Mississippi State claims history 126 years in making
While winning the first national championship in not only the program's history but in the school's entire 126-year athletic history may have come as a surprise for Mississippi State in 2021, the way it was accomplished should not have been.
By the time the Bulldogs arrived in Omaha for the College World Series, you see, they were used to bouncing back from adversity to grind their way to glory. So when they lost the opening game of the best-of-three national championship series to fellow SEC foe and defending champion Vanderbilt, no one panicked.
"You lose the first game of the series, and you're sitting there, and you know how bad our community, our school, our program wants this trophy. But when you're going to do something legendary for the first time, you knew it was going to have to be tough," Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis told ESPN.com.
And Lemonis knew from experience how his team handled tough situations.
Mississippi State was excellent for virtually the entire season en route to a 50-18 record overall, including 20-10 in conference play.
But after entering the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama as a No. 3 seed, the Bulldogs found themselves eliminated quickly in embarrassing fashion, losing consecutive games to Florida and Tennessee by the combined score of 25-3. The Gators beat them, 13-1, followed by a 12-2 loss to the Volunteers.
Shortly thereafter in the NCAA Tournament, as hosts of a super regional in Starkville, Mississippi State had to battle back in Game 1 of a best-of-three series vs. Notre Dame to win, 9-8. Then the Bulldogs got blown out, 9-1, in Game 2 -- and had to rally again to win the decisive Game 3, 11-7, just to earn the trip to Omaha.
So when Mississippi State fell in the opening game of the championship series to Vandy, 8-2, it was no big deal. Not even with Kumar Rocker, one of Vandy's stellar starting pitchers who soon would be a first- round draft pick of the New York Mets (and Major League Baseball's No. 10 pick overall), on the mound for the next game.
The Bulldogs rocked Rocker from the game in the fifth inning and went on to win Game 2, 13-2. They then clinched the championship in similar fashion with a 9-0 win in Game 3 as pitchers Will Bednar and Landon Sims combined to throw a one-hitter.
Bednar held the Commodores without a hit through the first six innings before giving way to Sims in the finale. The Mississippi State righthander won CWS Most Outstanding Player honors after securing wins for the Bulldogs three different times in Omaha -- against Texas to begin the CWS, against Texas again to advance to the finals and in the title-clinching win over Vanderbilt.
In those three games, Bednar threw 18.1 innings, giving up five hits and three runs with six walks and 26 strikeouts.
"I'm on top of the world," outfielder Tanner Allen said afterward. "I couldn't be more happy for a team, a town, a fan base, the whole state of Mississippi. This team overcame everything, man ... from getting swept at home in front of 10,000 (in March) versus Arkansas, to Missouri coming in and taking a series from us (late in the year) and then getting embarrassed at the SEC Tournament. We just kept playing, and kept playing and playing. You blink an eye, we're national champions."
Well, it didn't exactly occur in the blink of an eye. Not when it took 126 years.
Lemonis said it came down to his players relaxing and playing their best baseball at precisely the best time.
"Our kids played as free as you could be on the biggest stage," Lemonis said. "From the pitching to the defense, to the grind of having to beat one of the best pitchers in college baseball history (Vanderbilt's Rocker) and the defending champions, I'm so proud of them. And it's so awesome to bring back the trophy to Starkville. It's our community and how much they love their baseball, it's pretty special."
Bednar added: "It's the greatest feeling ever to be a national champion, especially this group of guys. We worked so hard to get here. This is awesome. It's unbelievable."