June 17, 2019 10:19:25 AM
BY BEN PORTNOY
OMAHA, Neb. -- Marshall Gilbert is a man of routine.
Before every game he inscribes "daWgs" -- the "W" meaning "win" -- into the dirt behind third base.
In each at-bat, he peers toward the left field foul pole before settling into the batter's box.
With the game knotted at 4 in the bottom of the ninth with two outs against Auburn in the College World Series Sunday, Gilbert looked at the familiar foul pole and stepped up to the plate.
"I kind of said, 'Alright, whatever, let it rip. See what happens. Don't worry about the result,'" he recalled after the game.
Without hesitation, Gilbert roped the first pitch he saw up the middle. The ball glanced off Tigers' pitcher Cody Greenhill, before it hopped over second base for a walk-off single.
"I was looking to get the job done, get on top and stay short, like something I've been doing all year," Gilbert said.
A four-run ninth for No. 6 MSU (52-13) righted eight innings of mediocrity and sent the Bulldogs into the CWS winner's bracket with a 5-4 victory over Southeastern Conference West Division rival Auburn (38-27) at TD Ameritrade Park. It was the team's 28th comeback win of the season, which is the most of any team in the country.
They will take on SEC regular season and conference tournament champion Vanderbilt (55-11), the overall No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, at 6 p.m. Tuesday with a berth in the national semifinals on the line.
"You're never out of a ballgame and we all know that," senior outfielder Elijah MacNamee said. "So when we all believe in each other, good things happen."
Minutes prior to Gilbert's heroics it was a misplayed ball from Auburn third baseman Edouard Julien that spelled a new lease on life for the rallying Bulldogs.
Down to the final out, catcher Dustin Skelton trickled an 0-1 pitch down the third base line. There, Julien gloved the ball.
A hop, then a second followed. With MacNamee bearing down on third, he took one final step toward first and threw -- sending it high over first baseman Rankin Woley's head.
Safe at first, Skelton reached second on the error. MacNamee rounded third and touched home plate to tie the game at 4.
"We had a chance to win the baseball game," Auburn coach Butch Thompson said. "I don't think there's any doubt about that, and just one play away tonight."
Senior center fielder Jake Mangum sparked the ninth-inning madness with a leadoff double off the wall in right field before MacNamee hit an RBI double of his own.
"That's just how we drew it up in the scouting report before the game, is give them a lead and then try to catch them," MSU coach Chris Lemonis quipped postgame.
In the early stages of Sunday's game, Julien was poised to play spoiler in the Bulldogs' second-straight trip to Omaha.
The powerful Canadian sent a high second-inning fastball from redshirt junior starter Ethan Small 429 feet into the upper rows of the right-center field bleachers to give the Tigers a 2-0 lead.
"The strike zone tonight felt like it was really tight," Small said. "And then when you get in those counts like that and they know you're throwing fastballs, it kind of speeds (the hitter's) bat up and that's kind of what happened with that."
Julien reprised his anti-hero role with an RBI single to center field in the fourth inning.
Shortstop Will Holland scored the final Auburn run of the game in the sixth off a throwing error by sophomore second baseman Justin Foscue.
It was an uncharacteristically inconsistent start from Small, who allowed three runs on three hits and walked three in five innings of work.
Seniors Cole Gordon, Jared Liebelt and junior Riley Self comprised the relief efforts Sunday. The trio combined for four innings of three-hit ball, striking out five.
MSU has played Vanderbilt once this season - a 1-0 loss in the SEC tournament. On Sunday, the Commodores earned their way to the winner's bracket with a 3-1 win over No. 7 Louisville.
"I don't want to speak too soon," Small said. "But you could definitely see we have a case to go after this thing. If you get a win like that, you might've caught lightning in a bottle a little bit."
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.