A walk-off is the most dominance-asserting move you can pull in baseball.
In one pitch, one hit, one play, you just ended the game and there is not a single thing the other team can do about it. In a sport with no clocks, it’s the equivalent of a buzzer-beater, a last-second Hail Mary, a match won on the very last penalty kick.
Hey, strikeouts or double plays are nice ways to end a game, too. But there’s nothing in baseball like a walk-off. It is, at once, the most soul-crushing and spirit-lifting way a game can possibly end. It is euphoria and elation, or tragedy and defeat, depending which side you’re on.
For the victor, the walk-off is confirmation that you, your team, your fans behind you, all somehow have that magical Stuff, that phantom It that all the greats seem to keep somewhere deep inside their chests, a secret store of confidence and clutch that can be called upon when the stakes are highest and the occasions most momentous.
And Mississippi State is completely used to it.
They’re used to the hits. They’re used to the celebrations. They’re used to the questions from reporters that follow, and even the reporters themselves are used to asking the questions by now.
The Bulldogs have seven walk-off wins this year. In fact, of the seven postseason wins that have them currently in the winner’s bracket of the College World Series, three of them are walk-offs.
It’s absolutely ridiculous. And at this point, it’s absolutely normal.
For eight-and-a-half innings Saturday night, no one scored.
The game turned to the bottom of the ninth at a 0-0 tie, the Washington Huskies and the Mississippi State Bulldogs seemingly ready to take one of the greatest pitching duels Omaha has seen into extra innings. It was the longest a game had gone scoreless at the College World Series since 1985.
But anyone who had been watching MSU in 2018 knew what was coming. It’s what they’ve been doing all year. Just when you think nothing is going to happen, well, things happen.
Senior pitcher Jacob Billingsley, one of the stars of the last two postseasons for his program, has watched all seven walk-offs from the same spot this year: the dugout. Thanks to his position, he’s had a front row seat complete with all the stress that comes with the situation, but without any of the opportunity to actually do something about it.
“Our games are too close for comfort for me right now,” he joked. “I’ve got anxiety through the roof watching our games.”
However, he’s quick to point out, the presence of anxiety does not mean there is a lack of belief. In fact, he was so confident as the bottom of ninth began that he was already planning his celebration for when his team inevitably had its next great moment in a long string of great moments.
But back to the game for a minute. They still had to play it, even if everyone in the third base dugout – as well as thousands of people in the stands wearing maroon and three wearing bananas – knew what was going to happen.
Junior Hunter Stovall was at the plate, which seems to happen to him a lot in these situations. Call it Fate. Call it Coincidence. Or maybe just call it a well-designed batting order.
“Seeing that happen,” Billingsley said, “it’s almost like you expect to have a lead-off knock.”
Here, of course, is where Stovall did, indeed, have a lead-off knock, a single to put a man on base with no outs. It’s important to note that, at the time, the game had not yet technically been won. But Billingsley knew what was coming, anyway.
“You get it and it’s like, yeah, it’s over with,” Billingsley said. “Then, of course, Mac gets a knock right after that.”
That would be the second batter of the inning, junior Elijah MacNamee. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.
So the Bulldogs had runners on first and second with no outs. Perfect situation. And then a bad thing happened because, clearly, perfect situations just aren’t what this team is about. An attempted bunt went up instead of down, an out given to the Huskies without a runner advancing, without an advantage being gained. In a game where opportunity had been so hard to come by, it was the kind of moment that could have deflated an MSU team swelled up with confidence.
“You never lose hope,” Billingsley said, explaining that the thought of losing – or worse, not winning – had never crossed their minds. “I hadn’t even thought about it.”
He was already on to watching the next batter, Luke Alexander, yet another Bulldog that the Gods of Well-Designed Batting Orders have seen fit to bless with opportunities for grandeur.
Billingsley continued: “I was in the dugout thinking already, if we get a knock, they’re sending Stovy no matter where it is, if it gets through the infield. And I’m just thinking, I can’t go jump up and down anymore.”
Yes. In Omaha, at the College World Series, on the biggest stage the sport has to offer, here is a team that is literally so experienced in celebrating it has started to consider the toll it might take on, say, one’s knees, one’s joints, one’s blood pressure.
Which is all well and nice to think in the quiet moments before the loud moment comes, of course. But when reality hits, all thoughts of energy conversation quickly disappear.
Anyway, two on, one out, 0-0 game, regular-wielder of It at the plate.
Then, in two pitches, Alexander was already down 0-2 in the count. Because why on Earth would he ever go ahead and do it on the first pitch? No, not this team’s style. Too easy.
“We’re one of those teams that gets to two strikes and it’s almost like we’re better at putting it into play with two strikes than the first pitch,” Billingsley said.
The outfielders drew in closer to the infield, hoping to avoid a sacrifice fly ending the game. Billingsley stood in the dugout expecting a walk-off. Alexander stood at the plate expecting an outside slider.
And so the outside slider came. The bat leapt out to meet it. The reach was just enough as contact came, the ball cut through the wind, and the missile sailed just over the outstretched glove of the rightfielder desperately and pointlessly sprinting back from his post in shallow right.
Stovall bolted down the basepath, thousands of maroon-clad and three in bananas arose, and when the final moment came, that euphoria-inducing last second passed, Billingsley couldn’t help himself. He jumped.
“Of course I jumped up and down,” he said. “I was jumping up and down in the dugout trying to get up the steps. Everybody’s trying to get up the steps, jumping the fence. It’s almost like we shouldn’t be surprised. I was thinking about it before it even happened, and of course everybody else was. It ended up happening and it’s like, welp, might as well. We’ve done it so many times already.”
The sport’s ultimate style of victory, baseball’s most dramatic possible ending, boiled down to “might as well.” Already done it six times, what’s one more? For a team that didn’t even think it would make the SEC Tournament a few months ago, for a team with five elimination game wins in the postseason, for a team with 20 come-from behind wins, why not keep the drama going?
1-0, Dogs win.
“We’ve been through a lot this year,” Stovall said. “When situations like that come up, we as a team have complete confidence in whoever is at the plate that it’s going to happen just because Coach Henderson has made us be dogs, be grinders. So we get in the box and we have absolutely full confidence that we’re going to get it done.”
“We’re starting to get to a spot where I’m not even worried about the popped up bunt, that kind of moment,” interim head coach Gary Henderson said. “Coaches know that it can take the air out of you or get you sidetracked, you can feel sorry, self-pity, all those things. But we just don’t go there at this point. It makes you feel really good to be with a group of people that are like that.”
“I don’t know,” starting pitcher Ethan Small said with a shake of his head. “I’ve never been on a team like this. We just don’t quit. There’s never anybody who’s like, oh man we might lose. It’s always just, we’re gonna win. It’s very special.”
“It’s just a lot of dogs,” Alexander concluded. “That’s really what it is.”