Jordan Westburg Goes Bananas, Pushes Mississippi State Past North Carolina
OMAHA, Neb. — Jordan Westburg is the face who launched 1,000 bananas.
Inadvertently, through some freshman dugout hijinks in Mississippi State’s regional, Westburg created the #RallyBanana phenomenon. Over the last three weeks, he’s signed countless oversized inflatable bananas, taken constant fan pictures and starred in viral online videos. Because of him, Chiquita and Dole have engaged in all-out banana warfare. Chiquita tweeted its support for the Bulldogs on Monday night; the next morning, Dole sent a whole bunch to the team hotel.
Depending on your level of superstition, one could say that Westburg’s banana movement has played a pivotal role in carrying Mississippi State to Omaha.
But Westburg wants to be known as more than just That Banana Guy. He can do more than shoot banana guns and dial banana phones.
On Tuesday, Westburg showed he can start rallies with a bat in his hands, too.
In a 12-2 win against No. 6 national seed North Carolina, Westburg crushed a go-ahead grand slam in the second inning and a game-breaking, three-run double in the eighth, matching a College World Series record with seven RBIs in a single game. He was the sixth player to accomplish that feat and the first in 17 years. He and Bobby Thigpen are the only two Bulldogs to ever hit a grand slam in the College World Series.
“I think, you know, if you're going to do all the shenanigans in the dugout, might have to step it up on the field and back that up,” Westburg said, cracking a smile underneath his thick eye black. “So it was nice to do that today.”
Contrary to his dugout antics, Westburg displayed a composed, mature, level-headedness after Tuesday’s record-book performance. Like many freshmen in the Southeastern Conference, his first season in college ball has produced its fair share of ebbs and flows, from a hamstring injury that limited his playing time to common freshman mental struggles. But Tuesday highlighted just how far he’s come in his first season, producing seven runs from the nine-hole in the lineup.
“He's done a wonderful job,” interim head coach Gary Henderson said. “He and I have had those very, very specific conversations five or six times. If you're going to play here, if you're going to be successful here, if you're going to get on the field, then you need to be able to do these things.
“He's like a lot of guys. There's some short-term failure there. And he doesn't handle it any better than the average guy. So he's got to get better at that. And a lot of the conversations revolved around that.”
The Bulldogs as a whole have done an excellent job of flushing those sorts of short-term failures in the postseason and finding ways to win. Junior lefthander Konnor Pilkington, who lost his Friday role to freshman lefty Ethan Small due to his late-season struggles, is another example. Pilkington battled through a gutsy six-inning, two-run effort Tuesday, pitching around several Tar Heel rallies and dotting the corners in gigantic moments, catching UNC looking at strike three four times.
“I felt early on I was just trying to throw it, and I guess the atmosphere kind of got to me a little bit; I will admit that,” Pilkington said. “In the first two innings. I feel like I left some balls up got behind in the count and they had opportunities and I was lucky to get away with some pitches.
“The third inning to the sixth inning I told myself, ‘I'm going to back off a little bit and sink a couple of pitches here, stay black to black and stay down in the strike zone.’”
Of course, it helped that Pilkington had a cushion with which to work.
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For the Tar Heels, who defeated No. 3 overall seed Oregon State, 8-6, in the first game of the CWS, Tuesday was simply an off game. A few key defensive misplays—namely a bobble by third baseman Kyle Datres in the second inning—gave the Bulldogs extra opportunities, and they took advantage. Without that Datres error, Westburg would have never stepped to the plate in that second inning. His two-out grand slam, on a hanging breaking ball by UNC flamethrower Austin Bergner, was the lone mistake Bergner made the entire contest.
The Bulldogs did the rest of their damage against the UNC bullpen, tacking on eight runs in the eighth. Once again, Westburg was right in the middle of it with his three-run double, giving the Mississippi State dugout plenty of reason to go bananas.
His success exemplified what Mississippi State has done so well in the postseason under Henderson—merging off-field shenanigans with on-field focus.
“Where we are now, you need to be able to let those guys have some fun,” Henderson said. “They've got to be able to do that. (Westburg’s) got to make the phone call on the banana, right? You gotta be able to do those things and become somebody different when you're in the box.
“That's the nature of our sport. And that's kind of a responsibility that I think that you have as a coaching staff to make sure you find that balance where those guys are free enough to enjoy who they are and the differences in personalities.”
On Tuesday, that approach once again bore fruit.