Mississippi State is not a team that generally needs breaks to win baseball games. If it keeps getting them in this College World Series, look out.
Nobody was giving the Bulldogs (52-13) much of a chance to pull out a win over Auburn headed into the bottom of the ninth inning here at T.D. Ameritrade Park Sunday night.
State had three outs to plate three runs and erase the 4-1 deficit, and the “Omadawgs” were going to have to get them off of the Tigers’ stud Tanner Burns — one of the best arms in the country.
To the 22,671 in attendance and the many, many more watching at home, it was a long shot, and who could argue? For eight and a half innings, it looked like Mississippi State would be relegated to the losers’ bracket.
That’s when the magic started.
After Cole Gordon worked a clean top of the ninth to set the table, Jake Mangum got things going with a leadoff double. Jordan Westburg went down swinging for the first out, but Tanner Allen drew a walk and Elijah MacNamee doubled down the left field line to score one run.
“He was throwing a lot of heaters,” MacNamee said. “So I stayed aggressive. I wasn’t doing well in my previous at-bats, so I just kept - It’s baseball, so I just tried to stay with it.”
Suddenly, the Bulldogs had the tying run in scoring position with one out and five-hole hitter Justin Foscue at the plate. He grounded out to short, bringing Allen home from third and moving MacNamee over to third base with two outs.
The Bulldogs then got their biggest break of the night on a ground ball off the bat of Dustin Skelton. Auburn third baseman Eduoard Julien easily fielded Skelton’s grounder, double clutched and sailed his throw to first nearly into the stands. MacNamee scored to tie the game and Skelton scrambled safely into second base.
After an intentional walk to Rowdey Jordan and an infield single by Josh Hatcher, it fell to senior Marshall Gilbert to finish it off. His hard grounder right back up the middle went off Burns’ glove and split the two middle infielders, who could only watch as Skelton slid safely into home plate as Mississippi State walked it off with a 5-4 win.
“That’s just how we drew it up in the scouting report,” first-year Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis dead-panned. “Give them the lead and then try to catch them.”
He was joking, but it’s not like it’s out of the question. Sunday’s comeback was Mississippi State’s 28th of the season. It was their third walk-off win.
“It’s kind of the point where you just can’t count us out,” Gilbert said. “It takes everybody, including people that maybe don’t get to start, but at some point they’re going to have to come in and make that play.
“We have the trust that somebody is going to go out there and give it everything they have.”
MacNamee has seen it so may times, he said he’s starting to sense it.
“After Cole got the second strikeout there in the top of the ninth, I said ‘This inning could be special,’” MacNamee said. “When Jake led off the ninth with the double, it was like ‘Okay, here we go.’”
The rally might have come out of nowhere, but signs that the Bulldogs were just a couple of key hits away from making a run were there.
Gilbert’s game-winning single was Mississippi State’s 14th hit of the night. Mississippi State hitters put the ball in play on all but three at-bats, which applied constant pressure to an Auburn team that handled it well for eight innings. Before the rally, MSU just hadn’t been able to produce the big hit — they had stranded 11 out of 12 base runners, including seven in scoring position.
“Going in I made a big deal out of wanting to put the ball in play at the same rate that they did,” Auburn coach Butch Thompson said. “Obviously we didn’t get there tonight but we still had a chance to win it with a routine play on a ground ball.”
Auburn finished the night with just six hits and Tiger hitters racked up 13 strikeouts.
Mississippi State starter Ethan Small accounted for eight of those strikeouts in his five innings of work. He allowed just three hits, but all three hurt. Julien followed Rankin Woley’s two-out single in the second inning with a 459-foot homer to right-center that tied a T.D. Ameritrade Park record and put Auburn up 2-0 early. Small’s third hit he gave up was an RBI single off Julien’s bat in the fourth.
Riley Self pitched a spotless sixth inning, and Jared Liebelt would have held the Tigers (38-27) scoreless in the seventh and eighth innings if not for two errors and a hit batsmen.
Gordon struck out all three batters he faced in the ninth, throwing just 16 pitches.
Now, the Bulldogs will turn their attention to 6 p.m. Tuesday and a colossal matchup against Vanderbilt in the winners’ bracket. The Commodores (55-11) defeated Louisville 3-1 earlier Sunday afternoon.
MSU head coach Chris Lemonis announced Monday that he will go with senior right-hander Peyton Plumlee against the Commodores. He is 7-4 with a 3.67 ERA in 20 games.
“He gives us the best chance with his matchup,” Lemonis said. “He’s been good against left-handers, and six out of their nine in the lineup are lefties. They remind me a lot of that Miami lineup we faced (in the regional), but maybe — well I don’t want to say ‘better’ because that Miami team was loaded. But when (Plumlee) is good, he’s got good sinking movement on his fastballs and he can give our defense a chance to make some plays behind him.”
Vanderbilt had yet to announce their starter as of Monday afternoon, but the Bulldogs expected to go with freshman right-hander Kumar Rocker (10-5, 3.50). Rocker tossed a no-hitter against Duke, striking out 19 and walking two, in his last appearance in the Super Regional.