Image credit: Mississippi State outfielder Tanner Allen (Photo courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics)
OMAHA – For seven innings Tuesday at the College World Series, Mississippi State was held hitless by Virginia righthander Griff McGarry. The Bulldogs’ potent offense was held to just a walk and a hit batter as McGarry plowed through the lineup.
But in the eighth inning, everything changed for the Bulldogs. After Scotty Dubrule worked a walk to lead off the inning and Brad Cumbest flew out to left field, Kellum Clark stepped up to the plate. He got a pitch to hit and drove it over the right field wall into the Mississippi State bullpen – a frozen rope that broke up the no-hitter and broke the ice for the Bulldogs.
“Up until that point he was suffocating us but if we did hit a ball well, it was right at somebody,” Mississippi State hitting coach Jake Gautreau said. “As soon as that ball was hit, there was more energy in dugout and with the things everybody was saying, it felt like we had a chance to do something.”
Virginia went to the bullpen, pulling McGarry after 7.1 innings and 98 pitches – an incredible star turn for the fourth-year junior who had struggled to find consistency much of the season. It was the moment Mississippi State had been waiting for and the Bulldogs didn’t miss the opportunity. Josh Hatcher followed with a pinch-hit single and Rowdey Jordan delivered a double to bring Tanner Allen, an All-American and the SEC player of the year, to the plate.
First base was open, but with Allen representing the go-ahead run, Virginia coach Brian O’Connor didn’t want to intentionally walk him and brought in closer Stephen Schoch. Still, Allen knew he wasn’t likely to get a fastball and instead lay in wait for a slider from Schoch, a righthander who throws from a low arm slot.
“I knew I had a base open,” Allen said. “I knew they weren’t going to throw me a fastball. So, I kind of had an idea. I was just trying to get a slider up in the zone so I could do some damage with it.”
On the second pitch of the at bat, Allen got that slider, and he didn’t miss. The lefthanded hitter drove it out to right field for a three-run home run, giving Mississippi State a 5-4 lead.
Four batters earlier, Mississippi State was down four runs and looking for its first hit. A few swings later and the whole game had changed.
“We talked to the team about it’s hard to get the last outs in Omaha, and just to keep fighting, keep fighting, get something going, and we were able to do that,” Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis said. “We’ve been fortunate all year, our best hitter comes to the plate, and he gets the big hit again.”
Mississippi State pushed across another run in the eighth – which proved to be a key insurance run – and closer Landon Sims got the final four outs for a 6-5 victory. With the win, the Bulldogs advanced to Friday’s bracket final and are one win away from the CWS finals.
On a night when so little went right for Mississippi State’s offense for so long, the Bulldogs ultimately showed what makes them so difficult for opposing pitchers to shut down. They rally started with an eight-pitch plate appearance from Dubrule, the started with him getting in an 0-2 hole before fouling off a couple pitches and working the walk. Clark, a true freshman who has played in less than half of Mississippi State’s 63 games, hit the home run from the eight-hole. Hatcher came off the bench for a crucial pinch hit, turning over the lineup for Jordan and Allen, the Bulldogs’ two best hitters and veterans.
It was team offense at its best and a mix of grinding out good at bats, solid approaches and the right dose of powerful swings.
“We just challenged them to keep playing, stay resilient,” Lemonis said. “And the things that we preach all year and the things this club is. We’ve won so many late games just because we won’t stop playing and won’t stop fighting. Unbelievable job by the guys.”
Allen has come through in clutch moment after clutch moment throughout his Mississippi State career. He’s this season hitting .383/.454/.625 with 11 home runs and hadn’t had back-to-back hitless games since mid-March.
Allen is as pure a hitter as there is in college baseball and Gautreau said he’s never worried about him falling into a slump.
“He’s super competitive,” Gautreau said. “He never gets too high, doesn’t get too low. He doesn’t take it one at bat to the next. He trusts in his ability. I tell them all the time, ‘It can happen any time.’”
Still, Allen was 0-for-7 in the CWS in the CWS when he stepped to the plate in the eighth inning Tuesday. In his fist three plate appearances against Virginia, he popped out to shortstop and struck out twice.
Allen knew it had been a couple tough nights at the plate for him, but he wasn’t worried about it. He has a reminder written into his glove, “It doesn’t matter.” He’s always on to his next at bat.
“I hadn’t had a hit in a couple days, but honestly it really doesn’t faze me,” Allen said. “It’s about the next at bat. I’m sitting out there in the outfield thinking about how they’re going to pitch me my next at bat. So, I’m just playing it one pitch at a time, that’s all.”
Allen may do a better job at it than most, but that’s the approach the Bulldogs want to take. It’s served them well throughout the season – they average 7.03 runs per game – and especially in Omaha. In the CWS, they’ve faced Texas ace Ty Madden, an All-American and projected top-15 pick, and McGarry, who Gautreau said was throwing major-league stuff Tuesday. Mississippi State has scored in just two of the 18 innings it has played in this CWS, but it’s made those innings count and has won two one-run games and is a win away from playing the national championship.
The Bulldogs aren’t the most explosive offense in the country. They don’t have a pair of top-30 picks in the lineup, like they did a year ago. They don’t have a player with 15 home runs. They aren’t the kind of lineup that flies around the bases, trying to put pressure on opposing defenses with constant speed.
Mississippi State is there to grind out at bats, make things difficult for opposing pitchers and be ready to strike the moment it gets an opening. That’s all it took Tuesday against Virginia – the door cracked open a little in the eighth inning and the Bulldogs smashed through.
“I’ve used the word resilient all night, but that’s who we are,” Lemonis said. “Some teams may have more of something else but we’re a tough, gritty team.
“And they’ll never stop playing. These guys will play until the last out every time.”
Mississippi State is winning the moments in Omaha. Tuesday night, that ability pushed the Bulldogs to the brink of the CWS finals.