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STARKVILLE — In Mississippi, we probably take our college baseball atmospheres — the packed stadiums, the enthused crowds, the four-hour parties — for granted.
We should not.
The Southeast Missouri State (SEMO) Redhawks provided a reminder of that on a sultry Friday afternoon here at Dudy Noble Field, where Mississippi State prevailed 9-5 in an NCAA Tournament game dripping with almost as much drama as sweat.
A crowd of 9,378 fans lifted the Bulldogs to victory over an Ohio Valley Conference championship team and an outstanding pitcher, Joey Lucchesi. We will get to Lucchesi a little later, but first a word from SEMO coach Steve Bieser, a former Major Leaguer with the Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates.
“This was a great baseball atmosphere,” Bieser said. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our kids to play in a place like this before a crowd like this. It’s hostile. … but like I told our players, you gotta understand, it’s all in fun. There’s no disrespect meant.”
Lucchesi, a tall lanky left-hander who led the nation in strikeouts, got an early dose of the crowd. His unorthodox, herky-jerky wind-up brought a most unusual reaction from State fans.
When Lucchesi started his wind-up with his hands high over his head, State fans chanted, “One!” When he brought his hands down to his chest, they roared, “Two!” When he brought his hands back over and behind his head, they counted, “Three!” When his hands went back in front of his head to in front of his belt, they counted “Four!” And when he finally kicked and delivered, they hollered, in unison, “Five!”
This, the crowd did, pitch after pitch after 92 mph pitch. And, yes, it was funny.
“I didn’t expect that,” Lucchesi would say.
And who would?
“It was a little weird and annoying at first,” Lucchesi added. “I just shook it off.”
Lucchesi also shook off a line drive off his shin and a three-run home run that probably should have been caught by his centerfielder.
He battled and earned the admiration of Mississippi State coach John Cohen who said of Lucchesi, “He’s a warrior. He’s phenomenal. He was pitching on short rest but, man, he battled.”
Keep in mind, Lucchesi normally pitches in front of crowds of fewer than 1,000.
Lucchesi outlasted State’s ace righthander Dakota Hudson, who left the game with the score tied at 4 in the fourth inning. Lucchesi battled into the sixth before Bieser went and got him, trailing 7-5.
Brent Rooker led a 14-hit State effort with two home runs and four RBI, three on a drive to centerfield that went off Dan Holst’s glove and into the crowd that roared its approval.
Holst, says Bieser, is one of the best centerfielders he has ever coached but missed a ball he normally catches.
Did the crowd —Dudy Noble’s outfield crowds are legendary for their chiding of the opposition — have anything to do with it? Did it break his concentration? There’s no way to know for certain, but you better believe this: Cohen doesn’t take the Dudy Noble crowds for granted.
That was especially true after Cohen asked that State’s game be moved from nighttime to the heat of the day when most fans are normally at work. Cohen believes playing earlier Friday afforded the Bulldogs their best chance to win this four-team tournament and advance to a Super Regional next week.
“I want to thank our fans, they showed up in droves,” Cohen said.
They almost always do.
And those crowds — and this kind of game atmosphere — have a lot to do with the outfield signs that greet visiting players when they arrive at Dudy Noble. From left field to right, those signs read: “47 All Americans,” “35 NCAA Tournaments,” “Nine College World Series,” “11 SEC Championships,” “Seven SEC Tournament Championships,” and “12 first round picks.”
Those impressive numbers — and this kind of crowd — can more than a little intimidating.
Friday, the crowd could have been the difference.
Rick Cleveland writes a weekly sports column running Fridays at Mississippitoday.org.