Mississippi State’s baseball team will play its first game of the 2019 College World Series tonight at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska. Defense will be key to victories in the tricky dimensions and conditions of the park, where the Bulldogs are playing for the second-straight year. Photo by: Steven Branscombe/USA TODAY Sports
June 15, 2019 11:00:05 PM
BY BEN PORTNOY
Standing in right field during last season's College World Series matchup with North Carolina, senior outfielder Elijah MacNamee charged toward the infield.
On a high-fly ball, second baseman Hunter Stovall called for it as he peddled back.
Both of them misjudged it - with MacNamee overrunning it - and the ball fell to the ground at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska.
"I'm kind of running in, and I look up, and the ball is 30 feet behind my head," MacNamee recalled laughing.
Heading into this weekend's CWS, defense is again squarely in the picture as the Bulldogs look to manage the tricky dimensions of TD Ameritrade.
Dudy Noble Field is a hitter's park. A short porch in right field lends itself to the lefty-heavy MSU starting lineup at just 305 feet down the line. With only 330 feet to left field and 390 to straight-away center, right-handed hitters also have plenty to work with.
That changes this weekend.
TD Ameritrade is far from hitter-friendly. At its shortest, the ballpark is 335 feet to right and left field. Center field is a staggering 408 feet from home plate. Translation: that's a lot of ground to cover.
"Having the experience is going to help," MacNamee said after playing in Omaha last season. "You don't know how the wind is going to blow one night. You can't hear half the time. It's like you need a megaphone to call the ball off."
Beyond the physical structure, the wind is a factor. Though unpredictable, it has been known to whip around the park and transform balls destined for beyond the fence to loud, long outs.
From a talent perspective, the Bulldog outfield has flashed a propensity for defensive brilliance.
Senior center fielder Jake Mangum's robbery of Stanford first baseman Andrew Daschbach in game one of the Starkville Super Regional saved a grand slam.
Sophomore Rowdey Jordan has also demonstrated game-changing ability in left field.
Trailing 4-1 in the top of the fifth inning in a May 18 meeting with South Carolina, Jordan ranged to his left. Charging hard, he leapt, collected and slid into a low diving catch to end the frame and strand runners on the corners.
Finally, there is MacNamee. Though he is more limited as a fielder than his counterparts, he is now fully healthy as he patrols right field. MacNamee told reporters Tuesday he is not hampered by his previously injured foot.
"You know, one of our strengths is our outfield," MSU coach Chris Lemonis said. "So I think we've got some veteran guys out there with Jake in center and Elijah and Rowdey that have played outfield and they played here last year, so I think they're familiar with it, and they run."
In addition to last season's CWS appearance, Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, the site of the SEC tournament, is almost identical to TD Ameritrade dimensionally. The Hoover Met comes in at 340 feet down the lines and 405 to center field.
Those experiences coupled with the talent the Bulldog outfielders possess, the group feels prepared for the defensive challenges of Omaha.
"Having that advantage is definitely going to help us," MacNamee said. "Because we know how it's going to be played and we have the same outfield so we're just going to take it one game at a time."
·Junior Jack Eagan will be available out of the bullpen this weekend after suffering a non-athletic injury in game one of the Starkville Super Regional.
Eagan was taken to the hospital soon after the episode. Lemonis said he had been practicing and that he threw in a scrimmage this week.
"He pitched as good as we've seen him," Lemonis said. "It was good to see him out there."
·Lemonis will turn to redshirt junior Ethan Small in the opening game of the CWS against Auburn.
Small, the SEC Pitcher of the Year, is 10-2 with a 1.76 ERA in 17 starts this season.
"We could pitch him on Mars and I think he'd be fine," Lemonis said of whether the environment will affect Small. "It does help that he's pitched here and he's been around it and everything else, but we haven't been in an environment that has bothered him so I think he'll be really good (today)."
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.