OMAHA, Neb. – There is no bigger stage in all of college baseball than the College World Series.
It’s an absolute achievement for the eight teams each season that fight, scratch and claw and make their way to Omaha and T.D. Ameritrade Park.
Mississippi State knows as well as any team how much of an accomplishment it is to still be playing baseball this time of year. It was only last year when the Bulldogs worked their way to Omaha after an incredible midseason turnaround.
While just making it to the College World Series was almost enough for last year’s MSU club to consider the season an accomplishment, as the Bulldogs start play in this year’s event against Auburn at 6:30 p.m. Sunday night, just participating in Omaha won’t be enough.
“I was telling someone the other day, last year was kind of a shock to us that we even made it to Omaha,” MSU shortstop Jordan Westburg said. “We felt like we weren’t the best team out there. We just had a good run and made it. This year, it’s more like, ‘this is what we’re supposed to do.’ We deserve to be here and we expected to be here. The appreciation factor might not be as much as last year. It’s more of we’re here to do business and win a championship.”
The path towards a title starts Sunday night. The Bulldogs couldn’t ask for a better man to rely on to try and get MSU off and running.
Junior left-handed pitcher Ethan Small, the Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year and College Baseball Foundation National Pitcher of the Year, will start on the mound for State. That almost assuredly means the Bulldogs can count on a good chance of an opening-round victory. Small (10-2, 1.76 ERA) hasn’t allowed more than three runs in any start this season. In a start against Auburn earlier this year, Small allowed just three hits and two runs over six strong innings.
Small will be opposed by Auburn left-hander Jack Owen (4-2, 2.83 ERA). The southpaw was off to perhaps the best start to a season by any SEC pitcher in 2019 before facing a shoulder issue at midseason. Owen hasn’t been the same since. He has allowed 17 earned runs over his last 25 innings and his ERA has risen by more than two full runs.
The Bulldog batting order, with its robust team batting average of .317, will try to take advantage of Owen’s recent struggles.
If State does that, it’d go a long way towards getting the Bulldogs into position to eventually, possibly, bringing a trophy home to Starkville. This year, second or third or fourth best just isn’t seemingly going to be good enough for these Bulldogs.
“Last year, obviously we were going to win and wanted to win and did really well, but it was definitely a different feeling because of the roller coaster we had,” MSU right fielder Elijah MacNamee said. “This year, it’s more like, ‘we’re going to Omaha, but we’re not just going to Omaha. We’re going to win.’ We’re going like we’ve got a job to do and a job to finish.”
In the moments after MSU won its super regional last weekend against Stanford to punch a College World Series ticket, head coach Chris Lemonis had a simple message for his team. He told his players he wasn’t going to Omaha for the College World Series just to get a t-shirt or to walk through the centerfield wall as part of the event’s opening ceremony. Lemonis said he was going with the goal of winning the whole thing. Just being involved wasn’t enough.
The Bulldogs didn’t need much convincing. They were already fully onboard with that strategy. Sunday night, under the bright lights of T.D. Ameritrade Park once more, that plan gets put into action.
“We’re ready to take care of business,” MacNamee said.