Luke Alexander Delivers Walk-off Win For Mississippi State In College World Series
OMAHA, Neb.—Mississippi State and Washington for eight innings Saturday night matched zeroes at TD Ameritrade Park in their first game of the College World Series. Bulldogs lefthander Ethan Small threw seven scoreless innings and Huskies righthander Joe DeMers countered with 7.1 scoreless innings of his own before the two starters turned the game over to the bullpen.
The game was scoreless going into the bottom of the ninth with the heart of the Mississippi State lineup coming up against Washington closer Alex Hardy. Hunter Stovall and Elijah MacNamee started the inning with back-to-back singles before Justin Foscue popped a bunt up for the inning’s first out.
That brought junior shortstop Luke Alexander to the plate. Alexander came into the night hitting .213/.302/.324, but he had twice this season delivered walk-off hits against archrival Mississippi. Those hits—one a home run to clinch a series win and one a double in the teams’ midweek Governor’s Cup showdown—would soon be eclipsed in his season’s highlight reel.
Hardy threw two strikes to get ahead of Alexander in the count and then threw him a slider low and away. Alexander stayed on the pitch and drove it to right field, sneaking it just over the head of Kaiser Weiss to score Stovall from second base and send Mississippi State to a 1-0 victory and into the winners’ bracket.
For Alexander, the moment fulfilled a long-held dream. He committed to Mississippi State as an eighth grader following a star turn with USA Baseball’s 14U national team at the COPABE Pan Am championships in Nicaragua.
After growing up watching Mississippi State teams play in Omaha, his first taste of the College World Series played out even better than he had imagined.
“You want to be in TD Ameritrade in Omaha,” he said. “To walk off Game 1 is even more than a dream.”
Alexander has been the Bulldogs’ Opening Day starter at shortstop for three straight years. He’s never produced much offensively, hitting .222 in his first two seasons, but he’s found a way to come through in big spots this season. He attributed his success this year in late-game situations to his experience as a junior.
When Alexander came to the plate Saturday in the ninth inning, his teammates felt sure he would deliver.
“He’s been in that situation multiple times this year and come through,” Stovall said. “There was no doubt in my mind he was going to hit a ball hard. Whether it got caught or not, I had no idea. But I knew he was going to give us a great at-bat.”
That’s just what Alexander produced. He knew he would get a first-pitch slider from Hardy, which he did. After getting a fastball with the next pitch, he was expecting another slider.
Alexander did a good job staying with a two-strike approach. It was that approach, with a shorter swing, that helped him drive the ball so well to right field.
“These guys are starting to understand when they’re shorter and they back off the effort, the ball will actually jump for you,” Mississippi State hitting coach Jake Gautreau said. “Took a really good short swing on that, think it was a breaking ball away, and was able to burn the right fielder against the teeth of the wind. Just a huge at-bat for him.”
Alexander in the second half of the season went through a difficult stretch at the plate where he was squaring balls up but wasn’t getting rewarded for it. That’s changed over the last few weeks, but it hasn’t been an easy season for the junior.
“I’ve been saying it all year, he’s had the most productive .220 I’ve ever seen in my life,” Gautreau said. “And he’s played a really, really good shortstop for us all year long. Lately he’s been a lot better, he’s gotten a lot of big hits for us as of late. When the game is on the line he’s somebody you want up there.”
Alexander showed that again Saturday. He drove the 0-2 slider well, but hard-hit balls had been getting held up in the wind whipping in from the outfield all night. No one in Mississippi State’s maroon pinstripe uniforms was quite sure that this ball would be different.
Weiss was playing a little shallower than normal because there was one out and a runner on second base. As he kept running back to the wall, several Bulldogs realized the ball might fall.
“Me playing right field, when he hit it, I knew it was hit really well but I had no idea it was hit that well,” said MacNamee, who had first-hand experience after patrolling right field all night. “That wind’s something else, that field’s huge. When I saw that kid running I said this has a chance.”
From the dugout, coach Gary Henderson had, before the at-bat, taken note of Weiss’ positioning.
“We certainly were aware that they had come in with a guy at second and they weren't playing for—with one out and coming in and trying to catch a fly ball and eliminate a sac fly,” he said. “Pretty aware of that. I'm not sure that L.A. was aware of that, but we certainly were there. And excited about the opportunity, or potential opportunity to maybe get something over somebody's head.”
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Gautreau felt like Alexander had gotten enough on the ball to get it over Weiss’ head.
“I thought he got him, I thought he burned him,” Gautreau said. “You weren’t sure because some balls were hit really well tonight that didn’t go anywhere. But the way he kept going back on it I could tell it was probably going to get over him.”
The ball did get over Weiss’ head. When it hit the ground, Stovall was off like a shot. His one thought was to get home.
“I took off,” Stovall said. “It was crazy. The ball wasn’t carrying all night and I felt like that ball went.”
Stovall crossed the plate safely to score the lone run of the night and send Mississippi State into Monday night’s winners’ bracket game against North Carolina.
The Bulldogs now have seven walk-off victories this season and three in the NCAA Tournament. Their tournament run was sparked by a walk-off home run from MacNamee in an elimination game exactly two weeks ago at Florida State. They needed another walk-off win in super regionals against Vanderbilt to get to the College World Series.
With that history, it was only fitting for Mississippi State’s first game of the 2018 CWS ended in another raucous walk-off celebration.
“It’s awesome,” Stovall said. “There’s nothing like it. there’s nothing like being here and getting a win in that fashion. We’ve done it all year and to do it here in this atmosphere, in this place, is great.”