OMAHA, NE- When you hear people gush about the experience of being at the College World Series, it’s nights like Saturday night that they gush about.
After dangerously hot temperatures in the afternoon forced much of the big crowd to find shelter under the concourses and under the shade of the scoreboard, a warm but comfortable evening allowed the stands to fill up beautifully with more than 24,000 spectators.
Mississippi State fans came armed with bananas instead of the usual cowbells, and after many of them began tailgating in the morning hours, they still managed to muster the energy to make a ton of noise throughout the evening. The smaller but vocal contingent of Washington fans, to their credit, matched them in energy, if not in decibel level.
Best of all, they were treated to an outstanding baseball game, punctuated by the latest in a flurry of walk-off wins for a Mississippi State team that continues to find ways to win games in dramatic fashion.
In the bottom of the ninth inning, with two men on base and one out, Luke Alexander launched a line-drive over the head of Washington right fielder Kaiser Weiss, plating Hunter Stovall and giving the Bulldogs a win that will push them to a winner’s bracket game against North Carolina on Monday night.
“When situations like that come up, we as a whole team have full confidence in whoever is at the plate that it’s going to happen just because Coach (Gary) Henderson has made us be dogs, be grinders,” said Stovall. “So we get in the box and we have absolutely full confidence that we’re going to get this done.”
But more on that in a minute, because there was so much more to this one than just that one spectacular moment. It started with the efforts of the respective starting pitchers.
For Washington, it was Joe DeMers, who was as steady and efficient as he typically is. He threw 7.1 shutout innings, giving up seven hits and just one walk. He wasn’t dominant in a traditional sense, as he had just two strikeouts, but he absolutely pounded the zone all game long, throwing 55 strikes among his 72 pitches, and he wore out the infield grass by inducing a bevy of ground balls off of MSU bats.
“That’s a big league feel for three different pitches,” said Washington head coach Lindsay Meggs. “And people sometimes don’t give him the credit that he’s due because he’s not throwing 96 miles an hour. But he can make any pitch at any time under any circumstances.”
The product of all of those ground balls is lots of chances for Washington infielders. That could be a problem if there were questions about the way the Huskies defend, but the opposite is true, in fact. If there’s one thing that stands out about UW, it’s their athleticism up and down the lineup and the way they defend. Once again, they made every routine play behind DeMers, and shortstop Levi Jordan stepped up and made a couple of sparkling plays as well, just to add some icing to the proverbial cake.
In that way, DeMers and the team around him are a great match. DeMers inducing a ton of ground balls guarantees a ton of ground ball outs, and his approach of pounding the zone early and often, looking to induce contact on the ground, keeps his infielders locked in.
“It gets us in a rhythm early and Joe is around the zone early, so guys are putting balls in play,” Jordan said. “You look around the infield and we’ve got guys who can make not just the routine play but plays outside of the routine play. And today, like I said, Joe got us going early, got us in a rhythm with some ground balls early. And that helps us further into game to make those spectacular plays, which we had a couple tonight.”
What might be dazzling for someone who hasn’t been watching the Huskies all season has become old hat for those who watch Jordan work up close.
“What you saw tonight, honestly, is what he’s been doing for four years,” said Meggs. “He’s an elite defender…The thing about Levi is he makes it look like it’s routine. He makes the routine play look routine, but he also makes the extraordinary play look routine. The footwork is off the charts. It’s always a good throw. There are no wasted steps. We’ve kind of joked that it’s like watching ‘Dancing with the Stars’ because he never takes a false step.”
The Bulldogs’ Ethan Small was just as good, throwing seven shutout innings of his own, giving up four hits and no walks with five strikeouts. There might have been some debate about whether Small or Konnor Pilkington, given Pilkington’s track record through his career, should have started the opening game for MSU, but Small stepped up in a big way.
Interestingly, the theme of the postgame press conferences around the relationship between a pitcher working to induce contact early and keeping the defense sharp was apparent for both teams. In MSU’s case, it came out in a bit of banter between Small and a couple of his infielders, Alexander, the shortstop, and Stovall, who mans second base.
“It’s fun playing behind Ethan just because you know he’s going to get a lot of ground balls, and of course me and L.A. (Alexander), we love fielding ground balls,” Stovall said.
“I love watching you field ground balls,” Small responded.
“I just think playing behind Ethan, he gets a lot of ground balls,” Alexander added. “As an infielder, that’s your dream. You want to catch ground balls, throw them to first, and get them out of the inning.”
With both starting pitchers dealing, both defenses refusing to blink, and both sets of bullpens taking over and working to push the scoreless game into the ninth inning, it was going to come down to one big hit. It came from Alexander, who took advantage of some fortuitous circumstances to get just enough of the ball to get it over Weiss in right.
For one thing, UW was playing its outfield in to keep the runner at second from scoring on a hit in front of one of them.
“We weren’t going to let anything fall front of us,” said Meggs. “And that’s the percentage play, and that’s what we talked about doing before the game. And guy puts a good swing on it. I don’t that we catch it no matter where we are, but that’s why we were where we were was to give us a chance to throw somebody out.”
Alexander also saw his ball carry further than many might have expected. It was a day that featured many a fly ball staying in the park after looking promising off the bat, and Alexander had one of those hit to left field in the at-bat prior. The one in the ninth, though, had just enough carry.
“Honestly, I thought I hit it (the fly out to left) out at first,” Alexander said. “I know it’s a huge ballpark. It was a slider, I hit it just a little bit on the end of the bat. But I think I hit the one to right a little bit better.”
Whether or not he hit it better, it certainly ended in a better result for a team that just can’t seem to do any wrong in big situations.