OMAHA – Jake Mangum just sat there on the field, his face in his hands. The ball from Louisville’s winning hit was on the lush, green TD Ameritrade Park grass just to his left, a couple feet away.
Mangum had given the final play everything he had, just as he had on the play before, and every single play of every single game of his remarkable Mississippi State career.
Final score of Mangum’s final Bulldog game: Louisville 4, Mississippi State 3. State’s season ends with a 52-15 record, Regional and Super Regional championships and four victories short of a national championship.
So what was going through Mangum’s mind as he sat there?
Four head coaches in four years? Four regional championships? Two Super Regional championships? Two trips to Omaha? The SEC all-time hits record? Several school hitting records?
No. No. No. No. And no. None of that.
“I was thinking about where I was all four years when each season ended,” Mangum said, his eyes glistening. “You never want the season to end. I came to State four years ago with 16 new players. We said then that we were going to be the first Mississippi State team to win a national championship. We were going to be the guys that did it. We did everything we could. We gave it everything we had.”
They did everything they could do but throw strikes when they needed them most. The old baseball adage is that “walks will kill you.”
Walks didn’t kill State, but walks certainly led to the end of the season and national championship dreams.
JT Ginn, State’s freshman starter, was remarkable, pitching for the first time in 20 days. He went six strong innings, giving up just three hits (two were infield hits) and walking only one. Only one Louisville baserunner reached second base off Ginn. He exited with a 2-0 lead. And State added a run in the seventh when Mangum, who had singled, scored on Tanner Allen’s single.
Why lift Ginn after six such strong innings and only 81 pitches? Well, he has a lucrative career ahead of him and has had a sore arm lately.
Said State coach Chris Lemonis: “We came into the game thinking five innings or 75 pitches. He was a little more efficient so we went to 80….As big as this was, it’s not bigger than JT’s career. The player always comes first.”
Staked to a 3-0 lead, Jared Liebelt came on to pitch the seventh and walked the first two Cardinals. Both later scored. State closer Cole Gordon came on to pitch the eighth, and blanked the Cardinals, thanks largely to a heads-up play by Mangum, who fielded a base hit, and threw behind a careless runner who rounded second too boldly and couldn’t get back in time. Gordon got the next two Cardinals to end the threat.
Then came the bottom of the ninth, State leading 3-2. Gordon walked Louisville’s Jake Snider to open the frame. State fans vehemently protested some of the ball calls. Lemonis and others protested from the dugout, drawing warnings from both the plate umpire and the second base umpire.
Asked about afterward, Gordon, his eyes red from tears, said, “The (strike) zone is the zone. My pitches needed to be better. I can’t put that on anyone else.”
The walk was exacerbated when Gordon bounced a pick-off throw to first allowing Snider to take second. Louisville’s Danny Oriente then singled to left-center field. Mangum fielded the ball, turned and fired a one-hop strike to the plate. The play was going to be close but catcher Dustin Skelton, who played so well defensively, dropped the ball attempting to make the quick tag. Snider scored.
You could make the argument that Mangum would have been better off throwing to second base and not letting the game-winning run reach second base. Mangum, always aggressive, doesn’t think that way.
“I thought I could throw him out,” he said. “I thought I would throw him out.”
Oriente took second on the play. Then, Drew Campbell singled to right-center and Oriente scored the winning run – easily.
Mangum hustled trying to get the ball. “I knew it was impossible but I was thinking I was going to get it and throw it 500 miles per hour and make the play,” he would say.
Nobody makes that play. And so Mangum sat there, while the Cardinals, 51-17, rushed the field and celebrated as State players have so many times this season.
Said Mangum, who became the face of Mississippi State baseball, “It didn’t work out, but man, we fought like hell for four years.”