NASHVILLE – They’ve played baseball at Mississippi State for 133 years now. It’s a rich, storied history, so much richer now that the 2018 Diamond Dogs have accomplished what seemed so unthinkable just two months ago.
State outlasted Vanderbilt 10-6 in 11 innings Sunday night – and early Monday morning – to win a Super Regional for the ages. State won a walk-off victory Friday night. Vandy won in a walk-off Saturday night and then State won the extra inning classic that ended at 12:20 a.m. Monday.
It ended with a celebration for the ages. State players went, well, bananas. They began throwing their caps and gloves into the air. They high-fived and hugged and then risked life and limb in a huge dog-pile just to the left of second base. They paraded around the outfield waving to the bleachers where their fans hugged and high-fived, some in tears.
Later this week, the Bulldogs will head to Omaha and the College World Series — State’s 10th CWS trip in school history. The stage will be bigger, but nothing in Omaha could be more competitive, more compelling than this was.
Said Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, “It was like you were running a race with somebody and every time you sped up, they just sped up and went that much faster. You gotta give them credit. They came to our place, they battled and they won, fair and square.”
Said State interim coach Gary Henderson, “I told our team that they will remember this season – and what they have accomplished – for the rest of their lives.”
This was a season that began with State losing three straight games at Southern Miss and then losing their head coach a day later. They lost their first three SEC games to Vanderbilt. They lost seven of their first nine SEC games, period.
“Everybody gave up on us but us,” Jake Mangum, the team’s centerfielder, leadoff hitter and emotional leader, said. “Now, we gotta keep it going in Omaha.”
State will play Washington Saturday in the first round.
So many storylines:
• How about Henderson and his coaching staff, who not only held things together in the face of all that early adversity but also nurtured a young team to steady improvement throughout April, May and now June?
“What an honor it is to be the head coach at Mississippi State,” Henderson said. “I couldn’t be more proud…this has been the ride of a lifetime.”
Said Mangum, “Coach Henderson took over and he gave us an identity when we had none.”
Praise came from the other dugout. Said Corbin, “Gary and his staff have done a marvelous job with this team. … They’ve gone through a tough set of circumstances but they rose above it – and maybe because of it.”
• How about sturdy relief pitcher Cole Gordon, who covered seven innings of shutout baseball in the two Bulldog Super Regional victories, including 3.2 innings Sunday night? There were several valuable Bulldogs in this series, but Gordon surely was the most valuable. “Oh yeah,” Jake Mangum said, “Cole was our MVP. It was a team effort, but he allowed us to be in this position. When it was crunch time, he stepped up big-time.”
Corbin, again: “Cole’s a gutty kid. He slowed our momentum in both the games we lost. When you look at them winning, he had a whole lot to do with it.”
• How about Mangum, the heart and soul of these Bulldogs, who began the week by essentially being spurned by Major League teams in the draft, and ended it by helping State win with his bat, his glove, his arm and his speed? Said Corbin, “What more can you say? Mangum’s Mangum.”
• How about Vanderbilt? In a series this compelling, it takes two teams to make it that way. In the seventh and eighth innings the Commodores made a series of defensive plays – four to be exact – that could be SportsCenter plays of the day.
Mangum, again, “Both these teams deserve to go to Omaha.
• And how about how State blew a three-run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning, but then rallied for four runs in the top of the 11th. When you look at all State overcame during this season, it seems perfectly reasonable that they would need to go to extra innings in order to punch the ticket to Omaha.
Said Mangum, “I thought to myself (after Vandy rallied to tie it in the ninth), ‘Well, of course, makes sense, why wouldn’t we go to extra innings?’”
It all goes together to make the upcoming Omaha trip all the more special.