UCLA and MSU head to CWS finals
OMAHA, Neb. -- Not long after it was over, Ken Ravizza -- dressed in UCLA blue -- eyed an exit at TD Ameritrade Park. He headed for it and then suddenly stopped.
Ravizza, a renowned sports psychologist working with UCLA, bent his knees and placed his right hand at his navel, palm up. He slowly drew it up to his sternum, pantomiming a deep inhale. In a synchronized and rhythmic wave, he lowered it back down and exhaled.
He was staring at Grant Watson, who smiled back, a simple visual reminder to the left-hander to breathe and maintain his routine on the night Watson pitched at the College World Series, his first start in 19 days, and pushed the Bruins a step closer to their first national championship in baseball.
Ravizza cracked up, pointing his finger at Watson as if to say, "See! I told you!" and then disappeared.
The mastermind's method had worked. UCLA coach John Savage handed Watson the ball against North Carolina, needing one win to advance to the final series, and Watson handed his coach six scoreless innings, a 4-1 victory and a date in the final with Mississippi State, which beat Oregon State by the same score earlier in the day.
"Grant Watson, 19 days without pitching, stayed in shape," Savage said. "There's a credit to him for being disciplined enough to remain ready. We know how good Grant is. He's a big reason why we're here. And I think he showed the whole country that he could pitch in a big stage."
Five hours earlier, the Bulldogs sat at the podium from which Savage was speaking now, but the mood was a bit different. It was late Friday afternoon, and Mississippi State coach John Cohen walked by a few elder members of the MSU traveling party, who were talking about going to "sip cold ones" in celebration of their Bulldogs.
Cohen made facetious quips to his players during the postgame interview session, jovial and drunk on the thrill of running through an Omaha bracket undefeated, running to the cusp of being called a champion.
Like UCLA, MSU has never felt the polished wood of the baseball championship trophy on a championship-clinching night, and here the Bulldogs stand on new ground for the program, their first-ever shot at Omaha's final series. Cohen was asked to put that in perspective, and he tried to beat back that kind of talk. No time for that with two more games to win.
"Right now, I'm thinking about what we're going to do [Saturday] morning to try to get ready," Cohen said. "And I'm not speaking in cliché, I really mean that. These guys are trained, really, to just think about what's next. I'm glad that our fans get to ponder all those philosophical things [about playing for a championship next week]. But we've got tomorrow."
Mississippi State arrived in Omaha without favorite status in its bracket. It needed a deciding game in the Starkville Regional to beat Central Arkansas before eliminating Virginia in two games in the Charlottesville Super Regional behind some good pitching and some good hitting and a lot of first baseman Wes Rea.
The sophomore has morphed into something of a cherished character in Omaha. He's 6-foot-5 and 272 pounds, a thick face covered by a thick beard. He rakes. Rea had two more hits Friday and was the first Bulldog into the interview room afterwards.
He immediately studied the positioning of the name placards. His sat in the middle, and he hurriedly switched it with Hunter Renfroe's so Rea would be seated second from the left, next to Cohen. "I've been sitting here all week," he said.
A few people laughed at the surface-level absurdity of such a superstition, not realizing the level of seriousness with which it was delivered.
"No, it's bad luck," Rea said.
He has tweaked his swing and tweaked his approach this season, both to better handle the breaking balls that are inevitably flung at monsters like him in the belly of lineups, but now was no time for change. Not here, not for 3-0 Mississippi State. Rea can't explain how the Bulldogs are doing what they are, how they are the ones representing the SEC here, and he doesn't care to. Nobody does.
"I know it sounds crazy, sounds cliché, but our kids just think something good is going to happen," Cohen said. "So do our coaches. And it has. I think these guys are on a little bit of a roll, for sure."
The Bulldogs roll into Monday's first game against UCLA with everything lined up, able to save some arms after Kendall Graveman allowed only one earned run in 5⅔ innings against Oregon State.
"Coach Cohen says I'm 87, 88 [mph]. That's when I'm at my best," Graveman said. "Today, my body didn't feel great, but I think if Coach Cohen had his choice, he would not want me to feel great all the time."
So now, eight has been whittled down to two in Omaha. Mississippi State and UCLA: both without losses here, both buried in themselves and the opportunity waiting in the season's final few games.
"We're certainly going to respect Mississippi State in the job they've done," Savage said. "But at this stage, it's really what you're doing as a team and how you're preparing and making sure you have a right mindset."
As Rea and other Bulldogs wrapped up interviews in the hallways, UCLA was just arriving at the ballpark, hours still from taking down the Tar Heels.
The Bruins lugged their bags of equipment toward the third-base dugout, and some of them smirked at the size and presence of Rea, who was walking in their direction. There was no stare down, certainly, but no cordial acknowledgements, either.
They looked Rea over. He was covered in dirt. His cheeks carried smudges of eye black, his forehead pressed red by the inside of his cap. There was a foot-long gash in the right shin of his uniform pants. He looked as if he had just fought.
Rea briefly evaluated the Bruins and then looked away without emotion. The two national finalists squeezed together in the same ballpark hall, there was no college bravado, no tough-guy stuff.
Just competitors in different colors seeing what the other is about. Just an understanding that it wouldn't be long before they met again.