Arizona Wildcats travel to Mississippi State with College World Series bid on line

Posted at 2:33 PM, Jun 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-09 17:33:34-04

Arizona and Mississippi State are two of college baseball's traditional powerhouse programs that have suffered through some lean years of late.

When Mississippi State (44-16-1) hosts Arizona (42-21) in the best-of-three super regional round starting Friday in Starkville, one will cap an impressive bounce-back season with a trip to the College World Series.

Arizona is one of the hottest teams in the country, having won 10 of its last 11 games.

The Wildcats lost their second game of last weekend's regional to Louisiana-Lafayette, but bounced back to win the next three -- including two over Louisiana-Lafayette -- to advance to the Super Regional round for the first time since their national championship season in 2012.

Arizona -- which is led by first-year coach Jay Johnson -- is led by pitcher Nathan Bannister, who gave up just three runs over 14 innings in the Lafayette Regional.

Mississippi State was the CWS runner up in 2013, losing to UCLA in the championship series. After a decent 2014 season, the Bulldogs sank to the bottom of the Southeastern Conference in 2015 with a 24-30 record.

But MSU coach John Cohen built another national contender in a hurry. The Bulldogs won the SEC regular-season title this spring behind a formidable pitching staff that includes starters Dakota Hudson, Austin Sexton and the recently emerging Zac Houston.

Mississippi State's deep bullpen was fantastic last weekend in the Starkville Regional, helping the Bulldogs win three straight by giving up just one run over 11 1/3 innings of work.

"Postseason is another animal," Sexton said. "People step up in the postseason and our guys really did that."


Here are five things to watch in the Super Regional between the Wildcats and Bulldogs:

LAST PAC-12 TEAM STANDING: Arizona is the only team remaining in the NCAA Tournament from the Pac-12. Not many people saw a good season coming from the Wildcats -- they were picked to finish ninth in the 11-team league during the preseason by the league's coaches.

HOUSTON HELPS: The top two pitchers in Mississippi State's rotation -- Dakota Hudson and Austin Sexton -- have been fairly consistent throughout the season. Now it's the recent emergence of Houston that is giving the Bulldogs a third option. Houston is 6-0 with a 1.63 ERA and has given up just one run over his last 15 2/3 innings.

FAMILIAR FOES: Arizona and Mississippi State will be playing against each other for a third straight season. Arizona split two games with Mississippi State in 2014 in Tucson while the Bulldogs won both games against the Wildcats in 2015 in Starkville.

BYRNE'S RETURN: Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne had the same job at Mississippi State from 2008 to 2010. He hired Mississippi State's current baseball coach John Cohen as well as Arizona's first-year coach Jay Johnson.

BIG BATS: Mississippi State's Brent Rooker had two homers in a game against Southeast Missouri during the Starkville Regional last weekend. He's one of three Bulldogs with at least eight homers this season. Arizona's Ryan Aguilar leads the Wildcats with 21 doubles and seven homers.