Hotard: Mississippi State, UCLA fitting CWS finalists

On the final play of the first game at this year’s College World Series, Oregon State’s Danny Hayes sent long fly ball to right field, bringing the crowd at TD Ameritrade Park to its feet.

Runners were at first and second. It appeared Hayes had gotten enough of Mississippi State closer Jonathan Holder’s two-out offering to turn a 5-4 deficit into a dramatic 7-5 win.

But the ball died in Hunter Renfroe’s glove for the final out.

As we await the start of the CWS championship series beginning Monday night, we may have a hard time finding a single play that will better epitomize a tournament that has been characterized by plenty of close games decided by pitching and defense, and a tournament that has featured just three home runs in 20 games.

It is fitting that Mississippi State and UCLA are the last teams standing, considering those teams have shown the most late-inning grit of anyone that reported to TD Ameritrade Park for college baseball’s signature event.

Of course, both teams have had some luck along the way.

After surviving a 2-1 nailbiter against Aaron Nola and LSU in its first game at the CWS, UCLA found itself leading North Carolina State by that same 2-1 margin in its second game.

Then, with two on and two out in the eighth, Trea Turner blasted a ball deep to left field.

Later, Turner said it was as well as he can hit a baseball. But it wasn’t enough, snared at the wall by Christoph Bono to keep the one-run lead intact.

Now the Bruins face Mississippi State in a best-of-three series that will finish with one of the teams celebrating its first national title.

Both were No. 1 seeds in regional play, but neither the Bruins nor the Bulldogs were among the NCAA tournament’s top-eight national seeds.

Mississippi State had the fifth-best record in the Southeastern Conference. UCLA finished third in the Pac-12 after losing two of three to Stanford, which missed the NCAA field, in its final regular-season series.

But State has arguably the best bullpen in the nation, and UCLA has one of the best starting rotations.

Meanwhile, in a ballpark where runs are always at a premium, neither defense has wilted.

The Bruins have committed just one error in three games. State has committed three.

While knocking off more heralded teams like LSU, North Carolina and Oregon State, UCLA and Mississippi State have looked very much like the South Carolina and Arizona teams that won the CWS in the tournament’s first two years at TD Ameritrade.

South Carolina relied heavily on lefty workhorse Michael Roth and a bottomless bullpen in 2011, then fell last year to an Arizona team that allowed only eight runs in five CWS games.

UCLA and State both won their first two games at the CWS by one run before taking 4-1 victories in Friday’s semifinals.

Over the next two or three days, the CWS finals will pit two teams that have gotten all the right bounces and won all the tight games.

More late-inning drama is likely in the offing.

Something will have to give.