OXFORD — In Oxford Monday night, you had this amazing scene: Tennessee Tech players wildly celebrating on the pristine Ole Miss diamond, dog-piling, high-fiving and a lot more. You had Tennessee Tech fans chanting “O-V-C, O-V-C!” in one of the SEC’s most posh stadiums.
Moments later, you had Mike Bianco, coach of the nation’s No. 4 baseball team, solemnly calling this the best club he has ever coached – and, brother, that is covering some ground, 21 years and 810 victories.
Tennessee Tech’s Golden Eagles – skilled and gritty – played four games in 30 hours and won three of them, using seldom-used pitchers to finish it off. They beat Ole Miss twice Monday, 15-5 and then 3-2. It seemed surreal.
But no more surreal than what happened down in Tallahassee where Mississippi State’s Bulldogs, given up for dead way back in February and March, celebrated a stunning run to a regional championship. All season long, the Bulldogs played second and third fiddle to Ole Miss and Southern Miss, who swept them in a weekend series to begin the season.
And, yet, when Monday was done, one Magnolia State team was left standing – the Mississippi State Bulldogs, playing under an interim coach, Gary Henderson, who could be the first interim coach to ever win Coach of the Year. That’s how well he’s handled what seemed a most miserable situation not that long ago.
Baseball: It can be such a cruel and crazy game. As the late Bart Giamatti, who served as president of Yale and as commissioner of baseball, wrote: “Baseball breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.”
It broke the hearts of Ole Miss Rebels, who finished 48-17, Monday.
At the same time, it provided such joy – not only for Mississippi State, but also for Tennessee Tech. This is Mississippi Today – not Tennessee Today – but a word or 40 here about the Tech Golden Eagles, who will leave Oxford with a 52-10 record and with the utmost respect of any smart baseball fan who watched them in this regional tournament. They have skill. They have muscle. And, boy, do they have grit.
As Bianco said, when asked about all the reasons Ole Miss lost: “I think at the end of the day it had more to do with them and the way they played. That is a really outstanding team in that other dugout.”
Tennessee Tech will now play at Texas in a Super Regional. Don’t bet against the Eagles. I wouldn’t.
Now then, Mississippi State: Who would have thought this? Really, who would have dreamed this?
The Bulldogs lost their coach in the first week of the season. They lost those first three games, decisively. They lost their first three SEC games – at home – to Vanderbilt, the team they will play in a Super Regional. They lost seven of their first nine SEC games.
But they kept plugging, kept improving. Younger players gained experience – and confidence. They got better, far better. And they swept No. 1 ranked Florida in the last regular season series to finish 15-15 in the SEC.
Fine, many Mississippi State fans thought, we’ll take that after the way we started.
Now, they want more.
They especially want the Super Regional with Vanderbilt to be played in Starkville, not Nashville. A decision will be announced Tuesday morning. The guess here is Nashville, but I’ve been surprised before – especially by this Mississippi State baseball team.
A couple weeks ago, during the C Spire Ferris Trophy luncheon, I congratulated Bulldog centerfielder Jake Mangum on State’s turnaround this season.
“We’re not done,” he said, matter-of-factly.
And then he said this: “If this team gets to Omaha, after all we’ve been through, they are going to have to do an ESPN 30 for 30 on us.”
That’s not a bad idea and, the way things are going, perhaps someone should start preparing a script.