Mississippi State Figures to Wage a Pitched Battle

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Mississippi State team that stands in the way of Cal State Fullerton's 11th trip to the College World Series has built its NCAA playoff drive around strong pitching.

"We thought going into the season that pitching would be the key for us," Bulldog Coach Pat McMahon said.

Mississippi State (39-22) has a 3.48 staff earned-run average, compared to Fullerton's 3.66, but the Bulldogs' hitting might be a potential weakness heading into the start of the best-of-three super-regional series at 7 tonight at Goodwin Field against the No. 1-seeded Titans (44-16).

The Bulldogs are batting only .275, their lowest average since the 1994 team finished the season at .275, but they scored 27 runs in three games last weekend in winning the Ohio State regional. The Titans are batting .318 and averaging 7.4 runs per game.

Junior right-hander Tanner Brock (7-1, 3.73) is scheduled to start the opener for the Bulldogs against Titan ace Kirk Saarloos (14-2, 2.22). Freshman left-hander Paul Maholm (8-4, 4.06 ERA) is the scheduled starter for the Bulldogs on Saturday. Fullerton has not named its Game 2 starter.

Brock has won his last seven decisions and pitched a one-hit shutout against Louisiana State in March. McMahon said senior right-hander Jeff Hunter (3-0, 2.43) or sophomore left-hander Joey Collums (3-3, 3.71) will start the third game Sunday, if the series goes that far.

Brandon Medders (6-3, 2.13) and Josh Wooten (3-5, 1.87) have become MSU's top relief pitchers. The Bulldogs have nine pitchers with ERAs under 4.00.

Brock gave up nine hits and six runs in five innings in a 9-8 victory over Kent State in the regional opener, and Maholm held Delaware to 11 hits and three runs in 7 2/3 innings in a 4-3 victory in the second game. Hunter was the winning pitcher when MSU defeated Kent State in the title game, 14-4. He gave up five hits and four runs in 5 1/3 innings.

The Bulldogs gave up only 13 runs in five games during the Southeastern Conference tournament, and won the championship with a 4-1 victory over LSU.

Mississippi State won the regular-season series, two games to one, against Tennessee and South Carolina, two of the five SEC schools still in the tournament. The Bulldogs are 9-6 against super-regional teams, including a 7-3 loss to USC.

Their top hitter, Jon Knott, has been troubled by an inflamed tendon in his right shin and his availability this weekend is uncertain.

"He's our best offensive player and a great team leader," McMahon said, "but at this point, he's day to day." Knott, batting .359 with a team-high eight home runs, had only one at-bat in the regional because of the injury.

Freshman first baseman Matthew Brinson picked up the slack. He was eight for 12 (.667) in the regional with four homers, three doubles and seven RBIs.

Brinson is one of two freshmen on the infield, with Steve Gendron taking over at third. Sophomore Matthew Maniscalco was a regular at shortstop last season and leads the conference in fielding at the position this season with 11 errors in 291 chances (.966).

The Bulldogs have hit 38 homers. Fullerton has 51, led by Aaron Rifkin's 12.

The Bulldogs are making their second consecutive super-regional appearance and have won three regionals in four years under McMahon, who will coach Team USA this summer.

McMahon, a former coach at Old Dominion and an assistant at MSU, replaced longtime coach Ron Polk in 1998 when Polk retired, though Polk later returned to coaching at Georgia and his team is No. 6-seeded nationally.

"Pat and I go back to the days when we were both assistant coaches during the summer in the Alaskan league in the 1980s," Titan Coach George Horton said. "He has a lot of background in pitching from when he was an assistant, and his teams are always very well coached."

Fullerton is seeking its second College World Series appearance under Horton, who replaced Augie Garrido after the 1996 season.

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College Baseball

* What: NCAA Super-Regional

* Where: Cal State Fullerton's Goodwin Field

* Basics: Titans (44-16) play Mississippi State (39-22) in a best-of-three series. Winner advances to College World Series, beginning June 8 in Omaha, Neb.

* Schedule: Today, 7 p.m.; Saturday, 7 p.m.; Sunday (if necessary), 1 p.m.

* Tickets: All-tournament reserved-seat tickets are $22; single-game seats, available on game day only, are $10 for reserved seats and $8 for general admission.

* Parking: Free all weekend, beginning 5 p.m. today.

* Information: (714) 278-2783.

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