136 seasons. 11 SEC titles. 13 appearances in Omaha. And yet, Mississippi State still had never felt the rush of emotion after winning a national title.
Until Wednesday night.
In a one-sided game three, the Bulldogs put to rest all doubt of their capability, crushing Vanderbilt, the defending national champion, 9-0, as they captured not only the first NCAA championship in program history, but the first team national title in the history of Mississippi State athletics.
“We knew going into this game that we had the opportunity to do something that had never been done,” Mississippi State right fielder Tanner Allen said postgame. “We just came together, played with each other and left it all on the field and let God take over.”
Mississippi State head coach Chris Lemonis had a handful of reliable arms revving to go in the bullpen throughout Wednesday’s contest. But he had no reason to call upon them until the seventh inning, as starter Will Bednar was nothing short of spectacular.
Bednar, voted as the Most Outstanding Player of the CWS, saved the best of last. In his final start of the season, of his collegiate career, the sophomore, who had allowed at least two earned runs in four of his last five starts, held the mighty Commodores hitless through six innings. He walked just three, and struck out four.
“I kind of just treated it like it was any other outing, to be honest with you,” Bednar said. “[To win the] MVP was unreal. I didn't really expect it. That was just a surreal feeling to get that.”
When Bednar’s day finished, Landon Sims was right there to keep the no-hitter intact for another inning, and completed the game with three near-perfect innings of work. He allowed Vanderbilt’s lone hit of the day in the eighth with one out, and walked just one batter.
The Mississippi State bats fed off the success on the mound, as the Bulldogs tallied 12 hits, racing out to a 3-0 lead by the second inning. Vanderbilt had no answer, and the eventual national champs pulled away with a two-run fifth and four-run seventh.
Leading 5-0 in the seventh Logan Tanner connected on a solo homer with one out and Kellum Clark joined in on the fun following a single and a walk with a three-run blast of his own to nearly seal the historic win.
As the Bulldogs, relentless by nature, found success in all facets of the game, Vanderbilt quickly lost any of the momentum it might have retained in the late innings. In the eighth, Commodores right fielder Isaiah Thomas let a routine outfield single bounce under his glove, as he committed Vanderbilt’s third error of the day and Luke Hancock advanced to second on the play.
Wednesday’s victory was a continuation of the Bulldogs’ 13-2 rout of Vanderbilt in game two Tuesday in many ways, as Mississippi State kept the accelerator on full throttle with 14 hits and scored in six of the eight innings in which it hit.
Rowdey Jordan, who had six at-bats in both victories, fared much better at the plate on Wednesday, following a 1-for-6 day with a 3-for-6 performance in what was likely his final collegiate game. Tanner Allen, who hit just behind Jordan in the second spot of the lineup in both contests, went 2-for-4 and 2-for-5 in the final two games of the season.
But as dominant as Mississippi State was in the final two games of the best-of-three final, the Bulldogs struggled majorly against the pitching of Vanderbilt’s Jack Leiter on Monday, as they fell 8-2.
Though each team had five hits on Monday, Vanderbilt maximized its opportunities. The Commodores had just two extra-base hits; a home run from Jayson Gonzalez and a double from Thomas, but also drew five walks. Excellent two-strike hitting was also demonstrated by the defending national champs, as seven of their eight runs were scored on two-strike counts.
For the most part, game one was over before the second inning even began. A 61-minute weather delay only added to the anticipation of what looked to be, on paper, an evenly-matched series. But after Mississippi State’s Kamren James swatted a solo homer in the third at-bat of the game, the Commodores entered the bottom half of the frame ready to one-up the Bulldogs.
And they did.
A seven-run first inning soon followed, as 10 batters stepped to the plate and Mississippi State starter Christian MacLeod made it through just eight batters and recorded just two outs.
That made Mississippi State’s performance on Tuesday all the more surprising. But really, it should not have come as a shock. Rising to the occasion in the big moments, coming off a frustrating loss, is something Lemonis’ squad has done all year. The sweep by Arkansas in Starkville. The two losses to Vanderbilt in late April. A quick exit at the SEC Tournament. And yet, in the words of Allen, Mississippi State “overcame everything.”
“From getting swept at home in front of 10,000 vs Arkansas, to Missouri coming in and taking a series from us and then getting embarrassed at the SEC Tournament, we just kept playing. And now we’re national champions.”
Having a “loose” and “relaxed” mentality was critical to Mississippi State’s success throughout the season according to Lemonis as the Bulldogs fought through a rigorous schedule that featured three Big 12 opponents to open the season, and an SEC slate that featured zero easy weekends.
That mindset traveled with the Bulldogs to Omaha and right into gameday on Wednesday.
“Our kids played as free as you could be on the biggest stage,” Lemonis said. “[I’m] so proud of them.
“They’re always super loose. It was like that today in BP. They’re bouncing around the cage, trying to hit oppo jacks and laughing. I think that’s one thing that keeps us playing the way we do.”
Reaching this point for Mississippi State was a goal, a dream, a vision for many who spent time in and around the program for the past several years leading up to this season. In 2019, Jake Mangum, fighting back tears after being eliminated in Omaha, told the world that it would be Lemonis who would soon guide the Bulldogs to a national title. And Mangum’s prediction came true.
“Jake Mangum, he’s a big part of this,” Lemonis said. “Almost every player who put on the maroon and white, has a piece of this trophy tonight because it’s been built over years. Like I said earlier, Coach [Ron] Polk built this many years ago, and fortunately we were able to capitalize on it tonight.”
Playing in a game with such a high amount of pressure, with the nation looking on, and seeking to make history, Mississippi State performed with relative ease.
“Tonight didn’t bother them,” Lemonis siad. “They enjoy playing in the biggest moments.”