The scouts were in for a show.
On Oct. 23, 2017, some 150 major league evaluators and cross-checkers jostled for position along the foul lines in Jupiter, Florida, for the best game of the night: the East Coast Sox Select squad facing the Canes National team in the round of 16 of the Perfect Game World Wood Bat Association World Championship. Two of the premier travel baseball organizations in the country were about to square off.
The 12 dozen scouts in the crowd watched as midway through the game, the Sox summoned left-hander Christian MacLeod from their bullpen. The senior from Huntsville (Alabama) High School pitched the final five innings, allowing just two hits and keeping the Canes scoreless.
At one point between the fifth and sixth, he struck out five Canes in a row. Soon afterward, MacLeod finished off a 3-1 Sox win.
“That’s a night that I’ll never forget,” the Mississippi State redshirt sophomore said.
For Sox director Eric DuBose, MacLeod’s performance marked his emergence on a national stage.
“It was a staple for Christian in not only the collegiate world but also the pro world: ‘Keep your eye on me. I’m really good,’” DuBose said.
Almost four years later, MacLeod is wearing DuBose’s old jersey number at the school where DuBose once starred.
The junior has DuBose reminiscing of the No. 28s of years past at Dudy Noble Field — DuBose, Paul Maholm, Chris Stratton — as he leads the Bulldogs’ rotation down the season’s home stretch.
“If you put all of us out there in our playing days, he looks like us,” DuBose said.
‘A little bit of two-eight’
MacLeod was “a man amongst boys” in the year-plus he spent playing for the Sox, DuBose said.
In the second and third innings of most games, he struck out everyone he faced. Only the first inning typically gave him trouble, as the Sox sometimes had to end the frame in intra-organization games before MacLeod recorded three outs to preserve his pitch count. The lefty said that same problem has plagued him occasionally at Mississippi State, so he’s tried to make sure he has all three pitches working before he comes out of the bullpen to begin his night.
Still, his first-inning struggles didn’t stop him from starring for the Sox and for Huntsville High.
On Dec. 5, 2016, late in the fall of his junior year of high school, MacLeod committed to pitch for Oklahoma.
But when the Sooners fired coach Pete Hughes after the 2017 season, MacLeod decommitted from OU. As offer after offer began to pour in, MacLeod began to understand something.
“‘I could get something as good or better a lot closer to home,’” DuBose said the young pitcher realized.
MacLeod’s first visit after decommitting was to Mississippi State. He arrived in Starkville as the old Dudy Noble was being torn down, looking at the blueprints for the new park with coach Andy Cannizaro and meeting with the team.
“I loved the campus,” MacLeod said. “I loved everything that it had to offer.”
He committed to Mississippi State on July 14, 2017, signing with the Bulldogs that November. With a strong chance of being selected in the MLB draft in June 2018, MacLeod announced on the event’s third day he had chosen to play for the Bulldogs rather than turn pro out of high school.
Then he called DuBose. When MacLeod told his club coach he’d be following in the current Ron Polk Ring of Honor member’s footsteps in Starkville, DuBose unofficially issued the left-hander his old jersey number — and a challenge along with it.
“He said, ‘Get you a little bit of two-eight and see what you can do with it,’” MacLeod recalled “Having him ask me to wear that number meant a lot to me.”
But MacLeod didn’t have a chance to don No. 28 in a game in his freshman season. After contracting pneumonia during the winter and winding up in the hospital in January 2019, he redshirted in his first year with the Bulldogs.
When he was in the dugout, he got a front-row seat to the energy and “unreal” chemistry Mississippi State displayed on the diamond.
“Everybody was tight, and we had fun playing every single day,” MacLeod said. “We really looked forward to getting to the ballpark every day, and I loved every minute of it.”
He didn’t get to travel with the Bulldogs on their College World Series run, but he said getting to experience that this year would be the realization of a lifelong dream.
“Our goal isn’t just to make it to Omaha; it’s to finally win that national championship,” MacLeod said. “I think we have a good shot at it.”
In 2020, the Bulldogs had that shot.
Although it was early in the season, they seemed poised to make their third straight CWS appearance. Mississippi State was ranked No. 17 by D1Baseball on March 9, but the Dawgs beat No. 4 Texas Tech on back-to-back days to get their record up to 12-4.
MacLeod helped Mississippi State get there by making four starts, facing Wright State, Oregon State, Long Beach State and Quinnipiac. He pitched at least five innings in each game and earned the win in all four outings.
Then it was over. The day after their second win over the Red Raiders in Biloxi, the Bulldogs learned their season was on pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 campaign never restarted.
Once they learned it was over for good, the Bulldogs began to prepare for 2021. When the team restarted activities in August, MacLeod said he was glad for the cup of coffee he’d had as a redshirt freshman.
“It was a good opportunity to get my feet wet and get ready for this year,” MacLeod said.
Once again, he made four starts in nonconference play, rounding out that section of the schedule with 11 strikeouts across five innings in a blowout win over Eastern Michigan. Then it was on to the challenges of the Southeastern Conference schedule MacLeod never got to face.
After pitching well in a win at LSU, MacLeod was roughed up by No. 1 Arkansas. Then he won three straight starts, striking out 11 once again in six shutout innings against Kentucky, before a shorter outing against No. 3 Vanderbilt. He rebounded with three straight wins, beating Texas A&M, No. 21 South Carolina and Missouri.
DuBose, who himself held MacLeod’s Friday night starter role in a college career that lasted from 1995 to 1997, said the sophomore has been “Mr. Consistent” as far as leading the way in the Bulldogs’ weekend rotation.
“I think he’s done a great job of anchoring down that position,” DuBose said.
That hasn’t been easy against an SEC slate that has “no slouches,” MacLeod said. But he wanted it that way.
“It’s a grind every weekend, but it’s what you dream of,” he said. “That’s why you come play at a school like Mississippi State.”
‘Now’s when they need him’
The “grind” MacLeod described has one more series to go before a postseason sure to be just as hard on the left-hander.
When MacLeod takes the baseball on Thursday at Alabama, he’ll be pitching in front of plenty of familiar faces just an hour and a half from his hometown. MacLeod said most people from Huntsville High attend either Alabama or Auburn (his two older brothers, Colton and Spencer, are Tigers), and Mississippi State has played road series at both Yellowhammer State schools in 2021.
“I think a lot of my high school friends and people around Huntsville will be able to come watch, so it’s going to be awesome,” MacLeod said.
After facing the Crimson Tide, he’ll head back to his home state for the SEC tournament in Hoover, Alabama, the following week. In the event’s double-elimination format, he will be counted on heavily as the Bulldogs look to bolster their case for a top-eight seed and potential Super Regional hosting bid.
That assignment will be difficult for a pitcher who hasn’t always gone deep in games. MacLeod has pitched more than four innings just once in his past four starts, going seven at South Carolina to earn the SEC pitcher of the week award. But DuBose said the Bulldogs will expect more length from the lefty as the postseason nears.
“Now’s when they need him,” DuBose said. “Now’s when the season really starts coming up here in a couple weeks.”
And if MacLeod pitches well down the stretch, he could make the same impact DuBose, Maholm, Stratton once did in Starkville. DuBose said future Bulldogs could choose No. 28 because of MacLeod — even if they don’t remember DuBose, Maholm or Stratton.
“We’ll have to see who the next one is who’s up for the challenge,” DuBose said.
Should that happen, MacLeod said, it would “mean the world” to him.
“If they say, ‘I wear 28 because Christian MacLeod wore it,’ I think that would be really cool,” he said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.