STARKVILLE – The seats and luxury suites were filled. So were the standing room areas. So were the condominiums and the rooftop behind the left field stands. Grills were smoking. The smoke was fragrant. The NCAA Super Regional crowd at Dudy Noble Field, later announced at 13,132, was fired up and exceedingly festive.
Mississippi State’s Super Regional opener with Stanford had been delayed five hours by threatening weather Saturday, giving the partisan, mostly maroon-clad crowd ample time to serve themselves and become even more fired up than usual.
And then, for all those fans, it got scary, quickly. After striking out the first Stanford batter, State ace Ethan Small gave up Maverick Handley’s sharp single to center. The next Stanford batter, Brandon Wulff, laced a sizzling grounder – a perfect double play ball, really – that went through third baseman Marshall Gilbert’s wicket. A walk loaded the bases, which brought to the plate Stanford’s muscular slugger Andrew Daschbach, he of 17 home runs and 30 extra base hits.
Daschbach lifted a high fly ball that was about to clear the right-centerfield fence, perhaps landing in one of those smoking grills. And then Jake Mangum, who lives for this kind of baseball scenario, leaped high, reached his glove above the wall and hauled in the ball and snatched away a grand slam.
Yes, one run scored, but three more did not. Instead of 4-0, Small got out of the inning one batter, one ground ball (and a nice play by Gilbert) later.
There would be several key hits, Small’s gutsy six inning and career-high 117-pitch performance, some other nice fielding plays and some excellent bullpen work. But if you want to know the key moment in State’s 6-2 victory over Stanford, clearly it was Mangum’s acrobatic robbery of Daschbach. Had Stanford taken a 4-0 lead with one out in the top of the first inning, the entire complexion of the game would have been so starkly different.
“My neck almost snapped, turning around watching it,” Small said. “I thought it might be gone. Just a great catch by Jake.”
Catcher Dustin Skelton, who would hit two doubles, had the best view. “Yeah, off the bat, I thought it was gone,” he said. “He got a lot of metal on it. Jake made a great catch.”
As it was, the Bulldogs would come back to tie it with one run in the second, take a two-run lead with two more in the third and then stretch it to 6-1 with three more runs in the fourth. They cruised is what they did.
History tells us the team that wins the first game of these NCAA Super Regionals advances nearly 80 percent of the time. Mangum’s catch was huge. This is not to say State has punched its Omaha ticket. Stanford, now 45-13, is a terrific team. This is not to say State would not somehow have come back without Mangum’s snag. But this is to say, a Stanford grand slam and a 4-0 deficit would have put a damper on all that festive atmosphere and made a Bulldog victory a highly unlikely uphill slog.
So add another chapter to Mangum’s storybook career – one that has seen him break the SEC all-time hits record, advance to the NCAA Tournament four times under four different head coaches, win the C Spire Ferriss Trophy twice, steal the hearts of State fans everywhere and make more highlights show defensive plays than perhaps any center fielder in SEC history as well.
And here’s the deal: As soon as he had snagged the ball, landed, and fired the ball back to the infield, Mangum started pointing at second base, indicating Wulff had left early. It appeared Wulff might have (replays showed he didn’t), although heaven only knows how Mangum could have seen it given the athletic feat he was performing at the time.
“Jake told me after the game that was the first home run he had ever robbed,” said State coach Chris Lemonis. “I found that hard to believe because I’ve seen him make so many great plays. The guy just helps you win games so many different ways.”
Small, who was making his last Dudy Noble appearance of his career, usually helps his team win with dominant pitching performances. This night, he struggled early, righted himself, and battled his tail off against Stanford’s powerful lineup.
“The biggest challenge was fighting myself, especially early,” Small said.
He won the fight, and he won his 10th game of the season against just two defeats – an amazing record when you consider he always goes against the other team’s ace.
It helps to have a team filled with clutch hitters. It helps to have a catcher, Skelton, who frames pitches and steals strikes inside and out. And it helps to have a center fielder who runs down just about any ball in the park – and, this night, one that would have been out.
Junior pitcher Jack Eagan, a left-hander from Wautoma, Wisconsin, was “stable” late Saturday night after suffering an undetermined medical incident in the dugout just prior to the seventh inning, Lemonis said. The game was delayed for several minutes before Eagan reportedly regained consciousness and was taken from the dugout.
Poignant scene: During the delay, Stanford coach David Esquer put his arm around Skelton, obviously trying to comfort him. Said Esquer afterward, “At that point, it is not Mississippi State versus Stanford. It is everybody pulling together saying prayers for the health of another ballplayer. They seemed to be really concerned about it so we just wanted to make sure we were saying prayers, too, and hoping for the best.”
Game two of the Stanford-State Super Regional is scheduled for 8 p.m. Sunday (ESPNU). A third game would be played at 6 p.m. Monday and would be televised by ESPN2.