Mike Kinnison Credit: DSU media

Delta State led West Alabama 4-2 in the fifth inning of the NCAA Regional finals on a drizzly Monday afternoon in Cleveland. All that was on the line was the season and a berth in the Division II College World Series.

Rick Cleveland Credit: Melanie Thortis

Mike Kinnison’s Statesman had dependable 23-year-old, senior right-hander Corey Beard, a perfect 6-0 coming into the game, on the mound. Beard, from Jefferson City, Mo., had just given up a solo home run and was facing Luke Phillips, West Alabama’s sturdy all-conference hitter. The count went to no balls, two strikes, and Beard threw a change-up. Phillips swung and connected, and …

Beard never saw it coming – not that he would have had time to get his glove up. A wicked line drive hit him smack in the face, in the crease on the right side of his nose.

“It sounded like somebody picked up a bat and swung it really hard at a tree trunk,” says Hays Collins, a photographer who was shooting the game from near the first base dugout. “I mean, it was loud.”

Beard toppled over, face down, observers say. His legs were kicking, sickeningly, at air. Trainers from both teams rushed to the mound.

“The place got so quiet,” Collins says. “It was dead silence.”

There was a lot of blood. Beard’s mother rushed out onto the field. Kinnison tried to comfort her.

Apparently, Beard never lost consciousness. It was 15 minutes before the ambulance arrived, and he was lifted onto a gurney and driven off the field.

Says Kinnison, “So much is riding on the game. Really, so much is riding on every pitch. And then, there’s that one pitch and all the rest of it all the sudden seems so trivial. It was really scary.”

OK, there’s good news here. Beard will be OK. His nose was broken. He has fractures of his cheek bone and of his orbital bone (eye socket). But his vision is fine. There is no lasting neurological damage. He spent Monday night at UMMC in Jackson, but was headed back to Cleveland Tuesday afternoon. His injuries will require some reconstructive surgery but not until the swelling goes down.

More good news where Delta State is concerned: The Statesmen eventually won the game 6-4 in the 10th inning. They will advance to play Lindenwood (Mo.) University in the World Series Saturday at 7 p.m. at The Ballpark in Grand Prairie, Texas, just west of Dallas.

Delta State leaves Thursday for the national tournament. Beard is scheduled to return to UMMC for further evaluation Friday.

“The good news is that we advance and keep playing,” Kinnison said. “The bad news is that Corey can’t go with us. We hope he will be able to join us at some point, although we know he can’t pitch. That’s all up in the air right now. It’s a shame.”

More bad news: Eight days earlier, in the fifth inning championship game of the Gulf South Conference tournament, Delta State senior left-handed pitcher Brady Chambley delivered a pitch, gasped in pain and grabbed his left elbow. He already has undergone Tommy John surgery to repair torn ligaments.

Just seven Delta State pitchers have thrown 21 or more innings this season. Two of those are gone. Pitching depth is so critical in a double-elimination tournament.

“We don’t have time to lick our wounds or pout,” Kinnison says. “You really hate that two senior pitchers, two guys we have really counted on, won’t be with us.”

Kinnison pauses, then continues, “But sometimes sports teaches us lessons. It’s like I told our team this morning. Look around, guys, this is what we’ve got. We can’t call up anybody from the minor leagues. We can’t make a trade. This is where we are. We’ve got to regroup and go get it done.”

Kinnison didn’t have to tell his team the situation could be worse. After experiencing Corey Beard’s shocking injury, they already know that. The situation could be horribly worse.

“I am so proud of our team for not losing their focus,” Kinnison says. “They could have. There was a lot of emotion, a lot of uncertainty, there. We were all shaken up, but they held together.”

“You know we’ve had Delta State teams that were dominant. This team has had to overcome a lot. They have accomplished an awful lot by being competitive and tough.”

Remember, Kinnison had to replace every everyday starter and much of his pitching staff coming into this season. Yet, the Statesmen will take a 44-11 record, a league championship and a regional title to Texas later this week.

The Statesmen will be thin on pitching but they will not lack for grit.

• • •

Rick Cleveland, Mississippi Today’s sports columnist, this year was named Mississippi Sportswriter of the Year — an honor he achieved for the 10th time — by the National Sports Media Foundation. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.