OMAHA – One of the most remarkable turn-arounds in Mississippi sports history – or anyone’s history for that matter – finally hit a dead end Saturday night at Ameritrade Park.
But, boy, Mississippi State made it exciting. You knew the Bulldogs would.
State had trailed virtually the entire game. Bulldog freshman Jordan Westburg, who already had hit one grand slam in the College World Series, came to the plate with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Bulldogs were down 5-2. Two were out. With Jake Mangum, Mr. Clutch, waiting eagerly on deck, Westburg represented the winning run in a game that could have vaulted the Bulldogs into the CWS championship series.
A crowd of 21,821 was on its feet. Those who weren’t screaming were holding their collective breath.
Could the Bulldogs, given up for dead so many times this season, rally one more time?
Not quite. Westburg hit a sharp grounder to slick-fielding Oregon State shorstop Cadyn Grenier, who tossed to second base for the last out.
Two ways to look at it:
• State, which finished 39-29, came up one rally banana short.
• Oregon State, 53-11-1 after the victory, was just better. Probably both are true.
For sure, Oregon State is a terrific college baseball team, one that will go head-to-head with another superb team, Arkansas, in the championship series beginning Monday night. The Beavers out-hit and out-pitched the Bulldogs. They made some superb fielding plays when they needed those most. There are many, many reasons why they won 53 games.
One was freshman right-handed pitcher Kevin Abel, surely the hero of this game, who went seven innings, allowing just three hits and one run to raise his record to 6-1. Another was sophomore designated hitter Tyler Malone, whose third inning, three-run home run over the right-center field fence provided what proved to be the winning margin.
Oregon State scored all its runs in a five-run third inning when they rapped out five of their eight hits. State starter Ethan Small had been superb before that. Cole Gordon, who came on to pitch 4.1 innings of scoreless, one-hit relief, was superb after that.
And Mississippi State, down 5-1 after Malone’s blast, kept believing. Said Rowdey Jordan, the freshman who has gone from promising to the real deal, “The mood was positive like it has been all year,” he said. “We’ve been down to our last strike before. We kept believing and we had some momentum . . . we just came up short.”
The defeat, bitter as it was, did not keep Henderson, State’s interim coach already voted the national coach of the year, from bragging on his Bulldogs.
“I could not be more proud of them,” he said, the emotion clear in his voice.
He bragged on his assistant coaches, all of whom came to hear his post-game media conference. He bragged on his freshmen, four of whom were in the lineup this night. He bragged on his veterans.
His voice shook a couple times and he paused to compose himself once. If anyone truly thinks that Henderson doesn’t want to remain as head coach, think again.
“I love this job,” he said. “… Mississippi State is a wonderful place. And the fans are unbelievable…The fan support is unbelievable for baseball. I’ve never been part of anything like that. We’ve done absoutely the best we could to hopefully put ourselves into a position to continue the work we started with these guys.
“…We’ve got a wonderful group. I love my assistant coaches. Our players love them. We would love to be able to continue what we started. It’s a wonderful place.”
So what happens next?
“I’m just really optimistic,” Henderson answered. “That’s Coach (John) Cohen’s decision. He’ll do a good job with it. … We’d like to stay here… We started something special. The fans are in. We’d like to stay and make a run of it. … Who wouldn’t want to be the baseball coach at Mississippi State? I do.”
Cohen, the athletic director who brought Henderson to State as pitching coach, has been non-committal.
An educated one: If Cohen was going to name Henderson, that already would have happened.
Expect something to happen early next week.
For now, State fans should just appreciate the run these Bulldogs – players, assistant coaches and interim head coach – have made.
A season that began in utter humiliation ended three victories short of a national championship. Remarkable.