OMAHA, Neb. -- From the beginning, a sense of exceptionalism hovered over the College World Series. There was something of everything.
We had perennial powers (North Carolina, LSU), teams that have waited decades or forever for this (NC State, Indiana), a team that won titles its previous two times here (Oregon State) and five conferences (SEC, Pac-12, ACC, Big Ten, Big East). We had compelling stories, but nobody rode in on the bare back of luck. All eight teams hosted regionals and proved their worth.
So we should have been prepared for anything, shielded completely from surprise. And yet, who had both UCLA and Mississippi State playing for the national championship?
Neither team entered Omaha as the favorite in its bracket. Both have deep, festering wounds that would be fatal for most other clubs. But here they are, both undefeated at the College World Series and proving something we've always known to be true: You don't have to be perfect to be a champion.
Now, a five-month season has been reduced to three days. Game 1 of the best-of-three series is Monday at 8 p.m. ET, with all games on ESPN. Let's take a quick look at the Bruins and Bulldogs, and ask five questions about the championship series.
Will the "clean" David Berg return for UCLA in the finals?
Berg, the Pac-12 pitcher of the year and UCLA's closer, has been a late-night titan for John Savage this season, emptying the end of ballgames of stress. Not often is a reliever among the three most valuable assets a team possesses, but I think that's fair to say about Berg, considering how UCLA is constructed. Everything the Bruins do is designed to get the ball to Berg. That's it.
So it was a little concerning to watch Berg on Friday night at TD Ameritrade Park nearly drowning in his own sweat and North Carolina's propensity for heroics. He entered with a four-run lead and then loaded the bases with nobody out. It was the first pulse felt by the Tar Heels' offense, the first push back against the Bruins.
"Come on, you get ran out there as much as he does, things are going to happen," Savage said. "So, hey, he's our guy. That's who we're going to go to. He's one of the major reasons why we're here, and he can screw up every now and then. It's OK."
Savage laughed and shrugged, reminding everyone that Berg has "had a lot of clean innings." He's right -- Berg does have a 0.96 ERA in 75 1/3 innings with 77 strikeouts and only 11 walks, after all -- but in the past couple of weeks, innings have come up mostly dirty for Berg.
Beyond UCLA's starting rotation, its greatest strength is the death trap of Berg and freshman James Kaprielian at the end of games. Kaprielian did his part against UNC, striking out two in a scoreless seventh inning, but the Bruins will need the best from both to beat the Bulldogs.
How much damage will Wes Rea and Hunter Renfroe cause?
Rea and Renfroe sat shoulder to shoulder on the interview podium after Mississippi State beat Oregon State on Friday, and talked about hitting. Rea had two knocks against Oregon State -- a third was robbed at the wall in left-center -- and Renfroe broke the Beavers with a three-run homer.
"Last year, I really didn't have a plan for the off-speed stuff," Rea said. "This year, I'm more center to right-center on the fastball and left-center to left field on the breaking ball. So it's not like I have to guess one pitch to hit to be productive anymore."
Talk about the ballpark, its deep gaps and the wind blowing straight in from center dominated conversations all week in Omaha. "Once the ball gets into the gaps, it's not going out," Renfroe said. "So I just try to hit line drives."
Renfroe and Rea have wrecked the ball for Mississippi State in the postseason -- hitting .368 and .382, respectively -- and they could be the biggest factors in this championship series, because it doesn't take more than a small child's handful of runs to put games in legitimate jeopardy for UCLA.
With runners on base, a Renfroe homer here and a Rea double there would likely be enough meat for the Bulldogs' bullpen to feast on and finish the Bruins. It's not all on those two, of course. The Bulldogs do have other capable hitters -- Adam Frazier and Alex Detz at the top of the lineup, Brett Pirtle and C.T. Bradford in the middle -- but the run-scoring opportunities are typically there for Renfroe and Rea, and they've been masterful at cashing them in.
Speaking of runs, how many will UCLA manufacture?
Perhaps more than any other team in the College World Series, the Bruins have to be almost perfect in their offensive execution to score runs. They can't miss hit-and-runs, they can't miss squeezes, they can't make outs on the bases. Some of those errors can be overcome by teams with the ability to assault pitching staffs. UCLA is not one of those teams.
From the very first inning of games, the Bruins will bunt runners over and bunt them in, thrilled to take one run in any nook or cranny they can find it. It's a minimalistic way of going through life, but it's the Bruins' way. For them, it works because of Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig and Grant Watson and every other arm they run out there who collects outs like they're precious antiques. (Savage, a pitching guy, probably would say that's exactly what outs are.)
So when some things change for the Bruins, the most important thing stays the same: Will their starting pitchers continue to be great? If yes, UCLA likely will be a national champion. If no, the other offensive shoe will have finally dropped, unable to walk the Bruins out of trouble.
Who will it be this time on the mound for MSU?
Can you remember a championship team -- at any level of baseball -- that had only one solidified starting pitcher? I can't, because that's an insane way of trying to make a living in this game. In almost every instance, teams short on starting pitching are short on wins, too.
Except for Mississippi State.
Kendall Graveman is the only Bulldog locked into a starting role, and he threw against Oregon State on Friday. So the earliest he'd pitch again, I presume, would be in Game 2 against UCLA, which would be Tuesday on three days' rest.
If Mississippi State wins Game 1, it could try to clinch the series in Game 2 with some mix of Trevor Fitts, Ross Mitchell and Chad Girodo getting the ball to closer Jonathan Holder, knowing that if everything comes down to a final game, the Bulldogs would have their best guy in Graveman going.
"Coach [John] Cohen says I'm 87, 88 [mph], that's when I'm at my best," Graveman said after Friday's game. "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."
If there's truth in that joke, though, maybe we will see Graveman in Game 2. He relies on getting sink, which, the theory goes, can be easier for pitchers to generate when they don't feel fresh, because they eliminate the desire to overthrow their fastballs. Hey, whatever logic works for Cohen and his pitchers. They're unpredictable, and they've also been brilliant.
Which team will make history?
UCLA and Mississippi State both represent storied leagues and proud programs, but neither has won a national championship in baseball. That changes now.
Cohen wasn't interested in discussing what that would mean for Mississippi State after advancing to the final round, too caught up in his routine. "I will be much more prepared to answer that question about six months from now," he said.
Savage preached some of the same. "I'm very proud of our team," he said. "But we've still not accomplished what we came to do. It's on to the next round."
On and on those words will go until the final out is recorded. Just know, they're thinking about it. Of course they are.
With a CWS finals somewhere off the predictable map, that's the one story that looms over these final games. This is a new time for these teams, a chance to push their programs beyond previously unbreakable barriers. The Bruins will add another championship trophy to the stocked athletic cabinets of Westwood, or the Bulldogs will take their first title and raise it to the sky as they head back south to Starkville.
It's been a wonderful College World Series. Enjoy the finals, everyone.