OXFORD — In the eighth inning of the third game of a dark, damp weekend series here Sunday, drizzling rain started blowing in from left field again, chasing hundreds of the remaining Ole Miss diehards to the exits.
One team’s misery is another team’s bliss. Mississippi State, leading 10-3 at the time, would go on to an 11-5 victory and a weekend sweep of the Rebels. The Bulldogs have now won 14 of their last 16 against their arch-rivals including all four meetings this year.
So when, you ask, was the last time Ole Miss was swept at Oxford-University Stadium? Why that would be 2017, the last time State came here.
Last time State won six straight baseball games at Oxford? That would be 1950. Truman was president. Bear Bryant won 11 games – at Kentucky.
State senior Jake Mangum has played in all those most recent 16 games. Boy, has he played. And, boy, has he hit. Mangum has hit .424 for his career against the Rebels, scored 16 times in 16 games. Seems like all 25 of his hits against Ole Miss have led to runs. He also has run down fly balls all over Dudy Noble, Oxford-University and Trustmark Park outfields.
“Just competing,” he answered when asked about State’s dominance of Ole Miss. “Some people will tell you this is just another weekend series in the SEC. It’s not. In this state, this is big. It’s huge. It means a lot to the people of this state; it means a lot to me, especially me being from this state.
“You know we don’t have a professional team in this state. Ole Miss-Mississippi State is the most important thing going. People care. People really care. My dad played football at Alabama. He was 0 and 4 against Auburn for his career. It still eats at him. I didn’t want to have that happen to me.”
How to explain it? Over those four years, Ole Miss has won a whole bunch of baseball games, been nationally ranked often including two 40-win seasons. And yet State has owned the Rebels the way the New York Yankees used to own the Washington Senators. Baseball can be a funny, streaky game but there’s no explaining 14-2.
Three years ago, Ole Miss signed what was rated the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation. That class is now 1-11 against the Bulldogs.
Ole Miss shortstop Grae Kessinger, one of the prizes of that class and a guy who will make a fortune playing this game, was asked about State’s dominance.
He shook his head.
“I wish I had the answer,” he said. “It’s frustrating for sure. We just haven’t played well against them.”
Kessinger played exceedingly well this weekend. He had five hits, extending his on-base streak to a whopping 40 games. On Saturday night, he made a play precious few mortals can make, diving to his left, rolling over on his back and firing a one-hopper to first to get the out.
But it wasn’t enough. For Ole Miss, it seems like nothing is against the Bulldogs, who move to 42-10 overall and 18-9 in the SEC with the sweep. Seems to this observer, State has locked up a national seed in the NCAA Tournament while at the same time putting a serious damper on the Rebels’ hopes of hosting a regional.
State, quite honestly, looks like a College World Series team, a national championship contender. The Bulldogs hit .316 as a team. They have the best place-setter in the country in Jake Mangum. They have pop throughout the lineup. Their Friday-Saturday starters, Ethan Small and JT Ginn are lights out, and the team earned run average is a nifty 3.48. Sunday, the Bulldogs got an excellent start from Peyton Plumlee, who picked up his fifth victory against three losses. If you want to pick nits, State’s infield defense isn’t the best around but it’s not awful either.
As first-year Bulldog coach Chris Lemonis put it, “We didn’t play that well defensively this weekend, but we’ve been really good most of the year.”
State makes up for a lot at the plate. The Bulldogs slap hits in bunches, like the seventh inning Saturday night when the Bulldogs plated six runs on five hits – or the fourth inning Sunday when they scored nine runs, all with two outs with a series of line drives.
“We’ve done that all year,” Lemonis said. “We’ll string together some hits on you.”
Especially, he might have added, if you wear red and blue and have Ole Miss on your uniform.