Hail yes! Mississippi State wins first national championship

Published 9:50 pm Wednesday, June 30, 2021

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Mississippi State’s first national championship had been building since 1985, when “Thunder and Lightning” — Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro — were the stars on what’s known as the best team to not win a College World Series.

The 2021 Bulldogs got the job done. Finally.

Will Bednar and Landon Sims combined on a one-hitter, the Bulldogs scored early and built on their lead, and at the end they were in a dogpile celebrating a 9-0 victory over Vanderbilt in the deciding third game of the College World Series finals Wednesday night.

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There to see it was Ron Polk, the godfather of Mississippi State baseball and the coach of that ’85 team.

“Coach Polk is the one who built this and started it,” coach Chris Lemonis said. “We run out there and play in front of the big crowds, but Polk was a big reason why, and our former players, too. This is a lot of years in the making, and a lot of fun. And I know our fans will enjoy this.”

Oh, they enjoyed it. It seemed the whole town of Starkville was at TD Ameritrade Park — loud and proud — for all three games of the finals.

When third baseman Kamren James threw to first for the final out, the Bulldogs’ dugout emptied and about 100 fans jumped out of the stands to celebrate. The players walked the warning track and reached up to high-five the fans.

“I couldn’t be more happy for a team, a town, a fan base, the whole state of Mississippi, except Oxford, of course,” Southeastern Conference player of the year Tanner Allen said. “Those guys are always on my back. So I had to take a shot at them.

“This team overcame everything, man. From getting swept at home in front of 10,000 versus Arkansas, to Missouri coming in and taking a series from us, and then getting embarrassed at the SEC Tournament. We just kept playing and playing. You blink an eye, we’re national champions.”

Bednar, working on three days’ rest, walked three of the first five batters he faced before retiring 15 in a row. He turned the game over to Sims to start the seventh, and Vandy broke up the no-hitter when Carter Young singled into center field with one out in the eighth.

“I’ll probably bust his chops tomorrow,” a laughing Bednar said of Sims losing the no-no. “Win a national championship, I don’t really care about that. I’m on cloud nine.”

It was the first one-hitter at the CWS since 2014 and the climax of an Omaha run that seemed to get easier for the Bulldogs the longer they were here. The three wins they needed to reach the finals were all decided by one run. In the last two games of the championship series they outscored Vanderbilt 22-2.

“When you’re going to do something legendary for the first time, it was going to have to be tough,” said Lemonis, who has led Mississippi State to two CWS appearances and now its first national title in his three seasons as coach. “The reason we are champions is we just have a really tough, resilient group. It’s been built over time. It’s the accumulation of the last three years.”

Bednar (9-1), whose 15 strikeouts in his Omaha debut against Texas on June 20 were the most here in 25 years, fanned four against Vandy (49-18) and was named the CWS Most Outstanding Player.

“Just every time he’s taken the ball here in the postseason, he’s just been a champ,” Lemonis said. “You need somebody to get hot for you in the postseason, and we had that with Will tonight.”

The national championship is the first in a team sport for Mississippi State (50-18) and it came in the Bulldogs’ 12th CWS appearance. Only Florida State (23) and Clemson (12) have been to Omaha at least as many times without winning a title.

Logan Tanner and Kellum Clark homered in the four-run seventh inning to put the game out of reach against a Vanderbilt offense that managed just seven hits and three runs over the last 25 innings of the finals. The Commodores scored seven runs in the first inning of Game 1, and had three runs on seven hits from that point on.

“We didn’t play our best baseball toward the end,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “Getting through regionals was emotional, getting through the super regional was emotional, and this wasn’t easy here. And then there was the groundswell of momentum on the other side. You could feel it and it was real.”

Mississippi State knocked out Kumar Rocker (14-4) in the fifth. It was the second time in three CWS starts that the projected top-10 draft pick wasn’t at his best, in part because of more shaky defense behind him.

The Commodores committed six errors in the second and third games of the finals and 13 in seven CWS games. The Bulldogs were error-free in their seven games.

Wednesday’s game ended a CWS unlike any other since it began in 1947. There was no CWS last year because of the pandemic, and COVID-19 was never out of mind during the event’s return even though the stadium was at full fan capacity.

Positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing left North Carolina State with only half its roster available in a 3-1 loss to Vanderbilt last Friday. By that night, a total of eight players had tested positive and prompted the NCAA to remove the Wolfpack from the tournament because of COVID-19 protocols.

A second bracket final between N.C. State and Vandy was declared a no-contest, and the Commodores were advanced to the finals to go for a second straight title and third since 2014.

They won the opener 8-2 after scoring seven runs in the first inning, but they didn’t do much the rest of the series.

Mississippi State won 13-2 in Game 2 and then, thanks to Bednar, was able to coast to its title-clinching victory. The Bulldogs won three one-run games in the bracket round, including two in which they scored the winning run in the eighth inning or later. They scored in the first inning in all three games against Vanderbilt and never trailed in the last two.

“Great comeback for them,” Corbin said. “They realized they weren’t out of this when we beat them in the first game.”

The ’85 Mississippi State team included four future major league All-Stars and won its first two games in Omaha, then dropped two in a row and was gone. The next four MSU teams to make the CWS won no more than one game here.

The 2013 Bulldogs got to the finals and flamed out, swept by UCLA while scoring only one run in the two games. The 2018 team didn’t put up much fight in the bracket finals against Oregon State, and the 2019 squad blew a ninth-inning lead in an elimination game against Louisville.

Finally, the 2021 team found a way to finish the job.

“All the former players own a part of this,” Lemonis said.

College World Series champions
2021 – Mississippi State
2020 – No champion (COVID)
2019 – Vanderbilt
2018 – Oregon State
2017 – Florida
2016 – Coastal Carolina
2015 – Virginia
2014 – Vanderbilt
2013 – UCLA
2012 – Arizona
2011 – South Carolina
2010 – South Carolina
2009 – LSU
2008 – Fresno State
2007 – Oregon State
2006 – Oregon State
2005 – Texas
2004 – Cal State Fullerton
2003 – Rice
2002 – Texas
2001 – Miami
2000 – LSU
1999 – Miami
1998 – Southern California
1997 – LSU
1996 – LSU
1995 – Cal State Fullerton
1994 – Oklahoma
1993 – LSU
1992 – Pepperdine
1991 – LSU
1990 – Georgia
1989 – Wichita State
1988 – Stanford
1987 – Stanford
1986 – Arizona
1985 – Miami
1984 – Cal State Fullerton
1983 – Texas
1982 – Miami
1981 – Arizona State
1980 – Arizona
1979 – Cal State Fullerton
1978 – Southern California
1977 – Arizona State
1976 – Arizona
1975 – Texas
1974 – Southern California
1973 – Southern California
1972 – Southern California
1971 – Southern California
1970 – Southern California
1969 – Arizona State
1968 – Southern California
1967 – Arizona State
1966 – Ohio State
1965 – Arizona State
1964 – Minnesota
1963 – Southern California
1962 – Michigan
1961 – Southern California
1960 – Minnesota
1959 – Oklahoma State
1958 – Southern California
1957 – California
1956 – Minnesota
1955 – Wake Forest
1954 – Missouri
1953 – Michigan
1952 – Holy Cross
1951 – Oklahoma
1950 – Texas
1949 – Texas
1948 – Southern California
1947 – California