OMAHA, Neb. — Before Marshall Gilbert could be a College World Series hero for Mississippi State, before he could hit a sharp grounder up the middle in the ninth inning Sunday to make a walk-off winner of the Bulldogs, before he could complete the latest improbable escape for a team that apparently has a limitless supply of industrial strength grit . . .
He had to spend a frustrating June in Omaha.
That was 2018. Here’s the final stat sheet from Mississippi State’s four CWS games last year. Note Gilbert. One lonely at-bat, one strikeout, most of the fantasy week spent watching. It was like being close enough to your dream to grab it, and then finding out you'd be looking at it mostly through glass.
“I didn’t work as hard as I should have last year and I didn’t get the opportunities that I wanted,” he was saying Sunday night. “I would basically dream about it every single night, trying to get back here. Dream about it, and it would also keep me up at night at the same time.”
Now it’s 2019, and he’s a starter, and there he was at the plate Sunday, two outs, bases loaded, Mississippi State having wiped out a 4-1 Auburn lead in the ninth inning for a 4-4 tie. All the Bulldogs needed was one more run, and they could throw another come-from-behind victory on their pile. It would be the 28th of the season.
“I was in awe by everybody that was able to get the job done before. It was incredible the fact we could get to that point,” he would say later. A Jake Mangum leadoff double, a walk, an Elijah MacNamee double and later a painful throwing error by Auburn third baseman Edouard Julien — when a good throw would have ended the game — is how Mississippi State landed there.
Gilbert was 0-for-4 at the time, but the Bulldogs live in the here and now, and what happened an hour ago or 10 minutes ago doesn’t matter. How else could they keep pulling off all this drama? He hit the ball hard up the middle, no Auburn fielder could get it, and Mississippi State had suddenly won 5-4, as he waited for the wave of teammates to come.
“I didn’t know what to do, I turned around and thought everybody would be out there faster. It seemed like it was going in slow motion when everybody was coming out there. After that, I was a little bit sick to my stomach, just butterflies, just the disbelief of everything that just happened.”
It was just one game. But, after 2018, it must have felt like more to him.
“Absolutely,” he said. Or as team star Mangum offered on the way to the team bus, “He’s one of my best friends. He’s worked his tail off, he deserves it.”
And so, here's another page in the Mississippi State never-say-die saga. The fact the Bulldogs are playing for their fourth coach in four seasons and still got here says something about their resilience. So do those 28 come-from-behind wins this season.
Something must have led to such steel.
“Believing in one another. The bond we have is something that is hard to break,” MacNamee said. “You’re never out of a ballgame and we all know that.”
Gilbert mentioned team conditioning tests, where the Bulldogs were united by hard labor. A series of sprints had to be completed in the assigned time.
“You didn’t want to be the one person that didn’t complete it, because if you didn’t complete the conditioning test, you couldn’t be a part of practice and you couldn’t be out there with your brothers,”
Look where that’s led.
“It’s to the point where you just can’t count us out. There’s never a point where somebody is not locked in or somebody has not bought into what we’ve got going on,” Gilbert said.
“We just don’t look at the scoreboard. We try to keep going until the umpire calls the last out.”
Kind of hard not to look at the huge scoreboard in Omaha, though.
“It’s a little bit bigger,” he said. “But it’s not as big as the one back in Starkville.”
But one team’s happy clubhouse is another team’s anguish. Poor Auburn. That game vanished before the Tigers’ eyes. The fickle nature of baseball was most clear with Julien. He blasted a 429-foot homer in the second inning — matching the longest ever in a CWS game in TD Ameritrade Park — and drove in another in the fourth. Star of the game, until his throw to first base sailed high with two out in the ninth.
Basketball coach Bruce Pearl was in the stands and must have thought he was back in Minneapolis at the Final Four. That one ended cruelly for Auburn, too, but at least the baseball team has another chance, against Louisville Tuesday in the loser’s bracket.
“We’ve been through a ton,” coach Butch Thompson said. “These guys, I know them man by man and kind of what makes them go, and we’ll be back. I don’t think much shocks us. But of course, we’re hurt. I’m hurt because we invested so much.”
Even the winning coach felt sympathy.
"That’s the first thing we said when we came off the field," said Chris Lemonis. "You feel for other coaches as they go through it, as excited as we are. We’ve been on the other side, too, and I think everybody at some point in our game has to fight through that piece. It happens to all of us.
Baseball is not easy. Ask the guy whose hit won Sunday's game.