STARKVILLE – The outcome could have been much, much different for No. 3 Mississippi State in the opening game of the Starkville Super Regional on Saturday night.
Fourth-ranked Stanford loaded the bases in the top of the first inning and Andrew Daschbach belted a ball deep to center field for what appeared to be a grand slam.
But that’s when Jake Mangum intervened.
The Bulldogs’ center fielder leaped and brought the ball back over the wall to save starting pitcher Ethan Small from an early disaster.
Small settled in and MSU’s offense went to work to eventually claim a 6-2 victory in front of 13,132 at Dudy Noble Field – the third largest crowd in NCAA Tournament history.
“That was a huge play,” MSU coach Chris Lemonis said of Mangum’s catch. “He told me after the game that was the first one he’s ever robbed...He just helps you win games in so many ways.”
The Diamond Dogs (50-13) are now one win away from punching their second straight ticket to the College World Series and will get that chance at 8 p.m. tonight against the Cardinal in Game 2 on ESPNU.
Lemonis plans to start senior right-hander Peyton Plumlee (6-4, 3.87 ERA) on the mound while Stanford is expected to start junior southpaw Eric Miller (8-2, 3.15 ERA) tonight.
After a shaky first inning that saw Small give up an unearned run on Saturday, the first-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers gave State five more solid innings before exiting the game to a standing ovation after a career-high 117 pitches in what is likely his last appearance in front of the home crowd.
“My biggest challenge tonight was fighting myself, especially early,” Small said. “But then we got some good, bounce-back innings in between there and I finally started punching some guys out.”
Small improved to 10-2 after scattering five hits and two walks with eight strikeouts and no earned runs.
Colby White, Jared Liebelt and Cole Gordon each logged an inning of relief and none exceeded 24 pitches and are available for Game 2, if needed.
After falling behind 1-0 early, Mississippi State’s offense came alive – scoring in the second, third and fourth frames.
Dustin Skelton doubled and was driven in on a single to left by Josh Hatcher in the bottom of the second and the Bulldogs were able to take the lead in the third when Skelton plated two runs on his second double in as many at bats.
“I knew I was going to get a pitch to hit so I just wanted to put a good swing on it,” Skelton said of his second two-bagger. “I got a fastball away and was able to put a really good swing on it.”
MSU manufactured three more runs in the fourth frame, which all started with a ground-rule double by Hatcher.
The Diamond Dogs had a dozen hits – five of which were doubles. Hatcher led the way going 2 for 3 with a double and one RBI and Skelton was 2 for 4 with two doubles and two RBIs. Jordan Westburg and Tanner Allen were both 2 for 5 and each drove in a run with Westburg also offering a double.
Stanford had nine hits but also committed three errors as well as the Cardinal fell to 45-13.
Brendan Beck (5-4) took the loss, lasting just three innings and giving up five runs on seven hits and three walks with only two strikeouts.
Attention was diverted from the field and into the Bulldog dugout prior to the start of the seventh inning. Mississippi State junior Jack Eagan – who did not pitch Saturday – “suffered a non-athletic medical event” and was “transported to a local hospital and his parents are with him”, according to a statement released by the school.
Play was halted while medical personnel attended to Eagan and Lemonis was emotional talking about the incident after the game but stated that the reliever was in stable condition.
“It was a tough probably five or 10 minutes for our team,” Lemonis said. “It’s a group of guys that care a lot about each other so when you see one go down like that, it was tough on everybody.”