PEARL – Mike Bianco answered my question before I finished it.
“(Jake) Mangum’s beaten us enough over the years,” Bianco said. “Somebody else was going to have to do it tonight.”
Somebody else did. Luke Alexander’s double to right centerfield scored the tying run and the go-ahead run in Mississippi State’s thrilling 7-6 victory over Ole Miss before 8,515 fans in the annual Governor’s Cup game at Trustmark Park.
And guess who scored the winning run? You guessed it: Jake Mangum.
Here was the situation: Bottom of the ninth inning. Ole Miss leading 6-5. Rebel closer Parker Caracci on the mound. One out. Runner on second. Mangum, the Rebel killer who has owned Ole Miss for three seasons, coming to the plate. Conventional baseball wisdom says you never intentionally put the potential winning run on base.
Never mind conventional. Bianco has tried conventional against Mangum. It hasn’t worked.
So Bianco signaled for the intentional pass and Mangum went to first. With the count one ball and one strike, Alexander laced Caracci’s fast ball out over the plate into the gap in right centerfield. Mangum, with sprinter’s speed, scored easily from first and then fist-pumped repeatedly in front of the third base dugout and in front of the wildly cheering State fans.
This is not to second guess Bianco. I’d have walked Mangum, too. In 12 career games against the Rebels, Mangum has hit safely 22 times in 51 at bats, has scored 14 runs and knocked in seven. He has hit six doubles and one home run against the Rebels and has made more circus catches than a juggler.
“He’s a great player, always has been, but he raises it up a notch or two against us,” Bianco said.
Earlier Tuesday night, Mangum’s two-run double in the third inning gave the Bulldogs a 2-1 lead. Defensively, he made two of the most splendid running and diving catches that you will ever see.
All this he did in the town in which he grew up and not far from Shiloh Park where his daddy, former Alabama and Chicago Bears football star John Mangum, used to hit him fly balls for hour upon hour in the hot summer sun.
“That what you saw out there tonight was all John Mangum, that wasn’t me,” Jake Mangum said. “There were lots of times when he kept hitting those fly balls that I wanted to quit, but he kept on hitting them and I kept catching them.”
When Mangum crossed the plate, it ended a thoroughly entertaining and well-played college baseball game and gave the unranked Bulldogs a 3-1 advantage in the season series. Barring a complete collapse, fifth-ranked Ole Miss, now 32-10, will play in the post-season and most likely will host an NCAA Regional. If the Rebels finish strong over the closing month, they could even host as a national seed.
In contrast, State was a team that appeared to be the baseball equivalent of burned toast as recently as three weeks ago. But that was before the Bulldogs, greatly improved under interim coach Gary Henderson, took two of three from Ole Miss, won one of three from nationally ranked Auburn, and then swept No. 3 ranked Arkansas last weekend.
Over the last month, the Bulldogs’ batting average has risen about 30 points and their RPI rating has risen even more. The Tuesday night victory, alone, raised the Bulldogs 11 spots in No. 35 in the WarrenNolan.com ratings that closely resemble the NCAA’s own power formula.
So it is that a team that started 2-7 in the SEC is now 8-10. They were 14-16 overall. They are now 23-19.
Are they in position to earn an NCAA bid?
“We gotta keep playing well,” Henderson said. “But we’ve put ourselves in position to have a chance if we continue to improve and continue to play well.”
By the way, Henderson said he understood Bianco’s reasoning in walking Mangum. “It’s unusual, but I definitely can see what he was thinking,” Henderson said. “Jake’s an elite hitter and he has a history with them.”
Tuesday night was one more chapter.