We don’t expect all of you to know much about Missouri State, but you’ll learn quickly that they are pretty damn good. The Bears are one of the best teams you have never heard of, led by likely first rounder Jake Burger and a slough of long-ball hitting mashers. They also have a really solid starting rotation and one of the best 1-2 punches out of the pen left in the tournament. The Frogs are in for a battle in Fort Worth, so to get to know their opponent, we reached out to Harrison Keegan, one of the breaking news reporters for the Springfield (MO) News-Leader, the local paper of Missouri State. He also happens to be an alumni of Missouri State, so he knows this team well. Here is what he had to say about the Bears, their opponent, and how he expects this weekend’s series to play out.
Frogs O’ War: Missouri State went into Fayetteville, which isn't an easy place to win, and seemed completely unintimidated. They definitely don't have the countenance of a team that is just happy to be here. What was the expectation heading into the season and how confident are the Bears heading into this weekend?
Harrison Keegan: Coach Keith Guttin said at his news conference Wednesday that MSU's goal every year is to make it to the College World Series. Some years that goal is more realistic than others, and I think this is one of those years where the team felt like it had a real shot. It's an experienced group. A lot of the core guys are motivated by coming one game short of the College World Series in 2015, and I think the team is very confident heading into this weekend.
FOW: The Bears sport a pair of big bombers in Jake Burger and Jeremy Eierman, but six players have at least 50 hits and they seem to be a pretty well rounded lineup overall. What can you tell us about the two stars, and what are the strengths and weakness of the lineup as a whole?
HK: If designated hitter Blake Graham is able to play (he injured his knee in Monday's regional-clinching win over Arkansas) then MSU's 1-through-5 hitters are all batting over .300 and have home run power. Burger and Eierman are one of the best duos in the country. And they seem to always come through in big spots -- they both have walk-off home runs this season. As far as weaknesses, the bottom three guys in the lineup are all freshmen, so you never know how they will respond to the Super Regional pressure. But they are athletic kids and they held their own during the regional tournament in Fayetteville.
FOW: TCU relied on their pitching to sweep through the Fort Worth Regional, getting quality starts from all three arms. The Bears will likely see the same three guys for the Supers, seniors Mitchell Traver and Brian Howard and sophomore Jared Janczak. How have the Bears attacked quality pitching this season and what types of pitchers have had success against them?
HK: MSU has a really good offense, that seems to score runs against just about everybody. The last pitcher to really shut them down was Illinois State freshman Brady Huffman. He is a lanky right-hander who doesn't have overpowering stuff. But that was a wonky game in the conference tournament that started at 11 p.m., so not I'm not sure how much to read into it. Kacey Murphy, a lefty from Arkansas, also pitched well enough to beat the Bears on Monday. Murphy is a strikeout pitcher.
FOW: Missouri State has three pitchers that have at least 15 starts a piece, and two of the best relievers in the country in Jake Fromson and Bryan Young. The starters seem to eat up a ton of innings, and if the Bears get a lead late, they don't give it up. What is it about this unit that makes them so successful? When they struggle, what is it that teams do well against them?
HK: MSU's top three starters -- Doug Still, Jordan Knutson and Dylan Coleman -- are really solid. They are experienced guys who can usually be counted on for quality starts. And then, as you mentioned, that Fromson-Young combo in the bullpen has been great for MSU this year. If TCU can chase the starters early and make someone not named Fromson or Young come out of the bullpen, then that would be good for the Horned Frogs. MSU used Knutson in some relief appearances in Fayetteville last weekend, and he did really well, so that is something else to watch for.
FOW: The Frogs are gunning for their fourth straight CWS appearance and What is the perception of TCU around the MSU program?
HK: I think the Bears have a lot of respect for TCU. Bears coach Keith Guttin did not talk much strategy during his news conference this week. But he said he had been reaching out to some of TCU's opponents for information. Jake Burger, MSU's third baseman, played on the USA Baseball team last summer with Evan Skoug. Burger had some nice things to say about Skoug this week.
FOW: How does Missouri State beat TCU? How do the Frogs beat Missouri State?
HK: I think the strategy will be similar for both teams: try to get the starters out early and do some damage against the other side's middle relievers. I know the Bears like their chances against anybody if they have a lead after 6 innings, so I think it's important for TCU to get ahead early.
FOW: Prediction time: How do you see this series playing out? Who will be dog-piling Sunday/Monday night and how will they get there?
HK: We booked our hotel until Tuesday, and I definitely expect there to be 3 games. TCU has the edge in experience and starting pitching, but I think MSU is better offensively and in the bullpen. Whether or not Blake Graham can play for MSU might be the difference. I'll say TCU wins game one, MSU wins game two and then anything can happen in game three.