Kellum Clark circles the bases after hitting a two-run homer in the eighth inning, cutting Virginia’s lead to 4-2 and propelling the Mississippi State Bulldogs to a 6-5 victory in the College World Series Tuesday night. (AP Photo/John Peterson)

Down 4-0 and hitless for seven and two-thirds innings, Mississippi State Tuesday night somehow found a way to victory. SEC Player of the Year Tanner Allen surely helped. So did some splendid relief pitching. And a questionable decision by the opposing coach surely didn’t hurt.

The Bulldogs came off the mat with a six-run eighth inning to defeat Virginia 6-5 and climb snugly into the driver’s seat of its bracket in the College World Series. The Bulldogs, who now have two days off, are one victory away from playing in the best-two-of-three national championship series that starts next Monday.

Rick Cleveland

“We just believe in each other,” Allen said afterward. ”We keep playing no matter what.”

Allen’s three-run home run in the top of the eighth inning was the game’s biggest blow and put the Bulldogs on top 5-4. The thing is, Virginia didn’t have to pitch to him.

Here was the situation: The Bulldogs, trailing 4-2, had runners at second and third and one out. First base was open. Yeah, I know, you never want to put the go-ahead run, which Allen represented, on base. Then again, do you really want to pitch to Allen, he of the .387 batting average, the 10 home runs and 62 RBI — he who bleeds clutch? 

I wouldn’t have. Said so at the time. Would you? Virginia coach Brian O’Connor did. And Allen blasted a laser of a home run well over the right centerfield fence.

“Obviously, he’s a tremendous player,” O’Connor said of Allen. “He’s the kind of player that you could sit there and say, ‘You don’t want him to beat you.’ But you also don’t want to walk him because his run takes the lead. So you want to make him earn it. And to his credit he did. He made us pay for it.”

Allen wasn’t expecting much to hit.

“We had a base open and I knew he wasn’t going throw me a fastball, so I sat on the slider,” Allen said. “He threw it and I put a good swing on it.”

State had put precious few good swings on any pitch through the first seven innings. Virginia pitcher Griff McGarry was masterful, painting corners with a 97 mph fastball and keeping the Bulldogs honest with a quality slider. McGarry had struck out eight Bulldogs and had held the Bulldogs hitless entering the eighth.

But then Kellum Clark’s two-run home run, State’s first hit, cut the lead in half at 4-2. Josh Hatcher singled and Rowdey Jordan doubled, setting the stage for Allen’s heroics.

The Bulldogs had the lead but they weren’t finished. Scotty Dubrule added a run-scoring single for State’s sixth run of the inning and what would prove to be the winning run. Chris Newell’s opposite field home run off State’s Stone Simmons cut the Bulldog lead to 6-5. Simmons was the seventh State pitcher. The Bulldogs would need an eighth to seal the deal. And you can probably guess who Chris Lemonis went to with two out in the eighth inning. Yes, he called on Landon Sims, who had thrown 52 pitches Sunday night, saving State’s 2-1 victory over Texas. 

Sims didn’t have his best stuff, but he had enough. He threw more breaking pitches than usual. His fastball, normally in the mid-90s, topped out at 89-90. But he gutted it out. Really, all the Bulldogs did.  

“I felt good,” Sims would say. “I wanted the last three outs no matter what.”

He got the last four, retiring all four batters he faced, the last on a strikeout.

Said Allen of Sims, “That guy gives it all he’s got every time he goes to the mound. … That guy’s unbelievable.

And so it is that the Bulldogs have two days off. The two teams they have already beaten, Texas and Virginia, will play Thursday night, for the right to play the Bulldogs on Friday. That Thursday winner would have to beat State twice.

In other words, the Bulldogs are right where they want to be: just three victories from a national championship.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.