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Mississippi State Deals With Life On The Other Side

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STARKVILLE, Miss – “So many State fans sold their soul for a championship last summer. Now, the devil has come to collect.”

Those words, usually followed with a Cheshire cat smile, were uttered several times in different variations in Dudy Noble’s leftfield lounge Friday night, with the general premise that they never thought they’d get that close to winning it all and would gladly take a few losing seasons in exchange. Well, maybe, that’s the explanation for this season. It is as likely as any in what has been the most disappointing campaign for a defending champion in modern history.

The opinions on this shocking season ranged from thoughtful to comedic to silly. But those on hand to see their defending CWS champions drop yet another close game were trying to grasp what many of us outside the fanbase are; what in the heck happened to Mississippi State baseball?

Some fans checked out but a hardcore group remains. They stock their coolers with beer and water. And more beer, because, hey, check the standings. They load their grills with duck poppers (highly recommended, by the way), chicken boudin, deer-sausage balls, and other not-so-unique delicacies as well. Then, they yell at the opposing outfielders, criticize the umpire’s zone from 400 feet away, and cheer unabashedly for their Bulldogs. That said, there have been more enjoyable seasons.

Like the last one, for example.

Just 11 months ago, many of these fans were enjoying the greatest moment of their sporting lives in Omaha. Today, they watched their team fall into last place.

“It’s literally the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” Leftfield Lounge patron Paul Maloney said while standing over smoky charcoal on a 95-degree day. “No one saw this coming. I mean, maybe we’d take a little step back, but not like this. Not what has happened the past few weeks.”

During the past three weeks, Mississippi State dropped from a regional contender to the basement with 12 losses in its last 14 games, with one of the wins coming Tuesday against North Alabama. Those losses started after their team gave them hope by winning a series at Ole Miss. The fans expected a run towards the postseason. Some had hotels still booked for home regionals. A few weeks later, not only are Starkville hotels going to have plenty of regional weekend vacancies, those same fans can’t even see their team play next week in the SEC Tournament. It’s tough to swallow, even with all the beer to wash it down.

Overall, the Bulldogs fell from the most significant moment in the program’s history to one of its lowest points. Expectations were sky-high after last season’s title. Season ticket sales soared. Postseason plans were a given. But instead of a trip to Nebraska to defend their title, they enter the final day of the regular season eliminated from the 12-team SEC Tournament.

The disappointing season has many contributing factors, and the outfield folks were eager to share them. However, almost everyone pointed to the loss of ace Landon Sims as the leading blow. Not just for the loss of the closer turned ace but also for the missing confidence and swagger the righthander brought to the club.

You may remember Sims from the Bulldogs’ 2021 CWS run. The 6-foot-2, 227 pounder went 5-0 with 13 saves in 25 appearances. He struck out 100 and only walked 15 in 56.1 innings. He was dominant, and much was expected as he moved into the Friday night starter role. Early on, he was flourishing in the starting role. In fact, Sims had a no-hitter going in his third start of the season and had already collected 10 strikeouts by the fourth inning. Then, he injured his pitching elbow, and Tommy John surgery followed. From that point, the season wobbled, then stumbled, then crashed.

Incidentally, Sims threw out the ceremonial first pitch Friday night, using his healthy left arm to loft in a strike. Like last season, Mississippi State responded to Sims’ presence. Playing one of the best games of the year, they led top-ranked Tennessee in the eighth inning. They couldn’t hold the lead, falling 4-3, adding one more disappointment to the pile.

Sims isn’t the only injury that has hampered the MSU season. Stone Simmons was expected to man a rotation spot but has logged only 4.1 innings this year. Only three pitchers that logged over 20 innings this spring feature an ERA under 6. The bullpen has been ineffective, causing the starters to stretch for extra outs, often for one batter too many to win a tight game. The Bulldogs have lost 11 games by two runs or less this season.

In addition, no one has been able to step into the leading roles vacated by Tanner Allen and Rowdey Jordan. Some batters have had big moments, but it can be tough stepping into the primary batting roles, not to mention replicating the duo’s presence in the clubhouse. Mercer transfer RJ Yeager and freshman Hunter Hines have been good in their initial seasons in Starkville. In addition, Brad Cumbest has developed into an offensive threat. All in all, the offense has been solid.

The problems have come on the mound, where the team ERA hovers around six. There have been leads lost causing frustration, and the critics have been vocal.

“The fans in the outfield aren’t the ones calling for head coach Chris Lemonis’ head,” one lounge lizard explained. “Those are the football fans who discovered we were good in baseball last postseason. The real fans who understand baseball aren’t saying those things. I mean, the man won the whole thing last year. Let’s be real here.”

For Lemonis, this year has been a lesson in learning how fragile the margin for error can be at the top of the sport. “It has been a punch in the nose,” Lemonis said. “As a player or as a coach, I’ve never been under .500, never not made a tournament. The last two months have been humbling. I respect it now, but up to this point, I have always been on the good side.”

Thursday evening’s SEC opener was ugly. Tennessee hammered the home-standing Dogs 27-2. It would have been easy for the team to check out. Instead, like those diehards standing over the outfield grills, the Maroon crew came out to compete with the nation’s number one team. Starting pitcher Preston Johnson matched Tennessee fab freshman Chase Burns pitch for pitch.

The Bulldogs might not have won Friday, but they continued to compete, which Lemonis lauded afterward. MSU led in the eighth before a three-run-home run lifted the Vols into the lead. But, unlike last season, when the baseball gods smiled on them, Friday night followed this season’s script, the Bulldogs were an out short, a hit short, and ultimately, a run short.

The fans filed out of the stadium for this last homestand and must now prepare for a postseason without their favorite team.

So, what will they do without Mississippi State in the postseason?

“We are going to Omaha anyway,” one answered.

Maybe the devil won’t look for them there.