Mississippi State pitcher Preston Johnson reacts after striking out Vanderbilt’s Carter Young during the fifth inning in Game 2 of the NCAA College World Series baseball finals. (AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz)

OMAHA — Mississippi State for decades stacked on decades has boasted one of the elite, most beloved college baseball programs in the country. The Diamond Dogs have been to 12 College World Series, won multiple SEC, NCAA Regional and Super Regional championships. They’ve produced dozens of Major League stars, scores of All Americans.

What they have not done is win a National Championship. That could change Wednesday night, June 30, 2021. 

Rick Cleveland

An estimated 20,000 Bulldog fans will cheer them against defending national champion Vanderbilt tonight at TD Ameritrade Park, which really has become Dudy Noble North this week.

The Bulldogs, with their backs to the wall, fired back for a 13-2 trouncing of the Commodores Tuesday night to force a winner-take-all third game in this CWS Championship series. The announced attendance was 24,122. Surely, 20,000 of them were State faithful.

They made a difference.

Honestly, neither Vandy’s 8-2 victory in Game One or State’s bounce-back victory in Game Two have been works of baseball art. Walks and hit batters by State pitchers contributed mightily to Vandy’s first game victory. Walks, wild pitches and errors on the part of Vandy greatly aided State Tuesday night.

Do not expect anything of the sort Wednesday night. State will go with Will Bednar on the mound. Vandy will pitch Kumar Rocker. Both are first-round Major League draft picks, soon-to-be millionaires. Yes, both are going on shorter than normal rest. But both are big, strong, rugged guys who can’t wait for this moment.

Were he here for this, good ol’ Emory Bellard, the long departed State football coach, would put it this way: “Podnuh, it’s a hoss and a hoss.”

It is. 

State has one distinct advantage: These really are like home games times two. Vandy has its Whistler. State has a maroon-clad army of fans, who waited out a two-hour weather delay Tuesday night and then cheered from start to finish as if their lives, not just a national championship, depended on it.

Strikeouts were cheered like touchdowns at an SEC football game. We’ll never know how much all that noise factored into the three Vandy errors, the four wild pitches or the 10 walked batters by Vandy pitching. My educated guess: plenty.

They’ve come from all nook and cranny of Mississippi, thousands making 13-hour drives and more.

“You had to come,” said former Bulldog baseball star Rusty Thoms, who has made the trip twice during this CWS to cheer on his alma mater. “It’s expensive as the devil and it’s not easy because it’s a long, long way. But you had to come because this might be the year. Some day it’s gonna happen, and this might be the year, and you had to be here if it happens.”

Thrown into the middle of all that pandemonium was 17-year-old Vanderbilt starting pitcher Christian Little, probably the next Commodore pitching star, possessor of a 96 mph fastball and a nasty slider. He allowed an unearned run in the first but ran into huge trouble in the third inning. When Tanner Allen reached first base because his grounder stuck in the webbing of shortstop Carter Young’s glove, the State crowd thundered approval. And the State fans got louder with each of the 12 balls Little threw to the next three State batters, all of whom walked.

That was it for Little. Four more Vandy pitchers followed him, none with great success. Tanner Allen scored four runs and had two hits. Scotty Dubrule rapped two hits and knocked in four runs. Luke Hancock also provided two hits and two RBI. Lane Forsythe, the nine-hole hitter, broke out of a slump with three hits and two RBI.

Meanwhile, State’s Houston “Hootie” Harding, who pitches as if he has a deadline to meet, gave the Bulldogs four quality innings of one-run baseball, and big Preston Johnson followed him with five excellent innings.

Johnson said he got chills down his spine just being asked about pitching in front of that crowd that was cheering his every strike.  “Our fans are the best in the country,” Johnson said. “And that’s just a hundred percent fact.”

Those pitching performances were just what the doctor — and Chris Lemonis — ordered for State, which has a well-rested bullpen ready for Wednesday night’s finale.

And that might be the other State advantage. Behind Bednar, the Bulldogs have master closer Landon Sims, rested and ready to go after not pitching in the first two games of the championship series. Said Lemonis, “After the game I grabbed Landon, I said, ‘Man, it was sure nice not having to pitch you tonight,’ because I feel like in every win for the last month he has been out there. So for him to have the night off and to still get the victory was huge.”

Vanderbilt is still Vanderbilt. Kumar Rocker is still Kumar Rocker. Said Lemonis of Rocker: “He’s probably one of the best to ever play college baseball.”

Still, all things considered, it could not set up a whole lot better for the Bulldogs.

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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.