OMAHA, Neb. — OK fate, we get the point. You like Mississippi State. No, you love Mississippi State, bananas and all. At least right now.
Let us count the ways Tuesday morning at TD Ameritrade Park.
The Bulldogs show up to play surging North Carolina in a College World Series winner’s bracket game that had been postponed from the night before. It’s raining. It’s supposed to do that much of the day. Flash flood warnings have been issued.
But the skies brighten, and the sun comes out.
The Tar Heels are on a roll, having gone 6-0 in the postseason and losing twice in the past 37 days – by a combined three runs.
But the Bulldogs steamroll them 12-2. The same Bulldogs who have three walk-off wins in the postseason.
North Carolina has averaged nine runs its first six NCAA Tournament games. Against those loud bats, Mississippi State sends out a starting pitcher who hasn’t won a game since April 7.
But Konnor Pilkington allows the Tar Heels only two runs in six-plus innings.
And then there’s the real punch line. At bat with the bases loaded in the second inning is a Bulldog freshman batting ninth, whose only home run in college came two months ago.
But Jordan Westburg hits a hanging slider halfway to Iowa for a grand slam. In the eighth, he’s back again with the bases loaded, and clears them with a double. That’s seven RBI from a guy with a .243 batting average, to tie a College World Series record that was last matched 17 years ago.
“Obviously a day he and his family will remember forever,” coach Gary Henderson called it.
”Just with the way the season went, it’s kind of hard to imagine,” Westburg said afterward. “It’s a moment that every ball player wants to go through.
“Just to do this was over the top.”
Yeah, fate. You’re in maroon at the moment.
“Honestly this is just the beginning of something,” the Bulldogs’ Elijah MacNamee was saying after the game. “I know the College World Series is the last place you go but I feel like we’re just getting started. It just keeps going up and up and up. It’s a roller coaster and we’re definitely climbing.”
By the way, that’s Jordan Westburg, the banana guy. His dugout antics – such as making a call on a banana during a regional game that was picked up on television – are what turned the fruit into the symbol of Mississippi State magic. Bananas – inflatable, plastic, real – have become a common sight in the Bulldogs’ fan section. Chiquita and Dole have fought to offer congratulations. Chiquita was first, but Westburg mentioned there were Dole bananas at the hotel Tuesday morning. “A battle in corporate America,” he called it.It’s one of those unfathomable fads that can explode in sport with no rational explanation. “I couldn’t imagine that in the slightest, how it blew up,” he said.
The team has one on the bench every game for luck. Guess who picks it?
“I go through the selection process,” Westburg said. “You want the ripest one, but sometimes you can’t be too picky. I think I’ll keep this banana today. It’s a special one.”
But using fruit as a good luck charm is one thing. Driving in seven runs is another.
“If you’re going to do all the shenanigans in the dugout,” Westburg said, “you have to step it up on the field and back that up.”
It hasn’t all been milk and honey and bananas for Westburg this season. He’s had injuries and tough days dealing with tough days, and needed to make some adjustments in approach. “He and I have had those very, very specific conversations five or six times,” Henderson said.
So the coach doesn’t mind banana-mania.
“You need to be able to let these guys have some fun. They’ve got to be able to do that. He’s got to be able to make the phone call on the banana, right? You’ve got to be able to do those things and (then) become somebody different when you’re in the box.
“He’s an intense kid. Super intense. He’s not a goofball.”
Added MacNamee, “He deserves it. The kid works harder than anyone I’ve ever seen. I know how hard he’s been working in the cage. This morning everyone knew. We had a different vibe from him.”
He certainly made a mess of the Tar Heels’ morning, and they never saw him coming.
“I don’t know who hit it, but I just hung a breaking ball over the plate,” North Carolina pitcher Austin Bergner said. He retired the next 16 batters in a row on 51 pitches, but he understood the damage had been done by whoever it was.
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“That’s the great thing about college baseball,” said Tar Heels coach Mike Fox, who would have preferred it not happen to him. “That’s what you get here, you get guys you don’t expect.”
Westburg couldn’t quite comprehend just what he had done Tuesday. “Right now, not really. I’m sure when everything settles down tonight and I’m just laying in bed and thinking about it, it’ll be something that’s really special.”
But Mississippi State has been doing a lot of that lately, as teams with good karma will.
“That’s the beauty of it,” second baseman Hunter Stovall said. “We never know. It’s a different person almost every day. It’s been awesome to watch, it’s been awesome to be a part of, it’s been awesome to be in the shoes of that person.
“But we’ve got to finish this.”
The good news: Omaha is not out of bananas.