OMAHA, Neb. — By the end of April, Chris Lemonis had seen enough.
First baseman Josh Hatcher had started 39 of Mississippi State’s first 40 games, but the senior’s production wasn’t where the Bulldogs coach wanted it. Hatcher’s batting average first dipped below .200 on April 9 at Auburn. He surpassed the mark the next day only to fall below it April 16 against Ole Miss, resulting in his first benching of the season the following game. After a hit in the series finale April 18, Hatcher’s average dived below .200 a third time, never to return.
So after the Albany, Georgia, native went 0 for 3 in the April 30 series opener against Texas A&M, Lemonis pulled Hatcher from the starting lineup for good. The senior has appeared in just 15 of the Bulldogs’ past 23 games, mostly as a defensive replacement.
But in Tuesday night’s College World Series winners’ bracket game against Virginia, Hatcher played his supporting role to perfection to help Mississippi State to a dramatic comeback win.
“That’s why we have a great team,” Lemonis said. “We have some selfless guys like that that let you keep playing and keep doing. And when his opportunity came, he got a huge hit for us.”
Called off the bench in the top of the eighth to replace shortstop Lane Forsythe in the No. 9 spot in the Bulldogs’ lineup, Hatcher got a chance to bat for a freshman struggling at the plate.
Forsythe had just one hit in his past 31 at-bats, so Lemonis turned to a trusted option who’d been seeing the ball well in practice.
“He’s swinging in our BPs as good as I’ve seen him swing it,” Lemonis said.
Omaha, of course, is a different level of competition. Hatcher knows that well. He was part of the Bulldogs’ College World Series teams in both 2018 and 2019. He didn’t play in Omaha his freshman season, but as a sophomore, he appeared in two games, going 1 for 5.
Hatcher, Tanner Allen and Rowdey Jordan are the three Mississippi State players making their third trip to TD Ameritrade Park, and Lemonis said the sting of the Bulldogs’ elimination in each of those two seasons is motivating them this time around.
“They came here to win it,” Lemonis said. “They’ve been here. They’ve walked off this field and felt they could have done more. And they’re invested right now and they’re playing great baseball.”
Each senior had his role in Tuesday’s win, but Jordan’s and Allen’s heroics might not have been possible without Hatcher’s contribution. With Mississippi State trailing 4-2 and one out in the eighth, Hatcher grounded a 1-2 pitch from reliever Zach Messinger into the hole on the left side of the infield. Shortstop Nic Kent scooped up the baseball, throwing on the run to first.
Hatcher beat the play, fanning his arms into the “safe” signal as he crossed the bag. He’d done his job, reaching base to bring up the tying run.
That was Jordan, who stood in and ripped Messinger’s 2-1 offering deep to center field. Between first and second, Hatcher watched as outfielder Chris Newell raced to his right for the ball.
“It was a tough play because the center fielder kind of came in on it,” Lemonis said. “And I think Hatch thought it was going to get caught, so Hatch didn’t extend a lot.”
When the ball landed a few feet over Newell’s head in left-center, Hatcher took off. He got a late stop sign from Kyle Cheesebrough at third base, putting on the brakes.
Jordan didn’t notice. With his head down, he sped around second, thinking he had an easy triple.
Halfway in between, he noticed Hatcher on the bag and put his arms out, wondering why the lead runner hadn’t scored. Luckily for the Bulldogs, no one was covering second, so Jordan retreated safely to the keystone.
It was disaster averted for Mississippi State, and avoiding an unsightly second out proved critical when Allen put the Bulldogs ahead with a three-run home run off Stephen Schoch. Hatcher trotted home first, greeting Allen joyfully at the plate when the SEC player of the year completed his trip around the bases.
Once again, he was playing the role he’s fulfilled ever since being benched, understanding the situation and doing his best to support his teammates on the field.
“He’s not pouted or anything,” Lemonis said. “He’s one of our energy guys. He’s cheering guys on.”
Now, Hatcher — and his two senior teammates — are reaping the reward. The Bulldogs will have a rematch with either Virginia or No. 2 Texas at 6 p.m. Saturday with a trip to the College World Series final on the line.
“We’ve just got to get our work in and let these guys just keep playing games,” Lemonis said. “And the way they’re playing, we have a chance to play for a while.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.