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NASHVILLE – “That’s baseball,” Ron Polk used to say to explain something odd that happened in this often crazy sport.
We need something else to describe this crazy Mississippi State baseball season, which has become more and more like magic, as in “that’s magical.”
The Diamond Dogs, given up for dead three months ago, have clawed and scrapped their way back far past respectability and find themselves one victory away from Omaha and college baseball’s Valhalla. This season has become so magical, the Bulldogs win even when they don’t play well.
And they certainly did not play well in Friday night’s 10-8, walk-off victory over Vanderbilt in the first game of a Super Regional. They committed four errors that seemed more like eight. They walked five batters that seemed more like 10. They also had to overcome a wild pitch, a passed ball and a dropped foul ball popup.
They overcame all that and did it in a most dramatic way.
You want magic? Junior rightfielder Elijah MacNamee hit three home runs all regular season long. Three. That’s in 52 games. Friday night, he hit his fourth and fifth of the post-season. That’s in six games. His two-run blast in the bottom of the ninth inning was the margin of victory. MacNamee had three hits, knocked in five runs and scored two.
Time doesn’t permit – particularly not this late at night – to detail all the crazy happenings that led to the ending.
So let’s just go straight to the bottom of the ninth with the Bulldogs coming to bat against Vandy left-handed reliever Zach King, who had been excellent. Tanner Allen led off with a ground ball out, but then Hunter Stovall reached first on an infield hit. That brought up MacNamee, who said he wasn’t thinking home run.
“I just told myself to go up there and have a good at bat and hopefully get a pitch I could handle,” he said.
King got two fastballs for strikes past MacNamee, who stepped out of the box and appeared to stare at his bat. He wasn’t staring at it, he said, he was reading it. Yes, he was reading his bat, which is almost as crazy as State’s rally bananas but maybe not quite.
“I do it to settle myself down,” he said. “I read the label.”
And, yes, that has to be some of the most boring reading imaginable. But what he did next wasn’t boring. He said he had seen all fastballs from King, including when he struck out against him in the seventh inning.
“I noticed he wiggled his glove, and he hadn’t done that before,” MacNamee said. “I thought I might get a breaking pitch.”
He did. And he deposited it over the 375-foot sign in left field to start a wild Bulldog celebration from both the State players and from the stands where State fans took up about half the seats in the cozy, 3,600-seat stadium.
Bananas are the preferred fruit of the Bulldogs this post-season, but the baseball must look like a big, fat grapefruit to MacNamee these days.
There were other State heroes, most notably Cole Gordon, the third of four Bulldog pitchers, who held Commodores scoreless over 3.1 innings. He limited Vandy to just one hit and struckout three. His pitching was clutch.
And so was Jake Mangum’s play in centerfield. He sprinted all over the outfield making catches before driving in what could easily have been the winning run in the eighth inning – just your routine Mangum game.
Tim Corbin, the Vandy coach, was not a happy camper afterward. “It wasn’t the prettiest game; you guys saw it,” he said. “Defensively, it was probably the worst game we’ve played all year.”
Henderson wasn’t all that ecstatic over the way his team played, either.
“We weren’t clean or efficient,” he said.
But they were winners. The magic continues. State will send ace Konnor Pilkington to the mound tonight.
“We need to play better,” Henderson said, before pausing. “And we probably will.”