OMAHA – Just when it seemed Mississippi State was headed to the losers bracket – the College World Series version of hell on earth – maroon magic occurred on a warm Nebraska night.
Down all evening and still down 4-1 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, the Bulldogs rallied for four runs and defeated Auburn 5-4 in one of the most improbable finishes imaginable.
“We fought, we battled, and, in the end, the grit of our ballclub played out,” said State coach Chris Lemonis.
Said winning pitcher Cole Gordon, “With our offense, we’re never out of a game, and we know that.”
For State, it was the 52nd victory of the season against only 13 defeats. Amazingly, this was the 28th of those 52 when the Bulldogs had to come from behind to do it. Seldom before did things look so bleak. And, never, had the stakes been higher. Keep in mind State had left 11 runners on base in the first eight innings, seven of those in scoring position.
Frankly, the Bulldogs needed some help and they got it from a most unlikely source. Auburn third baseman Edouard Julien – who had batted in three of Auburn’s runs, two with a mammoth, 430-foot home run off Ethan Small – literally had the game in his right hand. Auburn still led 4-3 when Dustin Skelton hit a seemingly routine ground ball to Julien, who seemed to double-clutch and then throw the ball high over his first baseman’s head. Elijah MacNamee, who had doubled, jubilantly scored the game tying run from second base. Two batters later, with the bases loaded, nine-hole hitter Marshall Gilbert singled up the middle to score Skelton with the winning run.
All hell broke loose then with Bulldogs flooding the field from the dugout and the bullpen in left field. Seemingly thousands of State fans in the announced crowd of 22,671 cheered loudly. Meanwhile, sports writers in the press box, most of tight deadlines, spiked the stories they had been working on in the late innings with Auburn seemingly well in command.
The truth is this: This State team really never is out of the ball game. And they really do believe they can win – no matter what.
It starts with senior Jake Mangum, the feisty leadoff hitter and center fielder. He was first up in the fateful ninth. And, on the first pitch, he lashed a line drive double off the right field wall. He probably could have gotten third base, but wisely held at second. His run meant nothing unless others followed. Three runs down, you never want to make the first out at third.
Said MacNamee, “When Jake went up there and hit that double, I said, ‘Well, here we go.’ … Even though we were still down, there was confidence seeing our leadoff man get on. He’s the best leadoff man in the nation. When we got the energy from him, it started to flow through the team.”
After a strikeout, Tanner Allen walked, and then MacNamee, who has so often performed in clutch situations, provided some serious energy of his own. He lined a double over the third baseman’s head and into the left field corner, advancing Allen to third. Justin Foscue then grounded out to short, scoring Allen to cut the lead to 4-3. And that’s when Julien, a Canadian and a sophomore, threw away the last out.
An infield hit and a walk later, Gilbert, who was hitless in four at bats beforehand, produced the winning hit on the first pitch he saw from Tanner Burns, the fifth Auburn pitcher.
“It was incredible the fact that we could get to that point where I was coming up to the plate (with a chance to win the game),” Gilbert said. “On my previous at bats I had been off, missed some pitches but I kept getting encouragement from my teammates, saying, ‘Keep going, keep going, don’t quit.’”
Gilbert didn’t. The Bulldogs didn’t.
They didn’t quit when Julien turned on Small’s letter high fast ball in the second inning. They didn’t quit when the lead extended to 3-0 and then 4-1.
You have to realize what the Bulldogs were facing, had they lost. They would have faced Louisville in an elimination game Tuesday afternoon. Win that one, and they would have still had to win three more games consecutively just to reach the best-two-out-of three championship series. And they would have had to do it without Small, who surely won’t pitch again unless the Bulldogs make the championship series.
Now, Tuesday night’s 6 p.m. matchup with Vandy becomes the key. Win that one, and the Bulldogs would have to win only one more game to make the championship series.
You see, the difference between winning and losing that first game is so very stark. That’s why the Bulldogs were ecstatic. And that’s why the Auburn Tigers were despondent.
Auburn coach Butch Thompson, formerly State’s popular pitching coach, put it this way: “Of course we’re hurt. I’m hurt because we invested so much and thought we had a good plan. We went for it. We were one play away.”
And, with that, he hurried back to the Auburn locker room to check on Julien, who surely was hurting worst of all. Minutes later, the Bulldogs exited TD Ameritrade Park to loud cheering from hundreds of their fans.