In 2018 Mississippi State’s baseball team had one of, if not the most, interesting and exciting seasons in all of sports history. I meant to get this piece out before the baseball season to build up some hype.
Imagine this: A college baseball team from a small town in Mississippi, which many people gave up on half way through the season, is playing a game against Oregon State in Omaha, Nebraska with a chance to play for a National Championship. Fans wearing maroon and white have flooded the stadium and are ecstatic. Most of those fans have bananas with them, and some are wearing banana costumes. Nobody in the stadium questions the bananas. This is the story of a team that seemed to have no hope, but they didn’t stop believing. This story is truly bananas.
Before the season started the Diamond Dawgs had reasonable hype for the 2018 season. They were ranked #23 in the Baseball America pre-season rankings. They seemed to have found a young, new, and outstanding coach in Andy Cannizaro. Everything was going for this baseball team to have an amazing season.
The season started with a weekend series in Hattiesburg, Mississippi against the in-state rival, Southern Miss. USM was ranked #21 in the Baseball America poll.
In the first game, State was shut out 0-11. Southern Miss looks pretty good, but State should easily refocus and comeback to win this series. This MSU team is supposed to have an amazing year, tons of experts and analysts had them playing in The College World Series. If they lose the first series of the season against Southern Miss, things would not be pretty this season. The bulldogs lost 4-7 in the Saturday game. The players surely want to win at least one game and leave with some pride. State went on to lose 2-5. This must be a fluke.
On Monday, February 20th 2018 news broke over twitter that Head Coach Andy Cannizaro would be resigning, just over 24 hours after being swept in the season opener. All kinds of rumors started to swirl over the reasoning behind his resignation, but on the next day it would all be revealed.
On Tuesday morning it was officially announced by the University that they were parting ways with Cannizaro. It was confirmed that he had violated a morality clause in his contract by having inappropriate relations with a female staff member of the football team. Pitching Coach Gary Henderson was named the interim coach for the rest of the season.
This was awful for State. Nothing was looking to be in their favor for the remainder of the fresh season. But the bulldogs never gave up hope.
The Dawgs would play in Corpus Christi, Texas for Gary Henderson’s first weekend as Head Coach.They would win 2 of the 3 games. MSU swould also lose a midweek game to McNeese State.
This is where most fans gave up on this team, but this team never gave up on themselves.
State would enter Minute Maid Park the following weekend for the Shriner’s College Classic with a 3-5 record. MSU would go on to win all three games that weekend including a 12 inning game against Houston. They now had a winning record at 6-5.
Next up for the Diamond Dawgs was an 8 day stretch where they were set to play 6 games. They would go to win 4 of the 6, including wins over New Mexico State and Utah Valley. The dawgs would have a 10-7 record going into SEC play.
The first series of SEC play was at home against Vanderbilt. The commodores skunked the bulldogs in the first 2 games and again beat the dogs in a close third game. This looked awful at the time. They were winless in the SEC after the first weekend of conference ball.
Next up were two quick marks in the win column for State in midweek games. The dawgs would have to travel to Columbia, Missouri for this weekend’s SEC series.
The dawgs would drop the first game 1-4. The second game of the series was a bright spot for this team. At the top of the 9th inning the Dawgs were down 1-0. Jordan Westburg would hit a single to rightfield, which would drive in a run by Hunter Stovall. Remember Jordan Westburg’s name. He will create a significant piece of what made this season so special later in the year. Nothing would happen for six more innings until Hunter Stovall would hit a 2 RBI single to put the Dawgs up 3-1 in the 15th inning. Mizzou would not score and State would win that game. Another game with free innings of baseball would be played on Sunday, however MSU would lose 4-5. They would leave Columbia with a 1-5 record in conference play.
State would lose an away midweek game at Nicholls State 4-7 on their way to Baton Rouge for the next weekend of SEC play. The bulldogs would win one game against LSU, but would not win the series. The Bulldogs would win a midweek game in preparation for a huge series with their bitter instate rival, Ole Miss.
It would be an uphill battle from here if they wanted to even be considered for playing in the postseason. Every game counted.
Ole Miss was the third ranked team in the entire nation when the rolled into Starkville. The first two games of the series would be a double header that was played on Saturday. The first game was a blowout win for Mississippi State, 13-3. This was great for the team and it gave the fans something to get excited about. Ole miss would go on to beat MSU 6-1 in the second game of the double header. The series would come down to the final game on Sunday. After the 8th inning the Diamond Dawgs were up 4-3, however that wouldn’t last as the Rebels would drive in 2 runs in the top of the 9th to give them the advantage. The Dawgs had half of an inning to score one or more runs or else they would have a disappointing series loss to their most hated rival. With one out, Tanner Poole would hit a double to put him into scoring position. Next up was Jake Mangum, who hit a single to send Poole in for the tying run. The game would go on into extra innings. In the bottom of the 11th inning, with 2 outs, Jake Mangum would get on base. Luke Alexander was next up and he hit a BOMB to walk-off the game. The Dawgs had beaten the 3rd best team in the country.
The next 5 games were dry for State, as they would only win 2 of them. They played a series against Auburn, where they would only win 1 game. The Dawgs would return to Starkville the following weekend to play #3 Arkansas for Super Bulldog Weekend.
The Bulldogs seemed to be in control for pretty much the entire series, as they swept Arkansas. This was the second time in 3 weeks that they beat the 3rd ranked team in the overall series. This proved that State was not dead and was still fighting to keep the season alive. This is where many people started to pay attention to the team again and was regarded as a turning point for the season. There was new life to the team, the fans, and the season.
Next up was the Governor’s cup against Ole Miss.
The score was 6-5 with Ole Miss in the lead at the bottom of the ninth with the bulldogs up to bat. With runners on first and second, Luke Alexander was ready to hit. He had been a similar position the previous time his team played Ole Miss. Alexander nailed a fastball to right field for a walk off double that ran in 2 players. These Dawgs had beaten a top ten team once more.
If the Dawgs were lucky, they could sneak into the post season.
A weekend series with Texas A&M was up next and things did not go favorably for the Dawgs. Aside from an 11-6 Saturday night win, there was not much to write home about.
Next up was an away series in Tuscaloosa. A combined 6 RBI from the freshmen Tanner Allen and Rowdey Jordan lead the bulldogs to 14-12 win in 10 innings for the first game of the series. The following game would be another extra inning contest as MSU lost 3-4 in 10 innings. It would come down to the Sunday game. In the final match the Crimson Tide would lead for half the game but the bats woke up for State as they took control and won 6-4 and took home the series.
Now the team would head to Lexington, Kentucky to face a top 20 Wildcat team.
State dropped the first two games of the series, but won the third one 18-8. The Dawgs were able to leave with a little confidence with one more week of the regular season.
Mississippi State had a 29-24 overall record and was 13-15 in the SEC. A win of this weekend’s series and a decent showing at the SEC tournament should put the Dawgs in the postseason, however there was one problem: The opponent for this weekend was the number one ranked Florida Gators.
Things were not looking too good in the first game as Florida lead 3-0 at the bottom of the 7th. Thanks to an Elijah Macnamee homer, the Dawgs would put two runs on the board. In the 8th inning a Jake Mangum triple and a Tanner Allen Homerun would bring in 4 runs for State as they won the first game of the series 6-3. These Bulldogs have a shot at winning this series. MSU would control pretty much the entire game as they beat Florida again in the second game by a score of 12-4. The same story could be said for the final game of the series as MSU won 13-6. They had swept the best team in the country and the games weren’t even close. Keep in mind, everything that has happened this season was under an interim head coach. They would close out the regular season with a record of 31-25.
The next stop for this team was the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama. This was a brief visit as the Bulldogs entered as a 9 seed and lost to LSU 5-8.
The Diamond Dawgs were selected to play in the Tallahassee regional as a 2 seed. The other teams in their region were Florida State, Oklahoma, and Samford. Their first game was against Oklahoma.
The bulldogs had a 10-7 lead until OU went OFF in the top of the 7th. State would eventually lose that game 10-20. The bulldogs had their backs against the wall now. Any sort of loss would end their entire season. They worked so hard to get here, they cannot let it all go to waste. The first team on their hit list: Florida State.
Florida State, who was hosting this regional, lost their opening game to Samford. Both teams had their entire season on the line. With Florida State up 2-0 going into the 9th MSU fans were praying for a miracle. And let’s just say that their prayers were answered.
First up was Jake Mangum who had a full count, but was eventually walked. Next up was a quick pop up by Rowdey Jordan and a strikeout by Tanner Allen. The Seminoles were one out away from ending the bulldog’s miracle of a season. Hunter Stovall was next up, and he got walked. Up to bat was Elijah MacNamee. With a 1-2 count, MacNamee took a step back from the plate, pounded his chest and traced with his bat the foul lines. He was ready for the next pitch. If this were a strike then the whole season was over. There were so many ways this pitch could go that would end the entire baseball season for Mississippi State. The pitch comes, MacNamee makes contact and sends the ball over the left field wall for a walk off 3 RBI homerun. The bulldogs never stop believing.
This was a great win, but MSU still had unfinished business in Tallahassee. In the next game, the bulldogs were able to hold off a late comeback push by Samford by winning 9-8. The next team they had to face was the Oklahoma team that scored 20 runs on them just a few days prior. In order to advance to the super regional State had to beat OU twice. If OU beat State once, then OU advances. The backs were against the wall.
In the first game the bulldogs were leading pretty much the entire time and ended up with a very nice 13-5 victory. This game had one key moment that would change the rest of the season. During the second inning the camera showed Jordan Westburg with a banana on his head. Right after that, the bulldogs got rolling and easily won the game. This was the start of “The Rally Banana”
State would play one more game to decide who goes to the super regional against Vanderbilt. It was win or go home for both teams now.
Things did not look so good after a quick run by Oklahoma in the second inning. But as you have figured out by now, Don’t Stop Believing. The bulldogs picked up momentum in the 4th and pulled out a sweet 8-1 win that would send them to Nashville the following weekend for a chance to play in the College World Series.
The bulldogs rolled into Nashville excited to play in their 3rd straight super regional. The previous two years were not very successful in the super regional as they never won a game. That was about to change. Thanks to an Elijah MacNamee homerun and some RBI singles the bulldogs were tied with the Commodores midway through the 9th. The game was coming down to the wire, but no need to fear Rally Banana was here. The players and fans all had bananas, they played with them, acted like they were guns, wore them as hats, there were even people dressed as bananas in that crowd. The Dawgs needed someone that was clutch to win this game for them. Well guess who was up to bat with the game on the line. With 2 strikes and a runner on base, Elijah MacNamee hit a bomb to left field give MSU another walk-off win.
The next game of the series had an almost identical outcome, however in a bad way for the bulldogs. They would lose 2-3 due to a Vanderbilt walk-off homerun. The game on Sunday would determine everything. Win or go home. Backs against the wall. The diamond dawgs were very familiar with the situation and they thrived in it.
This last game was a doozy. Rain delays, homeruns, bananas, errors, and extra innings made this one of the most nerve racking baseball games of the whole year. It was back and forth for the entire game. The game was tied 3-3 going into the 9th inning. The bulldogs picked up momentum and scored 3 runs in the top of the inning. They were just 3 outs away from going back to Omaha for the first time since 2013. They were going to Omaha! Well, in the words of the great Lee Corso: “Not so fast!” The Vandy Boys came roaring back with their season on the line and hit 2 homeruns to tie the game up. MSU was able to get out of the inning without giving up any more runs, which brought on the extra innings. Nothing would happen in the 10th inning, so we got another inning. It was now time for the Rally Banana to strike again. At the top of the inning Tanner Allen would hit a double to drive in a run that put State ahead. A bases loaded walk plus an RBI single by Luke Alexander would give the bulldogs a 3 run lead midway through the inning. They were just 3 outs away from going to Omaha. Let’s try this again. Luckily for the bulldogs, the commodores would have 3 straight groundouts, ending the game and sending MSU to the College World Series. Never Stop Believin’.
Who would have thought that little ole Mississippi State who seemed to have no hope midway through the year would make it to college baseball’s biggest stage?
The 2018 College World Series consisted of 8 teams: North Carolina, Arkansas, Oregon State, Washington, Florida, Texas, Texas Tech, and last but not least, Mississippi State. The Diamond Dawgs’ first game in Omaha was against Washington. Both teams pitched lights out until the bottom of the 9th. The bulldogs had two players on base: Elijah MacNamee on first and Hunter Stovall on second. Luke Alexander was up to bat. If he could drive in Hunter Stovall right here then they would win the first game of the CWS. The first ball pitched to Alexander: Strike. The second ball pitched to Alexander: Strike.
Remember how this team has lived by the walk-off this whole year, and needed some of that magic here. This was not the first time Alexander was in this kind of pressure. When this third pitch came Luke Alexander made contact and sent it to right field to send Hunter Stovall home. The bulldogs would walk-off the game and win 0-1.
The next game for MSU was against UNC. It was originally set to be played on Monday, but it got postponed to Tuesday due to bad weather. The first pitch was at 10:15 AM, but the players had to be there way earlier. Early morning games are not very common in baseball, so neither team had prepared themselves for this. The bulldogs had all been drinking coffee in excess for the entire morning to give them energy for the game. They also had one thing that North Carolina didn’t: The Rally Banana.
UNC was the first to score in the bottom of the first. Jordan Westburg, the Banana Man, would answer back in the second inning with a pretty big response. With the bases loaded, Westburg would hit a grand slam to put the bulldogs up 4-1. Nobody would score until the 7th inning, when UNC would get a runner in off a wild pitch, shortening the lead 4-2. In the next inning the bulldogs got pretty productive. Jordan, Allen, Stovall, MacNamee, Alexander, and Westburg would combine for 8 RBI in just this inning. MSU would close out the game and grab a 12-2 win.
State was only one win away from playing in the National Championship against Arkansas.
The next game was against Oregon State, and it was not pretty. A bad game by the pitchers plus unproductive batting is not a good combination. The bulldogs would only score 2 runs, both from Hunter Stovall. The rally banana did not help here as State would lose 2-12.
If MSU were to suffer another loss, they would be sent back home to Starkville and the season would end. They had to play Oregon State once again. Win or go home for both teams. Backs against the wall.
The game was scoreless until the third inning. Two RBI singles and a homerun would give OSU 3 runs in the 3rd inning. The bulldogs would answer back in the bottom of the 3rd via a Rowdey Jordan RBI single. Both teams would get runners out, but would not score again until the 9th. The bulldogs were 3 outs away from the end of their season unless they could pull out a miracle here. First to bat was Tanner Allen, who would strike out. 2 outs lefts in the game. Next up to bat was Hunter Stovall who would pop up to right field. 1 out away. MacNamee was up to bat. If you wanted anyone at bat with the game on the line it would be either MacNamee or Alexander. Both have had major success in this position throughout the season. On a full count, Elijah MacNamee would get walked. Next was Justin Foscue. We would get walked as well. Next was Luke Alexander. The bulldogs needed a miracle and here was their guy. On a 1-1 count Alexander would single to left field, bringing MacNamee home. The score was now 5-2 with two outs and two on base. Next up was Tanner Poole, a senior who was pinch hitting for Dustin Skelton. With two outs and two strikes, Poole would get hit by the pitch, advancing him to first and loading the bases. This was it, Jordan Westburg, the Banana Man himself, was up to bat. He was the one who hit the grand slam earlier this week in Omaha. If he could just get on base here, MSU could make a National Championship appearance. The power of the Rally Banana was strong, but could it last just one more inning? With two outs, Westburg would fail to get on base. OSU would get the final out on a fielder’s choice, ending the miracle of a season that the bulldogs had.
Well, that was the end to an amazing season. Quite possibly the craziest season of all of sports history. Bananas, an interim coach, and walk-offs made this one of the greatest teams to watch. MSU had many places to give up and call it a season, but they Never Stopped Believin’.