Chris Lemonis understood what was coming. The Mississippi State coach was emotional all day. He could feel it when he was writing down the lineup card, some of those names for the final time. He could feel it when thinking about the mother he lost over the winter, and the father who is back home in the hospital. Any pre-game talk was going to have to be brief, or else he would never have gotten through it.
“It’s our last ride together,” he told his Bulldogs. “So enjoy it.”
And then it was Mississippi State’s time at long, long last. The Bulldogs went out and destroyed Vanderbilt 9-0 to win the College World Series. Beat Kumar Rocker, and nobody does that in June. Plus, there was the one hit. That’s what Will Bednar and Landon Sims gave the Commodores. One seventh-inning single. That’s the way to make history. First one-hitter ever in a championship game.
“Tonight just didn't bother them,” Lemonis said. “No night has bothered them.”
How good must it feel, when you’ve waited forever?
“It’ll be kind of like when the Cubs won it,” Lemonis had told some recruits.
How deep is the satisfaction, when you go where none from your school has gone before, and absolutely steamrolled the reigning champions to do it?
“I couldn't be more happy for a team, a town, a fan base, the whole state of Mississippi,” said right fielder Tanner Allen. “Except Oxford, of course.”
How pure is the joy, when you’re 800 miles from home and nearly the entire ballpark is by your side to share the golden moment? When Dallas Cowboy star and alum Dak Prescott is in the house, and so, it seems, is half of Starkville?
“All our fans know the feeling. It's like we've been waiting for it,” Lemonis said. “I haven't even been able to walk down the street for the last four days. I have to stay in the room because our fans have taken over the city.
“It means everything to all of us.”
Especially the players who accomplished it. “They’re going to be legends here,” Lemonis said. There they were, after the dogpile and the cowbell ringing, circling the field for a victory lap, trying to shake every last hand of every last person in maroon.
The dream came true Wednesday night for Mississippi State. All of it. It was as if all the frustration of all those unfulfilled years were unleashed upon poor Vanderbilt. It ended a rout. Not to be confused with the 13-2 thrashing the night before. With the championship on the line, the Bulldogs outscored the Commodores 22-2 and outhit them 26-5 in two games. Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin would talk of the “the groundswell of momentum over on the other side, you could feel it. And that's real.”
How firm had the sense of mission been, when you give up seven runs in the first inning of the College World Series Finals, then outscore the other side 23-3 over the next 26 innings? When you get swept at home by Arkansas, and lose a series in Starkville to last-place Missouri and get wiped out in the SEC tournament 25-3 in two games — “You look up and you’re just devastated,” Lemonis said of all that bad news — and then regroup for the NCAA tournament and never look back?
Lemonis could talk a long time about that.
“You lose the first game of the series, and you're sitting there, and you know how bad our community, our school, our program wants this trophy,” he said. “And we talked about it, I think it was Saturday night (when) we were having to play Texas, how it wouldn't be easy. Just hasn't been easy. When you're going to do something legendary for the first time, it was going to have to be tough. And it's pretty surreal right now."
“But the reason we are champions is we just have a really tough, resilient group. And it's been built over time.”
Said Allen, “We just kept playing, and kept playing and playing. You blink an eye, we're national champions. “
The 12th time was the charm in Omaha. The Bulldogs are no longer the College World Series regular without a title. Lemonis had been here in 2019 with his first Mississippi State team. The Bulldogs were also here in 2018 and nine times before that. But Mississippi State is no longer the only school in the SEC and one of only three among the power-5 conferences — with Kansas State and Virginia Tech — without an NCAA national championship in any sport.
The Bulldogs have watched conference cousin Vanderbilt dogpile in Omaha. Arkansas, South Carolina, LSU, Georgia, Florida. They wondered why it could never be them. Not anymore.
“We knew what was at stake,” Allen said. “We knew going into this game we had opportunity to do something that had never been done.”
Could it have turned out any more perfectly for Mississippi State?
The Bulldogs did it against some of the most hallowed names of the sport. They beat Texas to win their bracket. Twice. They won three one-run games in Omaha, and two others along the NCAA Tournament journey. They just blew away Vanderbilt. By Wednesday night, their hunger for the finish line was so unstoppable, not even Commodore star Rocker could slow them down. He left in the fifth, having given up five runs.
Mississippi State did it with magical young arms. Second-year freshman Bednar started this College World Series by striking out 15 Texas batters and ended it with six no-hit innings on three days’ rest. His Omaha line: 18 1/3 innings, 26 strikeouts, three runs, five hits. The Most Outstanding Player was not a very hard choice. “I just treated it like it was any other game, and just kind of rolled with it,” he said later. “That guy’s a bulldog. He’s the greatest competitor I’ve ever played with, “ said Sims, another second-year freshman who added three innings of relief for his third save in the CWS. His one blemish: Carter Young’s single, Vanderbilt’s only hit.
The Bulldogs did it with veterans who have become like family to the Mississippi State masses. Rowdey Jordan with three hits, Tanner Allen with two. Childhood friends, Bulldog teammates for eons, they became champions on the last night of their college lives. So did Luke Hancock, who added two RBI and typifies how Mississippi State won’t back down at the plate, with one of the most astounding batting feats in college baseball this season: 47 walks, and only 17 strikeouts.
“That team challenges you on every single pitch,” Corbin said. “My mind moves to Hancock right away. It's almost like the at-bat starts when he gets to two strikes and he's tough to put away. That’s (47-17) insane.”
They did it with balance, and the past two nights, a sense of going for the jugular. Five different Bulldogs drove in runs Wednesday night.
They did it with spectacular defense. Mississippi State did not have an error in seven College World Series games. No champion had ever done that, not in 73 years. Bednar’s strategy was to just pitch to Vanderbilt contact. “I was able to get into a groove there, really let my defense play behind me,” he said. “We've got a lot of studs back there. So I might as well let them hit the ball.” On this night, the Bulldogs didn’t need many strikeouts, only eight. But that gave them the final total of 817, the most ever in college baseball.
All that was Mississippi State seizing the moment with a lot of hands. “That’s what made them champs,” Rocker said.
And the Bulldogs did it with a crowd that will live in Omaha lore. The battalions of Mississippi State supporters – not wanting to miss this for the world – filled the restaurants, the pubs, the streets and TD Ameritrade Park. Besides turning the ballpark into a cauldron of horrors for Vanderbilt the past two nights, they left attendance records in their wake. With the empty seats of the pandemic still a fresh memory, 2021 saw attendance marks for the College World Series, the Finals and Game 3.
In the ninth inning, with deliverance at hand, Lemonis had a poignant moment on the bench, with assistant Kyle Cheesebrough sitting next to him. “We both lost parents in the last year, and I turned to him and I said,`Man, I hope they have a good seat tonight,’” Lemonis said. “And that was kind of my moment.”
Later, he said he couldn’t wait to get the trophy back home. One of the first stops would be the nursing home, to show it to his father Tommy Lemonis. They’d celebrate together, like so many thousands of Mississippi State fans did Wednesday night in TD Ameritrade Park.
Perfect ending. For Mississippi State, a perfect story.