OMAHA, Neb. – Sometimes there just aren’t words to adequately describe why incredible events happen.
In the moments after Mississippi State’s opening game of the College World Series on Sunday night, MSU centerfielder Jake Mangum seemingly had that issue.
It’s likely no one can fault him either after the Bulldogs pulled off a miraculous ninth-inning comeback for the ages to top Auburn 5-4 at T.D. Ameritrade Park. State, which entered the final frame trailing 4-1, used a four-run rally to squeak past the Tigers in walk-off style.
In the wake of a special ninth inning back in Starkville when MSU clinched the super regional over Stanford just one week prior, Mangum was looking upward when trying to figure out how to explain things.
“It’s a higher power man,” Mangum said.
It sure seemed like there might be something otherworldly at work. Even after Mississippi State put up a pair of runs in the ninth to close its deficit to 4-3, the game looked all but over when with two outs and Elijah MacNamee at second, Dustin Skelton hit a harmless ground ball to third. It didn’t stay harmless for long.
Auburn third baseman Edouard Julien hesitated before throwing to first as MacNamee ran in front of him. Julien then heaved a wild throw to first base that allowed MacNamee to come all the way around and score the tying run while Skelton ran to second. After Rowdey Jordan was intentionally walked and Josh Hatcher had an infield single to load the bases, Marshall Gilbert’s hit up the middle went off the glove of Auburn pitcher Tanner Burns and Tiger second baseman Ryan Bliss couldn’t do anything with the baseball. Skelton scored with ease and the Bulldog party was on in Omaha.
“Believing in one another,” MacNamee said to describe the basis of it all. “The bond we have is something that is hard to break.
“We work from the first pitch to the last. You’re never out of a ballgame and we all know that, so when we all believe each other, good things happen.”
Mississippi State head coach Chris Lemonis had a more humorous description of the wild finish.
“That’s just how we drew it up in the scouting report before the game is give (Auburn) a lead and then try to catch them,” Lemonis joked.
The Bulldogs could laugh when all was said and done, but there was little to find funny early on. Mississippi State looked as though it was headed straight to the loser’s bracket in the College World Series as the Tigers took control.
Bulldogs starting pitcher Ethan Small wasn’t at his best.
Ironically Julien, the Tiger with the key ninth-inning error that ended up costing Auburn the game, was the man that originally put his club in position to win. He drilled a long two-run home run off of Small in the top of the second to put Auburn up 2-0. Two innings later, Julien had an RBI single that gave the Tigers a 3-0 advantage.
Auburn starter Jack Owen was brilliant as the Tiger lead held up.
Owen’s counterpart, Small, lasted only five innings in the game. His pitch count elevated quickly and he was removed with his team in a hole.
“My stuff felt pretty good, but I will say I felt a little more gassed and was a little more tired than usual,” Small said. “What that is, I don’t know. It may be just because it’s been a long season, but I also felt like the (strike) zone – and I’m never one to complain about the zone – but I felt like it was a pretty tight zone. It turned into one of those things where you just compete and go after them with all you’ve got and see how long you can go.”
After MSU turned to its bullpen, it started to claw back. Gunner Halter had an RBI single in the sixth to cut the deficit to 3-1.
However, Auburn got that run back with an unearned run in the eighth.
That eventually set the stage for the ninth inning that’ll surely be talked about for years in Mississippi State circles. Mangum started the rally with a leadoff double. After Burns entered in relief and struck out Jordan Westburg, Tanner Allen walked. MacNamee, the man who has delivered so many clutch hits for State in his career, then came through with another. This time it was an RBI double that made it 4-2. Justin Foscue hit next and had an RBI groundout ahead of the decisive stretch of the game that now puts MSU in a winner’s bracket matchup against Vanderbilt on Tuesday night at 6 p.m.
For much of Sunday night, it didn’t look like Mississippi State would get the night game against the Commodores Tuesday. It looked as though the Bulldogs were headed for the brink of elimination in the College World Series.
Instead, the feeling now is that something, somewhere, just keeps shining favor down on MSU as the squad chases the school’s first-ever national title.
“It was another one of those magical nights for the Dogs, but we didn’t come here for (just) the t-shirt,” Mangum said. “We came here for the trophy. We have some more work to do.”