OMAHA, Neb. — Hail State. That’s Mississippi State’s battle cry. Get that wrong, and they’ll throw you out of Starkville.
Hail the SEC. The only conference left in the College World Series.
Hail Tanner Leggett, the defensive replacement with a .225 batting average and only two previous plate appearances in the past month. Not a hit since May 22. He’s the product of a Mississippi small town, who is now a state hero after slicing a ninth inning single into left center Saturday night to give the Bulldogs one of their most important walk-off victories in school history, 4-3 over Texas. “Best moment of my life for sure,” he would say later. “Some people get nervous for that situation, but I pray for that situation.”
Hail Brayland Skinner, the pinch-runner who stole a base to be in position to score it. A year ago, he was at Northwest Mississippi Community College. Two years ago, Leggett was there, too. Figuratively, that’s a million miles from Omaha in June. “Tanner Leggett barely plays, Skinner barely plays,” coach Chris Lemonis said. “My JuCo bandits put it together in the ninth.”
Hail the reliever, Landon Sims, whose 2.2 innings of hit-less work set the table for victory, and who shouted out the marching orders as he walked off the mound after retiring Texas in the top of the ninth: Let’s win it!
Hail the determined team that was blown out of its league tournament in two games by a combined score of 25-3, but has since survived five one-run close calls in the postseason, including all three of its victories in Omaha. “It has become our identity,” Lemonis said. “I told the team last night, 'If you ever thought it was going to be easy, it's not our way. Seems like we have to be dramatic.’”
Hail the pitching staff that has struck out 791 batters, something no Division I team has ever, ever done. Forty-one of them were Texas Longhorns this week.
Hail the fire that burns within a program to go where it has never been. Mississippi State certainly has that, including its legions of fans who have turned the sidewalks around TD Ameritrade Park a shade of maroon. It’s not just the fact the Bulldogs have no College World Series titles. Mississippi State has never won a national championship in any team sport. “We’re hungry,” Leggett said.
Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. It’ll be SEC cousins now going at it in a best-of-three finals, the fourth time in history that’s happened for the elite league of college baseball. The Pac-10, as it was called then, also did it twice. Talk about your conflict of interests; the Commodores are the reigning champion and the Bulldogs badly want to be one. The SEC has produced 12 of the past 30 national champions, with five different schools. Mississippi Stadium is not one of them. Hungry? The Bulldogs have beaten a lot of their conference brethren as the seasons have rolled, only to watch them dogpile in Omaha.
When would it be their turn, they wondered? Maybe now.
“It would mean everything to us, to the school, to the city,” Sims said. “I think it would mean the world.”
To break through figures to be a harrowing journey, so Saturday certainly fit the motif. The Bulldogs trailed 2-0 and 3-1 but starter Will Bednar and Sims kept the night in play. In the end, they would allow the Longhorns only four hits. But the game was tied and still there to be won or lost in the bottom of the ninth, when Texas reliever Cole Quintanilla, who had been terrific, hit Mississippi State’s Brad Cumbest with one out. “I knew it was trouble,” Longhorn center fielder Mike Antico said later.
Skinner pinch ran for Cumbest and had the green light to steal from Lemonis, who just hoping he would go on a breaking ball. But Skinner took off on an 0-1 count, and a Quintanilla fastball. “So probably we didn't run on the best pitch or the best move, and he just out-ran the baseball,” Lemonis said.
That left it to Leggett, who had been looking good in batting practice but so seldom seen the plate lately in a game. It had required considerable patience. “Just stay in tune, knowing my part, knowing my role, day-in, day-out in practice,” he said. “Games, making as most of every opportunity I can get. Not trying to do too much. Putting good swings on the ball.”
On the Mississippi State bench, assistant coach and hitting instructor Jake Gautreau was sitting next to Lemonis. “Right before the pitch came, Gaut turned to me and said this may be the highlight of Tanner's career in terms of being able to get that big hit,” Lemonis said. “And next thing you know, the ball is in the gap.”
Sims’ teammates had heeded his call. They’d won it. “Probably the best swing of his life,” he said of Leggett. “I think he would say that.”
For Mississippi State, the gate to the Finals swung wide open. Texas had to battle through long rain delays to stay alive the previous two nights. It was an impressive show of endurance, but after all that, came a sickening and sudden end.
“You blink your eyes and it's over,” Antico said. “Baseball is a crazy sport . . . I love it with all my heart. But you know, your season can be made in a split second, and it can be broken in a split second. Tonight, it was broken.”
So, prepare for more Mississippi license plates in Nebraska. This chance is too good to miss for a fandom that put more than 40,000 people in the stands for three games in the super regional.
“That's what makes me stay in baseball, having a fan base like no other,” Leggett said. “Hearing them yell your name in Omaha, it's like a home-field advantage almost. Love every single one of them. Moments like that, that's what you pray for.”
He heard them Saturday night. So did Lemonis. This had to rank way up there on his best moment list.
“Well, until next week, that's my favorite.”