Sunday morning in the Hattiesburg Regional elimination game, and as it turned into Sunday afternoon, was a nine-inning microcosm of Mississippi State’s season. Highlight plays, eighth-inning scares, weather issues, great pitching, sometimes not-great pitching, last-minute heroics and a win that can hardly be celebrated before attention must be turned to the next one.
The answer to how the Bulldogs won – a question that’s been asked all season with varying degrees of incredulity – is easy enough. In a cliché-ridden season, it’s appropriate that another cliché keeps the season alive. MSU played as a team. They won as a team. Any number of players could be given the credit for defeating UIC, and all would be deserving.
Konnor Pilkington came through when MSU needed him the most, pitching an absolute gem for seven innings before the Flames finally found the ball in the eighth inning. He only gave up four hits in seven innings, throwing 113 pitches and striking out nine, passing 100 strikeouts on the year. He turned the Flames into the flamed.
Hunter Stovall made three game-changing plays with his left hand; the second two coming on back-to-back snags defensively at second base and the first coming at second on the offensive side when he just slipped his left hand away in time to avoid the tag and arrive on base safely. He then used his right foot a few minutes later to step on home and score State’s first run of the game.
One could give Riley Self the credit, coming in late and securing his sixth save of the season, holding onto a one-run lead with the bases loaded behind him. He certainly looked nothing like a freshman pitcher should be expected to appear.
Perhaps Elijah MacNamee deserves the credit for RBI hits in back-to-back innings, knocking in a run each in the fourth and fifth innings to take back and then extend the lead.
And even then, it could have all been for naught if it weren’t for Jake Mangum stealing two bases and racking up three hits in five at-bats. If not for Josh Lovelady showing how a veteran plays catcher when the season is on the line. If not for Cody Brown making a big catch, if not for Ryan Gridley getting a big hit, and certainly if not for Brent Rooker’s RBI double in which he became the first player in SEC history to rack up 20 home runs, 30 doubles and 75 RBI in a single season.
The consistent theme of the 2017 season has been the arrival of the unexpected. No one expected MSU to be this good, to win this many games, to have 20-plus come-from-behind wins. Nobody planned for that when they made their projections, but MSU came through anyway. If the Bulldogs have been raining on everyone’s parade this year, it’s fitting that they kept their season alive on Sunday by scoring the winning runs when the rain was at its heaviest.
Before the game started, head coach Andy Cannizaro’s message to the team was simple: “Play for the guy next to you.”
It wasn’t about one person carrying the rest. It was about all of them carrying each other. Early Sunday, that’s exactly what they did. Another full-team performance to keep the unexpected run going.
“I’m proud of our guys today,” Cannizaro said. “They gave us an outstanding team effort.”
In another four hours or so, weather permitting, they’ll go try it again.