Mississippi State players celebrate their walk-off run to win against Texas during a baseball game in the College World Series Saturday, at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha(AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz)

OMAHA — Mississippi State did it. As is the Bulldogs’ trademark, they did it dramatically. The ‘Dogs defeated Texas in a 4-3 walk-off nail-biter Saturday night and will play SEC comrade Vanderbilt for the national championship in a best-of-three series beginning Monday.

The usual Bulldog heroes were heroic. Starting pitcher Will Bednar surely did his part. Closer Landon Sims did his. Doesn’t he always? Tanner Allen laced two hits. Logan Tanner had two more. Both knocked in a run. Rowdey Jordan, Brad Cumbest and Kellum Clark all chipped in.

None of that will surprise anyone who has followed the Bulldogs through 48 victories, 17 defeats and regional and super regional championships.

Rick Cleveland

But to win a national championship, you must have surprises. It takes a village. It takes a full team. Here, Saturday night, at TD Ameritrade Park, Tanner Leggett and Brayland Skinner, former teammates at Northwest Community College, were those surprises. They were also heroes. Big ones. Clutch.

Tanner Leggett? Brayland Skinner?

“My juco bandits,” Chris Lemonis called them.

Leggett, the back-up shortstop and a junior from Raymond, didn’t come into the game until the sixth inning after starter Lane Forsythe was lifted for a pinch hitter. Understand, Leggett batted only 79 times all season. Had 18 hits. Batted .228. Knocked in nine runs. It was the 10th RBI he will remember forever. And we’ll get to that.

But first, about Brayland Skinner, who didn’t enter the game until the bottom of the ninth, with the score tied 3-3, as a pinch runner after Kellum Clark reached first, hit by a pitch. Skinner, a sophomore reserve outfielder from Lake Cormorant, doesn’t play much, either. He batted .215 in limited plate appearances this season. But the young man can run like a sprinter. He’s a blur. With one out, he took off and stole second, easily, to move into scoring position. That happened on Longhorn ace reliever Cole Quintanilla’s second to pitch to Leggett. 

On Quintinella’s third pitch, Leggett laced a line drive single to left centerfield. Skinner scored just as the ball got back to the infield. He slid, but he didn’t have to. Willie Mays, in his prime, could not have thrown out Skinner.

Skinner then joined teammates who raced from the dugout to congratulate Leggett.

Who would have thought it? With all the big names in the Bulldogs lineup, the guys who combined to win the most important game of the year were two small-town Mississippians, juco transfers, who were just waiting for their chance. When they got it, they made good.

Such a situation — hitting with a chance to put your team in the national championship series — might be too big for some guys, especially a guy who hasn’t gotten that many chances especially on a stage like this.

“What an opportunity,” Leggett said. “Some people get nervous for that situation, but I pray for that situation.”

He was hitting against a guy, Quintanilla, who had shut down the Bulldogs over 3.1 innings of stellar relief. Quintanilla was good all season. He entered with a 1.27 ERA, but he hung a slider and Leggett put a short, crisp swing on it and nailed it. Game over.

How did it feel?

“It’s incredible,” Leggett said. “I had a couple guys come up to me in the dugout and tell me that I was going to get a chance to win it. I had a chance for a big hit a couple nights ago but grounded out to third. I kept my head up and said my little prayer and when Bray got the bag stolen — I knew if I got a pitch to hit, I would be short to it, and I did, thank the Lord.”

As has been the case nearly all season, Bednar and Sims were dynamite on the mound. Bednar wasn’t as sharp as he had been in the Bulldogs’ CWS opener, a 2-1 victory over this same Texas team. But he was sharp enough. He gave up three runs on just four hits over 6.1 innings. What he did was set the stage for Sims, who, as usual, was nails. Sims pitched 2.2 hitless innings, striking out four.

“I felt good,” Sims said. “I felt pretty confident right there in the seventh, eighth, ninth inning, and if we had to go into extras, I would have felt confident, too.”

Lemonis must be getting used to these late-game heroics, and the drama that seems to come with each victory. All three Bulldogs victories in the 2021 CWS have been by a single run. Five of their last six postseason victories have been by one run.

“It has become our identity,” Lemonis said. “I told our team last night in the rain delay, if you ever thought it was going to easy, it’s not our way. We have to fight for it and for us to get here, it was going to be a battle. Our team has been so resilient all year It’s probably our No. 1 quality — just grit, being able to stay locked in, focused and keep competing.”

So now they will compete for the one trophy that is not in the Bulldogs’ baseball trophy case, the one that signifies a national championship. They will go against Vanderbilt, a team they know well.

What would it mean to win it all?

Said Landon Sims, “It would mean everything, to us, to the school, to the city. I think it would mean the world. I think we have a really good shot to do it right here.”

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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.