STARKVILLE — There’s nothing quite like college baseball in Mississippi. Mississippi State’s Diamond Dogs and their passionate following made certain the rest of the nation saw it Monday night.
The Bulldogs fought off Notre Dame’s free-swinging Fighting Irish 11-7 before still another record-setting crowd at pristine Dudy Noble Field. A rocking, thunderous standing room only crowd brought the three-day attendance total to an NCAA Super Regional record-shattering 40,140.
Bulldog faithful came early, they stayed late. They left fulfilled — if they ever left at all.
“They’re still out there,” State coach Chris Lemonis said, a full hour after the game when he conducted his post-game video interview. “They are the best fans in the country.”
Thus the Bulldogs will make a 12th appearance in the College World Series at Omaha that begins this weekend. State will play the Texas Longhorns Sunday night in the opening round.
But here’s the deal: There’s no way — no way possible — the College World Series, college baseball’s largest stage, can match the atmosphere on display over three days of a marvelous Starkville Super Regional.
The baseball was terrific. The atmosphere — from the crowd hanging on every pitch, to the barbecue smoke wafting in from the outfield, to the raucous cheering at all the right moments — was remarkable. And don’t think the crowd didn’t play into the outcome. It most certainly did. Link Jarrett, the Notre Dame coach, called it “the most passionate fan base in the country.”
“It factors in,” Jarrett said of the constant noise. “It gives the home team an edge in energy. We haven’t played a game in a setting like this. Until you experience it in this setting, you can’t prepare for it.”
The Bulldogs were good. Rowdey Jordan and Tanner Jordan were racing and diving all over the outfield, making run-saving, SportsCenter catches. They were racing all around the bases, taking extra bases, too. Catcher Logan Turner was providing the power with a three-run home run and a double. Left-hander Houston Harding was crucial with four innings of quality starting pitching. And, of course, closer Landon Sims was matching a season-high four innings of relief, shutting the door on the Irish.
All rode a crest of cheering from State fans. Asked to describe the lift from the crowd, Harding said, “It’s what I’ve dreamed about since the first day I picked up a baseball. Unreal, indescribable, I could run out of adjectives to describe it. They brought the energy every day.”
State had won the opener 9-8 Saturday before more than 14,000. Notre Dame won 9-1 on Sunday to set up the rubber match. And then came Monday when State scored six second inning runs to take a 7-1 lead and then fought off the Irish the rest of the way.
What made the victory all the more rewarding was, well, Notre Dame. The Irish, the run-away Atlantic Coast Conference champions, had run through the South Bend Regional, winning three games by a 50-5 count. Batter after batter, up and down the Notre Dame batting order, was a line drive waiting to happen. Those guys can play.
And then there’s Irish cleanup hitter Niko Cavadas, the muscular one we will be watching someday in the Major Leagues. State pitched him carefully all weekend, until Sims served up a three-ball, one-strike fastball in the seventh inning with a runner on first. Cavadas blasted it far, far beyond the right field fence and the light poles. “Oh man, he got on that ball,” Sims said. “No, I have never given up a home run that went that far. Ever.”
It was the first home run Sims gave up all year. However, it should be noted, with runners on first and second in the ninth inning, Sims got Cavadas to ground into a game-ending double play. “I wasn’t about to throw him another fastball,” Sims said.
And that’s when the celebration began. After the Bulldogs had dog-piled near the pitcher’s mound, the crowd stayed and cheered while State players circled Dudy Noble Field, slapping high fives with their adoring fans. It went on and on and on. From the first base dugout, Notre Dame players watched while consoling one another.
Mississippians shouldn’t take all this for granted. No other state matches this state’s passion for college baseball. Ole Miss bowed out in a three-game Super Regional at Arizona. Ole Miss ended Southern Miss’s season in a superb, well-attended Regional championship round at Oxford last weekend.
That said, Mississippi State continues to set the standard. Consider: Jordan and Allen, the two junior outfielders, will make their third College World Series appearances later this week. State has competed in five straight Super Regionals under four different head coaches. It’s crazy. And it’s nothing new. State has played in a College World Series in six consecutive decades.
The one thing they haven’t done? Win one.
Could this be the year?
“We’ve got as good a chance as anybody,” Tanner said.
Maybe so. But if they could box “the Dude effect” and take it to Omaha, there’d be little doubt.