The whole story: How Mississippi State baseball navigated hardest year for College World Series title
OMAHA, Neb. — Mississippi State baseball's national championship story didn't begin with a 9-0 win over Vanderbilt in the College World Series on Wednesday. That was merely the pinnacle.
It's hard to tell the story of this championship team without starting in March 2020. Mississippi State was 12-4 and coming off back-to-back wins over No. 2 Texas Tech when the remainder of the season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Right when we hit our stride," tweeted outfielder Tanner Allen on March 12 as the world began to process the life-changing scope of the pandemic. "Completely devastated by this news."
College baseball wasn't guaranteed to happen in 2021. Not in the way fans were accustomed to, at least. Conferences discussed playing league-only schedules like the ACC or scheduling four-game weekend series instead of the customary three like Conference USA.
Certainty solidified in February as Mississippi State entered its season ranked in the preseason top 10.
"People ask me all the time, 'Coach, you all look like you all are pretty good.' And I can't lie, I think we have a pretty good team," Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis said in February. "Unfortunately, I think everybody because of (the pandemic) has a really good team."
Nature wasn't done giving Mississippi State a hard time. The Bulldogs were scheduled to begin the season Feb. 19 in Arlington in a three-game showcase against Texas, Texas Tech and TCU. That showcase was postponed a day because of destructive winter storms that shut down roads in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Mississippi State had to fly to Texas with archrival Ole Miss to its their season a day late. But once the season finally began, Mississippi State impressed. Despite playing without two of its three projected weekend starters, Mississippi State went 2-1 against three top-10 teams, riding some clutch hitting and a breakout performance from freshman reliever Landon Sims.
"Coming here with all our guys healthy and going two out of three against this field, I (would be) happy with," Lemonis said after the tournament. "I like the way we played. We didn't play perfect. We have a lot of room to improve. But we played tough. Our guys stayed engaged, they stayed in the moment and they played hard."
Mississippi State's nonconference schedule continued with more drama than anticipated. The Bulldogs needed a sixth-run ninth punctuated by a walk-off grand slam to avoid losing a series against Tulane. They needed a walk-off single from Allen the next day to win the series against Tulane.
Then the pitching dominance set in. On March 7, freshman Jackson Fristoe threw the first six innings of a combined no-hitter in a 13-0 win over Kent State. That started a stretch of 39 consecutive scoreless innings from Mississippi State's pitchers. In that scoreless streak, they struck out 65.
"It's awesome," starting pitcher Christian MacLeod said. "Arm after arm everyone is going out there throwing strikes and doing their job, competing. ... It's been fun to watch."
Mississippi State entered SEC play with a 14-3 record and on a seven-game winning streak. The Bulldogs stayed hot to start league play, taking two of three games at LSU. Then Mississippi State ran into a buzzsaw, getting swept at home by Arkansas, allowing eight home runs in three games.
"We kind of got woke up this weekend," Allen said after the Arkansas series. "In a way, this is going to sound weird, it was kind of a good thing, us getting embarrassed at home. We've been told how great we are. A lot of times that can be your problem. We kind of got exposed this weekend."
Allen ended up being right. Mississippi State won nine in a row after the Arkansas sweep, including sweeps against Kentucky and Auburn. Allen was unstoppable in the win streak, batting .423 with three doubles, two triples, two home runs, 11 RBIs and nine runs.
Mississippi State won five out of six SEC series after the Arkansas sweep. The one series loss came at Vanderbilt.
The Bulldogs did have a home series loss vs. Missouri but ended the regular season with a sweep of Alabama. By that point, Sims was cementing his All-America status with a 0.49 ERA with 73 strikeouts in 36 innings. Allen, too, was letting his star shine. The senior ended the regular season batting .387 with 53 RBIs.
Sophomore pitcher Will Bednar was also asserting himself as one of the nation's best. He ended the regular season with a 2.90 ERA, and his 97 strikeouts helped lead a pitching staff that would go on to break college baseball records for strikeouts in a season and most strikeouts per nine innings.
Mississippi State's worst week came at the SEC Tournament. The Bulldogs lost 13-1 to Florida and 12-2 to Tennessee, both via mercy rule. But those losses didn't tank the season. Behind a 20-10 SEC record and 14 wins over NCAA Tournament teams, Mississippi State earned the No. 7 national seed, hosting VCU, Campbell and Samford in the Starkville Regional.
"Our kids deserve this," Lemonis said. "They've had a great year. They went on the road and played great teams. They played a great nonconference schedule. They played a great SEC schedule. And they're ready to play in front of their own fans."
The Starkville Regional was a rout. The Bulldogs beat Samford 8-4, beat VCU 16-4 and snuck by Campbell 6-5 to advance to a super regional series against No. 10 Notre Dame.
Beating Notre Dame proved tougher. Mississippi State had to come back from a 7-3 deficit in Game 1 to win 9-8, thanks in large part to four errors. One day later, the Fighting Irish blasted the Bulldogs 9-1, setting up a winner-take-all Game 3.
Mississippi State didn't leave any doubt in that one, scoring six runs in the second to take a 7-1 lead and win 11-7, earning the Bulldogs their 12th College World Series berth.
"When we spoke about it in our office (Monday), like, 'There was no way Tanner and Rowdey (Jordan) are going out with an 'L' in this ballpark,' " Lemonis said. "I like the odds with them on our team playing for what we were playing for."
In the College World Series. Mississippi State drew a loaded bracket with No. 2 Texas, No. 3 Tennessee and Virginia, all of which ranked among the top 15 teams in the country in ERA.
But Mississippi State showed its own pitching prowess. Bednar struck out 15 and Sims struck out six in a 2-1 win over Texas. The 21 combined strikeouts set a College World Series single-game record.
The next game tested Mississippi State a little more. Virginia's Griff McGarry carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning. But Mississippi State pounced, turning a 4-0 deficit into a 6-4 lead behind two home runs, including a go-ahead three-run blast from Allen. Mississippi State won 6-5.
Texas beat Mississippi State in a rematch, setting up a third meeting for a spot in the finals. Pitching dominated again but the unlikeliest of heroes came through for Mississippi State. Reserve infielder Tanner Leggett roped a walk-off single into center field to score pinch-runner Brayland Skinner.
"Some people get nervous in those situations," Leggett said. "I was praying for it."
Waiting on the other side of the bracket was Vanderbilt. The defending-champion Commodores advanced to the best-of-three series on the NCAA's decision to eliminate NC State because of an outbreak of COVID-19 cases.
Vanderbilt wasn't just a team that beat Mississippi State in the 2021 regular season. These teams had history. Vanderbilt beat Mississippi State in the 2019 College World Series. Mississippi State beat Vanderbilt on its home turf to advance to the 2018 College World Series.
The Commodores came out strong in Game 1. Projected top-five MLB Draft pick Jack Leiter shut down Mississippi State and the Commodores jumped all over MacLeod to build a 7-1 first-inning lead and win 8-2, putting Vanderbilt one win away from its third national title.
That wasn't enough to discourage the 'Dogs. Mississippi State fired back with a 13-2 win Tuesday to force Wednesday's winner-take-all final, full well knowing Bednar and Sims would be available to face Vanderbilt's own ace, Kumar Rocker, who entered the final with a 6-0 career postseason record.
Rocker didn't have his best stuff, allowing five runs on six hits and two walks in 4⅓ innings. Bednar and Sims did. Bednar didn't allow a hit in six innings; Sims only allowed one hit in three innings. Behind home runs from Logan Tanner and Kellum Clark and five combined hits from senior leaders Jordan and Allen, Mississippi State cruised to a 9-0 win and its first College World Series championship.
"I mean, that's the best feeling I've ever had in my life," Sims said. "It still hasn't completely set in that we're national champions."
Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.