OMAHA — Well, you didn’t really believe this was going to be easy, did you?
Nothing for these 2018 Mississippi State Bulldogs has been. Ever.
And advancing to the College World Series championship round won’t be, either.
Hard-hitting Oregon State, among the nation’s top-ranked teams all season, made sure of that Friday afternoon, trouncing the Bulldogs 12-2 and keeping the Beavers’ hopes alive for a third national championship and first since 2007.
State would have advanced to the championship round with a victory over the Beavers Friday. The Bulldogs took a 1-0 lead early, but were drubbed the rest of the way. Oregon State banged out 15 hits off four State pitchers, batted around twice and claimed their third straight CWS victory since losing to North Carolina in their opener.
So, the same two teams will meet Saturday at 7 p.m. and the winner advances to Monday’s first game of a best-of-three championship series against Arkansas.
If you are a State fan you can take some solace in the fact that these Bulldogs always seem to play their best when they are backed in a corner. You know the story. After a 14-15 start, they won 25 of 37. After losing to Oklahoma 20-10 in the first game of the Tallahassee Regional, they fired back, winning four straight do-or-die games to advance. After Vanderbilt evened the best-of-three Super Regional series, State won the rubber match on Vandy’s field to advance here.
Five times this post-season, State has played a win-or-else game. All five times, they have won.
The sixth comes Saturday.
“It’s a position we’re used to,” State centerfielder and leader Jake Mangum said. “We’ve been here a lot. We’ll come out tomorrow ready to compete and win a ballgame.”
Of all those backs-against-the-wall situations, this could well be the most difficult. Oregon State advanced to 52-11-1 with the victory. All the Beaver hitters all seem a line drive waiting to happen. The Beavers are hitting .377 here in Omaha. They have scored 37 runs in their last three games, 43 runs in their four tournament games. They just hit and hit and hit some more.
To Ethan Small goes the task of stopping all that smashing. Small, a third-year sophomore left-hander, gave the Bulldogs seven scoreless innings in a 1-0 victory over Washington in State’s CWS opener.
“He’s really good,” Oregon State coach Pat Casey said of Small. “I saw him throw against Vandy and I saw him throw the other night. I’ve seen him on tape. He’s obviously one of the premier guys…. He did a heckuva job against Washington, a team that can really hit.”
Small was at the center of a scary and painful pre-game scene. The Bulldogs were taking batting practice and Small was down the left-field line apparently playing catch. Someone ripped a line drive down the line that hit Small flush on his pitching arm just below the elbow on the inside of his arm.
Small went down and was quickly surrounded by teammates and medical personnel. Later, he said it was no big deal, that he just took a couple of Tylenol, and that it only hurt for a couple of minutes. He had a wrap around his arm, post-game.
“Just for looks,” he said, laughing. “It looks cool.”
Henderson wasn’t laughing afterward.
“I saw it … yeah, it was unbelievable,” Henderson said. “I don’t even know what to say. Other than kids think they’re bulletproof.”
Henderson said he preaches all the time to his players that if they are not in fielding balls during batting practice, they are supposed to stay behind protective screens.
Small said he could have pitched Friday, definitely will pitch Saturday and is looking forward to the challenge – and a huge challenge it is.
“Oregon State can swing it as good as any team here, but I don’t think they are incredibly special,” Small said. “I mean we put them on 11 times free today. So you start looking at that, they shouldn’t have scored the amount of runs they did. Fill the zone up, throw off-speed for strikes and get them out.”
Henderson shook his head when asked about the Beavers hitters.
“They are exceptional players, and they do a really good job of hitting mistakes,” he said.
But, he added, “Make good pitches and you can get them out.”
That’s Small’s plan. He knows the Bulldogs have been in this position before.
“I mean our backs were against the wall pretty much the whole year,” Small said.
“We’ve always made jokes about we never do it the easy way. And we don’t. We’ll make it dramatic, it will be a close game tomorrow, and I think we’ll pull it off.”
The good news for State is that Small, their best pitcher the latter part of the season, is available, while Oregon State pitching is thread bare.
“We’re gonna have to piece it together and get through it,” said Casey, who said he hasn’t decided on a starter.