Battling Dogs Back, Back Home in Omaha

Coming into the season, into the postseason, and into this past weekend, very few would have predicted they'd be one of the last eight teams standing. But here are the Mississippi State Bulldogs, back where they belong, in the College World Series.

MSU entered the season picked to finish last in the SEC. Not just last in the SEC West, but last in the entire league.

But spearheaded by one of the hottest hitting teams in the country, the Dogs sprinted out to a 25-8 start, and were in the heart of the SEC title race at the midpoint of the conference season.

But, an injury to infielder Brandon Turner, along with several starters tailing off in offensive production, MSU stumbled down the stretch, losing four of their last five SEC series and going 0-2 in the SEC Tournament. After playing out of their heads for a couple of months, it appeared that the Dogs were finally playing 'down' to expectations.

Even so, they still finished fourth in the SEC, and had a chance to win the West in the final weekend. Those facts, however, were lost in a struggle that sent them stumbling into the postseason.

But it's not as if they were playing that poorly even in the final 2-8 stretch. Ten of their last twelve losses, including all of their final eight, were by one or two runs. That was an area where the Bulldogs had excelled in their hot start, going 14-3 in such games. But, not having an on-base machine like Turner in the lineup and not getting the same production from guys like Connor Powers or Joseph McCaskill hurt MSU's chances in close games.

But, Turner returned to full strength just in time for the postseason, and MSU put the late struggles behind them, sweeping through the Tallahassee Regional in order to book their super regional meeting with the Tigers.

The teams faced off last season in the postseason in the Clemson Regional, when the Tigers were the #1 overall seed, and MSU, after an 18-0 start, had fallen back into a #3 seed, fortunate to get into the regionals. In their meeting in the championship game, the Bulldogs couldn't hold a 5-4 lead after six, and the Tigers eventually won 8-6 to capture the regional crown on the way to Omaha.

But there are significant differences between each team from last year to this year. The Tigers do still have the big bats of Marquez Smith, Andy D'Alessio, and Taylor Harbin, but they lost three important pieces - their entire starting rotation from last year. Stephen Faris (9-3), Josh Cribb (9-0), and Jason Berken (9-3) combined to go 27-6 for the Tigers, and that was a big reason why they made it to Omaha. This year's rotation didn't put up near the same kind of numbers, and the offense took awhile to come around as well.

But, there's a reason why Clemson got to where they are, and why it might have seemed reasonable for the experts to pencil them in. They were a preseason national title contender, and were expected to be at this point. They had a shaky regular season, but rose to the occasion at the right time, blasting through the Myrtle Beach Regional. Jack Leggett-coached teams are prepared when it comes to postseason time, which is why the Tigers have been to Omaha five times and have come close four other times in his 14 seasons at the helm.

But, speaking of rising to the occasion, that's something that's different about this year's Mississippi State ball club. They seem to have the attitude and chemistry that even last year's team, a team that started 18-0 and rose to #1, didn't have.

That's what brought the team through that struggle, and kept them going with a positive attitude despite all of the close losses. That's what catapulted them over two of the top teams in the nation, and allowed them to stake their claim as one of the best themselves.

You could see that attitude in plain view this past weekend. Friday, when the Dogs got down 2-0 and 5-2, they came right back at the Tigers. It didn't matter if the guy on the hill was one of the top talents in the country. Freshman Connor Powers, who'd lost his starting spot late in the season after an offensive and defensive slump, deposited a bomb over the wall in right center to tie it up at 2. Then, in the fifth, after Clemson had come right back with three runs, MSU rallied again.

Some people are made for these kinds of times, and it looks like Mitch Moreland is one of them. Moreland tied the game at 5 with a two-run shot in the fifth, a ball that seemed to will itself through the wind and over the wall.

And Saturday, the same thing happened. Clemson may have taken that lead in the bottom of the first, but it was clear that nothing would deny MSU on this day. The Tigers did what anyone would have expected them to, cutting the lead to one in the bottom of the fourth, but the Dogs got those runs right back, and that may well have taken most of the wind out of Clemson's sails.

Justin Pigott didn't have a dominating performance like he did last weekend against Florida State, but he put in the performance he needed. In the first and fourth, he made the right pitches at the right time to thwart Clemson opportunities, and in the fifth, he got some help from the defense, when Taylor Harbin, attempting to score on a hit by Doug Hogan, was thrown out at home by Brian LaNinfa.

And then, after Pigott exited after his six gutsy, Pigott-like innings, Ricky Bowen, Aaron Weatherford and Moreland followed suit. Weatherford entered in place of Bowen with runners on first and second with one out in the seventh, and promptly retired Harbin and Hogan, which was the only time the Tigers' catcher made an out during the game.

Then, in the ninth, Moreland, who also had two doubles, came in during a similar situation, and had to face Clemson's most dangerous hitter, D'Alessio, right off the bat. He retired him on a harmless fly ball, and then down went Harbin on strikes to set off a celebration that hasn't been seen in Dudy Noble since a Sunday night in May seven years ago.

There are times when heart and unwavering desire trumps talent, and this was one of them.

It's been nine years since MSU last went to Omaha. That year's team had guys like Richard Lee, Brad Freeman, Travis Chapman, Chris Reinike, Barry Patton, Matt Ginter, Brooks Bryan, and so many others, guys that just had 'it.'

This year's MSU team is a lot like that one. That 1998 postseason was a pretty unforgettable one. That year, as the #4 seed, the Dogs went 5-1 in the College Station Regional, capping it off with an 11-5 victory over the host Aggies. The clinching victory was no doubt the most important, but the most memorable victory was the come-from-behind win against Rice, where the Dogs battled back from a 13-2 deficit to beat the #1 seeded Owls 15-14 in an elimination game. The defining inning of that game was a 10-run sixth inning that brought the Dogs from being behind 13-5 to ahead 15-13.

That win was followed by a heart-stopping 10-9 victory over A&M, where the home team had the tying run on third with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

And then, the next night, Texas A&M scored five runs in the first two innings, and chased Jeremy Jackson. MSU tied things up in the second, took the lead in the third, and from there, tacked four more on the board and held the Aggies scoreless the rest of the way to book their last Omaha trip until now. And, just like Justin Pigott did Saturday, just like John Lalor did Friday, it was Chris Reinike then, who pitched 6.2 scoreless innings and struck out eight, including the final hitter in the ninth (as an aside, that guy, Daylan Holt, went on to hit 30+ homers the next year).

That was when you had that unrelenting feeling that MSU was in it, no matter what the score was, no matter what the circumstances were. That was when you had a laundry list of guys who could come up big at any time, not just a few stars who dominated the headlines.

That was also when MSU postseason games meant packed stands and record crowds of people cheering the Bulldogs on the road to Omaha.

It looks like those times are back again. Even when things got a little dicey at periods during both games, the feeling was there.

And, as for the crowds, even with an 11:00 start date both days, fans packed the Dude, setting a record on Friday then breaking it again the next day.

And all season long, it's been one guy after another, coming up with the big hits, the big pitches, the big defensive plays. Here's to redshirt freshman Russ Sneed, who started in the first game of the year but made only one other start before being inserted into the lineup in the second game of the Alabama series. And, he's shown his worth, coming up with big hits in Tallahassee and again this weekend.

Here's to Jeffrey Rea, who gave up a spot he'd started for all but a few games of his collegiate career, for the good of the team, which should be applauded, in a day when too many think that there actually is an 'I' in the word 'team.' Here's to a guy that will be remembered for more than a hits record. He came back for his last year for something like this, and if there's anyone who deserves it, it's him.

Here's to Pigott, who may not light up radar guns or impress people with flashy talent, but has always come up big when called upon.

Here's to John Lalor, who had a tough sophomore season, and had a couple of rough outings this year, but has combined with Weatherford, Moreland, and Bowen to be part of a bullpen that has been absolutely stellar down the stretch, even when the team was struggling.

Here's to Ed Easley, who's been arguably the nation's top catcher this season, and likely has only a few more games left in his Bulldog career before he heads to the professional ranks.

Here's to everyone else who's had a hand, from Turner, to LaNinfa, to Powers, to McCaskill, Jet Butler, and Josh Johnson, who pitched effectively to get the regional-clinching win against FSU, shaking off an early FSU home run to pitch six big innings. And even Mark Goforth, Jeff Flagg, and Andy Rice, names who haven't been in the lineup much as of late, but have each had big hits at some point during the season. And, to everyone else I haven't mentioned, kudos to you for being a part of a team, a real 'team' that has 'it.'

And here's to the coaching staff, who's done an excellent job this season. Maybe some people were giving Russ McNickle flack while the pitching staff was struggling, but he deserves nothing but praise. And Tommy Raffo, who tutored one of the deepest hitting teams in the country. And, of course, there's the head man, #1, Ron Polk, who the game hasn't passed by.

And here's to the fans, who are just as much a part of the success as the guys on the field, because the support from the people in the stands and the people following from their homes or the internet have helped push these guys to Omaha.

And, even though MSU's current winning streak is at a modest five games, those five wins are the biggest of the season.

This magical run is extended for at least two more games. But, with the way this team is playing right now, it could be extended for another four or five.

And, if it does, while it might surprise some people, at this point, it won't surprise anyone affiliated with the maroon and white.

If it does, you need to get out from under that rock that you've been under until now, 'cause you've been missing something truly special.

Isn't it good to be back home?


Eddie Griffin, a freelance writer who does monthly opinion columns for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, can be reached at emg03e@gmail.com.

Gene's Page Top Stories