Mississippi State Finds Magic Against AuburnColumns
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OMAHA — Something magical just seems to follow this year’s Mississippi State team around, and Elijah MacNamee could feel it as he patrolled right field in the top of the ninth inning, even while trailing SEC rival Auburn.
For eight innings Sunday night against Auburn, it looked like the Bulldogs, if they wanted to win their first national title, would have to do so by coming out of the loser’s bracket. Not an easy task against this gargantuan field of four on their side of the bracket.
Auburn got a strong pitching performance by lefthander Jack Owen, Edouard Julien smacked a home run for the Tigers and the AU bullpen was doing just enough to keep control of the game, heading to the bottom of the ninth inning with a 4-1 lead.
That magical feeling, the one MacNamee had a hunch about in the top of the ninth inning, became a reality, as it has done so many times over the past two seasons with this group of players.
That feeling of being in control didn’t last for Butch Thompson’s Tigers. Jake Mangum, the heart and soul of this MSU team, led off the ninth with a double, Tanner Allen walked and MacNamee, as he has done so many times in his career, ripped a double down the left-field line to score a run.
MacNamee’s hit was the start of a surreal finish, as Mississippi State’s Marshall Gilbert hit a walk-off single to beat Auburn, 5-4, this after the Tigers had an opportunity to close out the game with Dustin Skelton at the plate. Except Julien, who earlier in the game was the headliner for the Tigers, triple-clutched and airmailed a throw over the first baseman’s head to bring in the game-tying run. Rowdey Jordan was intentionally walked, Josh Hatcher hit an infield single and Gilbert, yet another productive senior on this MSU roster, smacked the game-winning hit up the middle.
Auburn players were heartbroken. Some consoled Julien as he walked off the field. Others crouched at their position, seemingly in a daze, hoping this was all a dream. They were that close to being in the winner’s bracket.
Mississippi State players had the opposite reaction. They mobbed Gilbert so much the celebration ended up well out in right field and continued into the locker room and out to the team bus. Players and coaches, especially head coach Chris Lemonis, MacNamee, Gilbert and the usual stars, were serenaded with chants of ‘Maroon’ and ‘White’, as they walked out the stadium doors.
One team’s heartache was the continuation of another’s magic.
“I actually remember being in right field for defense when Cole [Gordon] was pitching, and after he got the second strikeout, I was like man I have the weirdest feeling about this inning,” MacNamee said. “So, when Jake [Mangum] went up there and hit that double, I said, well, here we go.
“Coach Lemonis said when we got that first dude on, there was a little relief,” MacNamee said. “Even though we were still down, there was a little confidence seeing our lead off man get on. He’s the best leadoff man in the nation, so when we go, the energy comes from him and it started to flow throughout the team, and it came out at the end.”
While the Bulldogs added yet another incredible finish to their history books Sunday night, the game didn’t look so hot for much of the night.
For Auburn to have a chance in this game, it would have to find a way to hit usually unflappable MSU lefthander Ethan Small, while also getting a strong start from lefthander Jack Owen. That plan almost worked to perfection.
The Tigers took an early 2-0 lead in the second inning when Julien smashed a two-run home run over the right field wall on an 89 mph fastball from Small. The home run was destroyed, and the distance tied Florida’s Pete Alonso’s mark — 429 feet — from the 2015 College World Series. AU added another run in the fourth with Julien once again coming through with an RBI single. Meanwhile, Owen used an 88-90 mph fastball and an effective changeup to keep MSU’s potent lineup off balance, tossing five shutout innings before leaving the game in the sixth after walking the leadoff hitter and allowing a single.
Auburn led the game the entire night … until the ninth inning.
“Tough one tonight. I thought we played an unbelievable game,” Thompson said. “We had a lot of engagement; we had a lot of fun. I just thought our guys just really battled against arguably 2019’s best starting pitcher in college baseball. We really worked the pitch count and of course Edouard Julien had the first big swing and then brought in a third run on an RBI.
“One thing they did that we didn’t do as good of a job of is putting the ball in play. We had Julien’s home run and the third run changed things. Why I’m making such a big deal out of that is I wanted to put the ball in play at the same rate they did, and of course the five guys we had struck out and it didn’t happen,” he continued. “Again, at the end of the day when I look at it, I knew that would be paramount. But again, I thought we could have made a routine play and finished it off, but we only struck them out three times at the end of the night. And I do have a ton of respect for their offense to hang in there. They were able to just put the ball in play to extend innings when it mattered most in the game.”
As for Mississippi State, it had a multitude of heroes in this one.
With Small getting lifted after just five innings of work, the Bulldogs needed the bullpen to hold Auburn’s offense down long enough for the offense to make a run. Riley Self tossed a scoreless frame, Jared Liebelt allowed an unearned run in two innings and veteran righthander Cole Gordon tossed a scoreless ninth.
The pitching staff kept things within striking distance, and the offense did the rest, with a little help, of course.
“You know, our message in the dugout was just get it to the next guy and get it to the next guy and so on,” MSU coach Chris Lemonis said. “Tanner Allen had a big at-bat with a walk. Josh Hatcher gets the chop ball. You just have so many things and guys just competing. And Jake Gautreau has done an unbelievable job with our offense this year, or just instilling that grinder mentality and wearing people out and putting balls in play.
“And we were a little frustrated tonight,” he continued. “It really wasn’t typical of us for the first so many innings and you can tip your hat to their pitching for that. But in that ninth inning, that was us. That’s what we do.”
Mississippi State, along with SEC counterpart Vanderbilt, entered the CWS as one of the national title favorites for a reason. As one prominent head coach told me earlier this season, “if you want to beat Mississippi State, you better knock them out.”
Tonight, Auburn seemed to be in total control entering the ninth inning. But MacNamee and other MSU players felt that magical feeling while on the field in the top of the inning. In the bottom, Jake Mangum led off the frame with a double, and everything else fell into place. MSU found a sliver of hope and Auburn couldn’t deliver that knockout punch.
Mississippi State found magic yet again, and it may not be going anywhere anytime soon.