23 hours, Six Bus Rides And One Big Win In Omaha

3:30 p.m. Monday, Omaha Doubletree

Mississippi State’s baseball team walks through a tunnel of fans as it loads the bus to head to TD Ameritrade Park for its second game of the College World Series, a winner’s bracket matchup with North Carolina.

3:50 p.m., TD Ameritrade Park

The Bulldogs arrive at the stadium and discover the first game of the day – the loser’s bracket matchup between Oregon State and Washington – is in a rain delay.

4:45 p.m., in transit

After an hour of sitting in a holding room, MSU decides to bus back to the team hotel and wait out the rain delay in comfort.

7:50 p.m., in transit

Still unsure if the weather will cooperate, the team returns to the stadium for batting practice and warm-ups after the NCAA announces play will resume between OSU and UW, with the MSU-UNC game set to begin 65 minutes after its conclusion.

9:15 p.m., in transit

The NCAA announces that MSU’s game will in fact not be played until the following morning at 10 a.m. After a quick chat in the locker room going over the new itinerary, the bus is loaded for the fourth time of the day and the team returns to the Doubletree for the night.

“We came together and we were like, we don’t care when we play,” freshman All-American Tanner Allen says. “If you asked us two weeks ago, do you want to play at six in the morning in Omaha? We’d have been like, heck yes. We really didn’t care.”

6:40 a.m. Tuesday, Omaha Doubletree

The wake-up call comes for MSU players, including a reminder to be at team breakfast by 7 a.m.

7:30 a.m., Omaha Doubletree

As rain falls yet again, MSU loads the bus for the fifth time to play UNC in the College World Series.

“Everybody’s double-fisting coffee,” catcher Dustin Skelton says. “They’re obnoxious. We’re playing music in the back of the bus. I mean, we’re going nuts.”

7:50 a.m., TD Ameritrade Park

Junior outfielder Jake Mangum, iced coffee in one hand and hot coffee in the other, strides across the locker room and yells, “I’m beaned up, baby!”

“Beaned up,” he later says with a laugh. “We were beaned up. Lot of coffee running through our veins.”

9:15 a.m., TD Ameritrade Park

While MSU is taking batting practice in cages underneath the stadium, the NCAA announces another rain delay, this one relatively short, and MSU’s game is rescheduled for a 10:15 a.m. start.

10:00 a.m., TD Ameritrade Park

The stadium PA announces the starting lineups for each team. When Mangum is announced, senior pitcher Zach Neff steps to the top of the dugout, takes off his cap and waves to the crowd.

“Thank you!” he yells as MSU fans applaud.

10:15 a.m., TD Ameritrade Park

Mangum steps to the plate and the game begins.

10:49 a.m., TD Ameritrade Park

With MSU down 1-0 in the top of the second, freshman Jordan Westburg hits a grand slam to put the Bulldogs up 4-1.

“It’s unbelievable,” he says. “It’s a moment every ball player wants to go through, and I was lucky enough to go through that.”

“I gave up one in the first,” starting pitcher Konnor Pilkington says, “then he comes back in the second and says, ‘Hey, I got your back.’”

1:05 p.m., TD Ameritrade Park

Six innings after scoring MSU’s first four runs of the game, Westburg drives in State’s final three by hitting a three-RBI double to put the Bulldogs up 12-2 in the top of the eighth inning. With seven RBI, Westburg ties the College World Series record for RBI in one game.

“A day he and his family are going to remember forever,” interim MSU head coach Gary Henderson says.

1:32 p.m., TD Ameritrade Park

Clocking in at three hours and 17 minutes, the game comes to an end with MSU beating North Carolina 12-2 to advance in the winner’s bracket, one win away from the Championship Series.

“We just knew it was gonna happen,” Westburg says, “the way this season has been going.”

2:17 p.m., TD Ameritrade Park

For the sixth and final time for this game, MSU loads the team bus, victory in hand, the coffee long since dispensed and consumed.

2:30 p.m., Omaha Doubletree

23 hours after they walked out of a cheering crowd to leave for their second game in Omaha, the Bulldogs walk back into another cheering crowd after finally finishing that second game in Omaha.

——————————-

At this point, after all these hours, after nearly a month on the road between the SEC Tournament, the Tallahassee Regional, the Nashville Super Regional and the early arrival to the College World Series last Wednesday, MSU should be absolutely, completely and totally exhausted.

“We’re not,” Mangum said. “We’re not exhausted. We’re one win away from the Championship Series, and we get two off days before that.”

It must be like he said: the Bulldogs are beaned up. They’ve got their rally banana. They’re dancing to the Yodel Kid Remix. They’re pretending to be each other in team introductions.

“It’s just a bunch of rednecks having fun and playing ball,” Pilkington said.

But beneath that fun, they’re also playing with tremendous energy, with contagious passion and with apparently-unending grit.

It takes a special team, a special person, to go from making phone calls on a banana in the dugout to hitting grand slams in the College World Series in a matter of seconds.

“You’ve gotta be able to do those things,” Henderson said of the shenanigans his team gets into in the dugout, “then you’ve gotta be able to become someone else inside the box.”

And it takes a special team to follow what amounted to a 16-hour and 15-minute delay with beating a national seed by 10 runs, showing no signs of weariness for all the energy needlessly spent.

“Coach Henderson always tells us we’re going to handle everything like men, not boys,” Allen said. “Coming back and forth to the park yesterday got pretty tiring, but we were able to handle it with maturity, get in our rooms, get some rest and get ready to play this morning, and it showed.”

“I just think it’s the environment,” Skelton added. “That’s what you grew up as a little kid dreaming about. You dreamed about coming to the College World Series and playing in front of 25,000 people. You just have to go out there and you’ve got to compete. It’s all mental. Who cares how you feel? You’ve got to go out there and put it all on the line for your brothers.”

If the game is, indeed, all mental, then that may be a good sign for these Bulldogs who had every reason to doubt that they would be here and every reason to give up in the process. The hurdles they’ve faced have been well-documented, a team that was once just one loss away from not even making a Regional and is now one win away from the Championship Series.

At a school that has never won a National Championship in any team sport, this team is nearing uncharted waters. But when it comes to sink-or-swim, it’s hard to pick against the group that has 20 come-from-behind wins, six dramatic walk-offs, and one incredible story.

“The mind is a powerful thing,” Mangum said. “You can tell yourself to do anything. I’m a strong believer in the law of attraction. If you believe something is going to happen – hard enough – it’ll happen.”

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