It was news, news, news that Texas A&M had lost, lost, lost. That good word, and Mississippi State’s healthy lead over Arkansas, meant the Bulldogs were just nine outs from celebrating a Southeastern Conference championship, championship, championship.
Mississippi State got the outs, they got the win, and next Wednesday get the trophy. “SEC Champs!” proclaimed 3B Gavin Collins. “Freaking last to first!”
Yes. The 2016 Diamond Dogs have completed a historic—literally—transition never before achieved by a SEC baseball team. After finishing last a year ago, this team ends the regular season on top of the SEC outright. And alone. Their sweep of Arkansas and A&M’s game-three loss to Ole Miss leaves State with the conference crown all to themselves.
The final from College Station arrived in the seventh inning with State leading 6-2 and Arkansas at the bat. There was no p.a. or scoreboard announcement, just all the fans with instant access to scores sharing with their squad.
“A pitch is being thrown and everything just goes crazy,” Mangum said. “Obviously we knew what it was, but I’ve never gotten so freaked-out.”
Coach John Cohen knew, too. He could also enjoy the nice irony. “Maye there’s been a time people of Mississippi State faith were cheering that hard for Ole Miss. But I can’t remember.”
Of course Cohen is one who can remember very well Mississippi State’s last SEC baseball championship. He was a player on the 1989 team which did it with a 20-5 record, which also stood as the most SEC wins in program history.
Until now. By completing a sweep of the Razorbacks, these Dogs ended the regular schedule on a 11-win streak overall and ten-straight SEC victories. That makes them 21-9 and bests A&M, South Carolina, and LSU for the title. And, #1 seeding at next week’s SEC Tournament.
No current State player was born when that ’89 championship was won. They could still appreciate the atmosphere as the ’16 crown became reality.
“Goosebumps,” said freshman Mangum, who also ended the regular season first place in the SEC batting race. “I was freaking out. I saw the whole team celebrating, I’ve never seen Dudy Noble like that. And I’ve been coming to games for years.”
Enough of the crowd remained after the 9-4 final to line the fences as the team made the complete stadium circuit. “We have the best fans in the world,” Collins said. “And they’re a huge part of this as well.”
In the post-game celebrating it was almost overlooked that there had been a game. Or that the Razorbacks (26-29, 7-23) did not roll over for the home team. Arkansas came out swinging and struck first, as Clark Eagan slugged a two-run shot over rightfield in the top of the first inning.
Mississippi State (39-14-1, 21-9) took three innings to catch up and did not go in front until the fifth. But there was no last-day panic.
“They punched first. And no one cared,” Collins said. “We’re going to come back, we’re going to keep punching.”
The Bulldogs did counter-punch. SS Ryan Gridley got State on the scoreboard in the second inning with a RBI-grounder, plating CF Jacob Robson. In the third it was a fly ball by Robson that tied it up as Mangum came home from third base.
Finally in the fifth, the Bulldogs took charge. With some help, which a shaky Arkansas defense had provided in the previous two wins. Razorback freshman righthander Blaine Knight gave the 2-2 tie to lefty Jordan Rodriguez, who only faced three batters. With C Jack Kruger on first base via error and two outs righty Doug Willey took over.
Collins greeted him with a drive to right-centerfield that centerfielder Carson Shaddy ought have played on the bounce. Instead he dove, missed, and Kruger scored on the double. Things then got even worse for the visitors as Robson immediately bunted his way on base and DH Brent Rooker walked to load everything.
LF Reid Humphreys lifted a deep drive that Shaddy got back to the fence on, got in position…and let go off his glove. All three runners scored on the error for the 6-2 lead.
State padded that margin in their seventh. 2B John Holland singled-in Robson, and with two outs Kruger’s base hit scored both Gridley and Holland.
Extra icing made some eight-inning issues easier to shrug off. LHP Daniel Brown was tagged for four hits and a couple of runs and RHP Blake Smith needed Robson to run down a liner to center to stop that bleeding. Smith went the last 1.1 innings with two hits, a walk and three strikeouts.
LHP Konnor Pilkington started for State, lasting 2.1 turns with the two runs on five hits and three strikeouts. Aggressive Arkansas hitters were tough on the freshman and it was RHP Ryan Rigby who had to take charge. He stranded a pair in the UA third with a grounder and strikeout, beginning 4.2 innings of work to get the decision.
“I tried to come in, get to the bottom of the zone, and let my defense do work. Y’all saw that, the defense was great tonight. And the offense was great putting up nine runs.”
Rigby (5-1) allowed a couple of hits but struck out six against no walks. He also got some brilliant defense, especially in the fifth of a 2-2 tie. Gridley made a sparkling bare-hand grab and throw in the same motion for an out, followed by a highlight-caliber catch by Mangum to end the inning.
Arkansas did out-hit the Dogs 13 to 12 but stranded eleven. And State’s offensive pressure created three official errors and other fielding gaffes. For the weekend only nine of the 21 Bulldog runs scored were earned.
Mangum was able to extend his league-lead in batting by going 3-of-5 with a run. Kruger was 3-of-4 with two RBI and a run, and Robson 3-of-4 with a RBI and three runs.
Rigby was on the mound readying to throw when the crowd blew-up around him. He realized quickly why, but… “We’re getting that title. Now, let’s go. We had to finish the game still and get our win.”
They did. Now they have the regular season title few if any thought this club could even contend for, much less complete. Yet with all the immediate celebration, the SEC’s Champions are already looking to the league tournament.
And beyond that, the NCAA Regional they are all-but-officially certain to host. So no, they are not done.
This team is just getting started, Mangum said. “We’ve got a long way to go though. Tomorrow we’ve got to look back and say, next chapter.”
That chapter opens at 4:30 next Wednesday when the #1 seed Bulldogs play the survivor of the Alabama-Kentucky game. The Championship trophy will be presented about 15 minutes prior to game time.
“We’re so ready to play, we just want to know what’s next,” Collins said. “We’re going to keep going.”