OMAHA, Neb. — With two out in the bottom of the ninth, Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis leaned over to assistant Kyle Cheesebrough in the first-base dugout.
Both Bulldogs coaches had lost a parent in the past two years. Cheesebrough’s father David died in November 2019; Lemonis’ mother Margo died in October 2020.
So just seconds from the biggest moment in the history of the program he inherited, Lemonis turned to the assistant who followed him from Bloomington to Starkville, the relatives missing from the stands on both their minds.
“Man,” Lemonis said. “I hope they have a good seat tonight.”
Only then, with one play left to be made, the Bulldogs’ skipper took his focus from the field. It all hit him: How close they were. How long they’d waited. How big a moment it would be.
Too big, in fact, for everyone but Mississippi State.
One pitch later, the Bulldogs capped a historic season with their first College World Series title, finishing off a 9-0 win over Vanderbilt on Wednesday night at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska. It was the first team national championship in any sport in school history.
“It means everything to all of us,” Lemonis said. “Our fans. Our administration. Our players. It’s just a huge night for Mississippi State.”
In front of 20,000 maroon-clad fans gripping the edges of their green seats, Lemonis and the Bulldogs put decades of bad luck and untimely endings behind them with nine dominant innings of baseball, cementing their claim in MSU lore and adding a whole new generation of legends to the ledger in Starkville.
Will Bednar, the tired pitcher delivering another unbelievable performance. Rowdey Jordan and Tanner Allen, the seniors who stayed, leading an offense that beat the country’s best starter. Landon Sims, the unhittable closer on the mound for so many big games, finishing out one more.
“They’re going to be legends here,” Lemonis said.
So will Lemonis, the coach who returned to the South to man the program, leading the Bulldogs to their first title with his father Thomas in the hospital for weeks. Lemonis spent the whole glorious night with tears in his eyes, thinking of his father.
“Dad, I love you,” he said postgame. “We’ll be bringing the trophy by the nursing home this week, so we’ll have a lot of fun.”
So will the fans that invaded Omaha by the thousands, there to see the title for which Starkville had waited seemingly forever, the one that Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro and Jake Mangum, try as they might, could never quite bring home.
But the 2021 Bulldogs left all that in the past, going from one foot in the grave to two hands around Vanderbilt’s throat. They faced elimination after an 8-2 loss on Monday only to rout the Commodores 13-2 on Tuesday and hold them without a hit into the eighth inning Wednesday.
“It’s the greatest feeling ever to be a national champion, especially this group of guys,” Bednar said. “We worked so hard to get here. This is awesome. It’s unbelievable.”
So was each performance the sophomore right-hander turned in during a magical Omaha run that earned him the Jack Diesing Award for the tournament’s most outstanding player. He struck out 15 on April 20 against Texas, delivered a quality start against the Longhorns on Saturday and pitched six hitless innings Wednesday on just three days’ rest.
“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.”
With Jordan and Allen at the top of the order, the Bulldogs’ bats backed Bednar, chasing Vandy ace Kumar Rocker in the fifth inning. Jordan had a game-high five hits and Allen was one of three Bulldogs with two as Mississippi State collected 12 hits on the game.
With the glory of the postgame celebration yet to wear off, Allen said the senior outfielders were glad they agreed in the fall to return for one more season in Starkville.
“I didn’t just come back to make the playoffs or make a Super Regional, I wanted to come back to win a national championship,” Allen said. “I believed it, and we all believed it. And we just came together and played together, and we left it all on the field.”
The Bulldogs stretched their lead throughout the contest, adding two runs in the third to a first-inning score and going up 5-0 on singles by Luke Hancock and Logan Tanner.
Tanner hit a solo home run in the seventh, and freshman Kellum Clark broke the game open with a three-run shot off reliever Chris McElvain.
And instead of Bednar somehow coming back out on fumes for the seventh, Lemonis and pitching coach Scott Foxhall turned to Sims, who was on the mound for the final outs of Regional and Super Regional play and the Bulldogs’ first two games in Omaha.
The right-hander pitched the last three innings to finish the contest, allowing Vandy’s first — and only — hit in the eighth. When Kamren James fielded a bunt and fired to first for the game’s final out, Sims raised his arms in triumph and tossed his hat into the air. His teammates, racing out of the dugout as if shot from a cannon, met him and Tanner near the mound, and the dogpile — make that a Dawgpile — had begun.
“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.”
To the thousands upon thousands who made the trip, it seemed to sink in fast. The Bulldog faithful made TD Ameritrade look and sound like Dudy Noble North, dwarfing the small section of the stands outfitted in Vanderbilt black and gold. After it was over, Mississippi State’s players raced along the outfield wall from right to left, thanking those who pulled the magic act that turned Omaha into Starkville for two glorious summer weeks.
“I haven’t even been able to walk down the street for the last four days,” Lemonis said. “I have to stay in the room because our fans have taken over the city.”
Those who came witnessed something unforgettable. Previously one of three Power Five conference schools to be without a team title, the Bulldogs can scratch their names off that ignominious list with gusto.
“It’s so awesome to bring back the trophy to Starkville,” Lemonis said. “Our community and how much they love their baseball, it’s pretty special.”
And after 68 games and more than four months, he and the Bulldogs can finally relax and enjoy the big moment that was never too big for them. They were swept at home by Arkansas, struggled through a late-season slump and faced elimination three times in the NCAA tournament.
But they were the ones hoisting the trophy as June came to a spectacular close, the celebrations spilling out into the Nebraska night just beginning.
“We kept playing to the very end,” Lemonis said. “We’re the last ones standing.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.