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Mississippi State Grinds Out Latest Comeback Win In Omaha

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Photo courtesy of Kelly Donoho, Mississippi State Athletics

OMAHA — When he dug into the batter's box Sunday night to lead off the bottom of the ninth inning, Mississippi State senior Jake Mangum had a sense of déjà vu. The Bulldogs were trailing Auburn by three runs in their College World Series opener—three outs away from getting knocked into the losers’ bracket in Omaha after they had worked so hard to get to this point.

Mangum flashed back to last year’s Tallahassee Regional when Mississippi State, nominally the home team against Florida State, trailed going into the bottom of the ninth inning of an elimination game. Its season—a tumultuous year that had lurched into the NCAA Tournament—was three outs away from being over.

On that day, Mangum drew a walk that sparked a rally that led to Elijah MacNamee’s stunning walk-off home run beginning a magical run to the College World Series.

On Sunday at TD Ameritrade Park, Mangum went to the plate intending to take the first pitch. But ever the aggressive hitter, he rethought that plan and decided to sit fastball. Auburn freshman righthander Richard Fitts threw Mangum a first-pitch slider and he swung anyway—and he drove it to the fence for a leadoff double.

“I swung on the slider, barreled it and it went to the wall,” Mangum said. “I swear when he started his mechanics, I was like, ‘You’re taking.’

“It happened, man, and the team came through.”

The Bulldogs did come through behind Mangum. After his double, the inning and game unraveled on Auburn. The Tigers called on ace Tanner Burns, who has been relegated to short stints due to shoulder soreness, to close the game out—his first relief appearance of his college career.

Burns stared his appearance with a strikeout, but Mississippi State wouldn’t go away and got the tying run into scoring position with two outs. Burns then got Dustin Skelton to roll over on a ground ball to third baseman Edouard Julien and the game looked to be over, but Julien double clutched and threw the ball away, allowing the tying run to score.

An intentional walk and an infield hit later, and nine-hole hitter Marshall Gilbert was at the plate. He hit a bouncing ball up the middle that Burns got a piece of but couldn’t stop and it rolled into center field for a walk-off single.

The Bulldogs mobbed Gilbert, the celebration taking them into short right field. It was all surreal for the senior, who came to Mississippi State from junior college as a catcher, but this year turned himself into the team's starting third baseman.

“I turned around and thought everybody would be out there faster,” Gilbert said. “It seemed like it was going in slow motion when everybody was going out there. After that I was a little bit sick to my stomach, just a little butterflies and the disbelief of everything that happened.”

Surreal is nothing new for Mississippi State. It leads the nation with 28 comeback wins this year. A week ago, Mangum and MacNamee wrote storybook endings for their careers at Dudy Noble Field. A program that has had four head coaches in four years is now four wins away from its first national championship.

Coach Chris Lemonis joked that Sunday’s ending was just how they drew it up, but it feels as though that doesn’t have to be a joke. At this point, unbelievable endings are just what the Bulldogs do.

“We fought to the last out and just kept competing, and it’s something we’ve talked about all year,” Lemonis said. “At the very end, just the grit of our ball club played out and we were able to put some balls in play.”

Mangum, who has been at the heart of so many of Mississippi State’s comebacks over the last four years said it came down to the Bulldogs’ attitude.

“We’re blue collar—we fight, we fight, we fight, we believe in each other,” he said. “Even when things aren’t going our way, we don’t point fingers. We stay to our approach.

“This is a special group. We need four more wins and then that will be the cherry on top. It’s awesome. That was insane.”

The Bulldogs' run over the last couple of years have tapped heavily into their belief in themselves and some superstitions. A year ago, it was bananas and rally yodels. On Sunday, Mississippi State rode the power of their “Nickleblack” uniforms.

Late last season, it began wearing its all-black uniform set—hat, jersey, pants and socks—exclusively on Sundays to pair with its Sunday pregame playlist of Nickleback. Mangum, as usual, is at the heart of it all, first in bringing the playlist to the clubhouse and then combining it with the uniform and then making sure the uniforms became an unbreakable Sunday tradition.

It’s worked this season and the Bulldogs are 10-0 in their all-blacks. But because they only can be worn on Sundays—Mississippi State wore them last year in its final four matchup against Oregon State on a Saturday and lost (“That’s on me,” Mangum said.)—the game against Auburn was the last time they will be worn this season.

“Nickleblack Sundays, it’s a real thing,” Mangum said. “Nickleblacks went out in style, they went out with some magic in them.

“The Dawgs are here.”

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Mississippi State is staying in Omaha and hoping for a little more magic. It advances to play Vanderbilt on Tuesday in the winners’ bracket game. The Commodores lead the nation in wins (55, a program record) and came into the CWS as the favorites after winning the SEC regular season and SEC Tournament titles.

The two teams squared off at a similar point in the SEC Tournament and Vanderbilt edged out a 1-0 win. The Bulldogs know they’re now faced with a difficult challenge, but this is all a part of what they came to Omaha for.

A year ago, Mississippi State fell one win short of an improbable trip to the College World Series finals, but it stumbled against Oregon State, the eventual national champion. It was a tough end to a trying season for the Bulldogs, but if anything, it has hardened their edge this season. There is no mistaking what they are playing for.

Mangum, the SEC’s career hits king who on Sunday moved into fourth place all-time in NCAA history, said the Bulldogs will celebrate their latest wild win, but they are far from satisfied yet.

"It was just one of those nights, another one of those magical nights for the Dawgs,” Mangum said. “We didn't come here for the t-shirt, we came here for the trophy, so we’ve got some work to do."

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