday, white sunglasses protecting his eyes from the morning glare, a bushel of brown curls puffed out the back of his Mississippi State cap. He caught tosses from infielders and flipped them around the diamond.

All the Bulldogs wore shorts and black tops. In yellow block letters, Rea's shirt read, "LIGHT YOU UP." It's everything Mississippi State is and wants to be.

As players stretched before practice, Cohen stood by the first-base dugout and spoke with reporters about Oregon State. The Bulldogs haven't played since Monday, and there's a sense they're running out of ways to kill the time. They are doing good work and visiting children's hospitals, spending parts of their days brightening those of others. They've visited the zoo and the old Rosenblatt site. Thursday afternoon was spent at an amusement park.

It's good fun that is beginning to run old. It doesn't matter that it's Oregon State and not Indiana on the other side now. Cohen is just happy to know the next opponent and inch ever closer to competing against them. He ran through their offense, their pitching, their experience. It was finally baseball, and it was all good.

"[Michael] Conforto might be the best hitter in the country, and they have other guys around him," Cohen said about the Beavers. "They have poise, and that [comes from] a program that's won national championships. It's a sense of, 'This has been done before, and it can be done again.'"

That's the sixth sense in Omaha that the Bulldogs don't possess. It hasn't been all that long since they were last in Omaha (2007), but a national championship has been forever in the making for this program.

With Rea, with first-round pick Hunter Renfroe, with closer Jonathan Holder at the back of the bullpen, with a team of dudes who just don't give a damn about what opposes them on a baseball field, maybe this is the year. Maybe this is the team that brings rings back to Starkville, a place home to none as of now.

"They know that, too," Cohen said. "They know that's what can separate them from every team in Mississippi State history."

They've already separated themselves from the rest of the SEC, the supposed favorites.

Two wins down, three to go, and the Bulldogs are coming loud and clear now. They're coming for Oregon State first, then whomever else is next, coming for the championship days no team from Starkville has yet to see.