First team to clinch CWS ticket among last in tourney field
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Not long into a celebration that stretched from afternoon to night, Mississippi State's Jeffrey Rea was stinking up the joint.
The dirt and the sweat, caked on through almost 3½ hours of white-knuckle baseball played in blistering heat, were bad enough. Then there was that other smell, the unmistakable scent of beer wafting from Rea's drenched maroon jersey.
Mississippi State's first trip to the College World Series since 1998 would not have been complete without a victory lap at raucous Polk-DeMent Stadium. And a victory lap would not have been complete without a shower of brew from the famed "Left Field Lounge," a setting beyond the left-field wall that confirms baseball in Starkville is less game than cultural event.
"I reek right now," said Rea, a senior center fielder. "I smell terrible."
For Mississippi State fans, nothing could have smelled sweeter. In a year they were picked to finish dead last in the SEC, the Bulldogs (38-20) were the first of eight teams to punch their ticket to the baseball promised land that is Omaha, Neb.
This is nothing new to 63-year-old coach Ron Polk, who has been there seven times before. But to a young team that has three starting freshman infielders, winning five straight NCAA Tournament games and securing the trip is nothing short of Nirvana.
"There's a lot of love and respect in that locker room," said senior pitcher Justin Pigott, who tossed six solid innings in Saturday's 8-5 win. "That's something we haven't had since I've been here."
In late May, this was a team that was struggling to shoehorn itself into the NCAA Tournament, let alone step onto the sacred ground of Rosenblatt Stadium. The Bulldogs had gone two-and-out in the SEC Tournament, had lost eight of 10 games, and were facing daunting odds in a regional at No. 6 national seed Florida State.
Somehow, despite the ugly record down the stretch, the players and coaches felt it all coming together. For the first time all season, they were healthy. The offense, which had swooned in late April to mar a fast start, was starting to come back around.
And a closer look will reveal that the SEC Tournament showing wasn't exactly an abject failure. The Bulldogs faced Mississippi and ace pitcher Will Kline (second-round draft pick) in the first game, losing 3-1. The second game brought Vanderbilt and stud lefty David Price (No. 1 pick). Mississippi State lost that one 3-2.
As the Bulldogs prepared for their trip to the Sunshine State, they had no problems seeing the light. They told reporters they were building momentum, a seemingly curious observation that elicited some strange looks, and even a few laughs, from scribes who were already planning their vacations for the following week.
"It was a weird feeling," Rea said. "We were a hit away in both of those games. We were losing, but we were doing everything right."
The Bulldogs went 3-0 in Tallahassee, stunning the Seminoles twice. That set up the best-of-three super regional clash with Clemson, a team that made an unblemished run through Coastal Carolina's regional.
Clemson coach Jack Leggett was angry when his team was snubbed for a host spot, mostly because he thought the Tigers earned it more on the field. But he also knew what his players were about to confront at Polk-DeMent Stadium, where the first super regional in Starkville would feel like a super revival.
Leggett, who considers Polk a good friend, had been there four times before as a coach. He knew all about the scene beyond the outfield wall, where fans perch rows of seats atop RVs and trucks to paint a chaotic, almost third-world picture that resembles a NASCAR infield.
Leggett knew that the Bulldogs had drawn more than 14,000 fans to this place before. The folks at Clemson have their own hallowed baseball tradition, an orange-drenched atmosphere that is better than most.
"Going on the road, I know in my mind that trying to win two out of three is tough in any conference," Leggett said after his team was eliminated in two games. "But in this environment, with this magnitude, it's tough."
The first game, an 8-5 Mississippi State victory, was played before an announced crowd of 12,620. That set a record for any NCAA super regional. By itself, it was more than the combined attendance on the same day at North Carolina, Louisville and Rice (total: 11,992).
With Mississippi State one win away from Omaha, the fervor was even greater Saturday morning. Fans started showing up before 5 a.m. in hopes of nabbing the few standing-room only tickets that remained. A little after 9 a.m. -- two hours before the first pitch was thrown -- the bleachers were full.
"The scene at Florida State was big," said reliever Aaron Weatherford, who made significant contributions in both games. "But when you come here, you've got 13,000 on your side, and they've got your back. As bad as you want it for your team and your teammates, you want it for the community just as bad."
Before Clemson first baseman Andy D'Alessio left the field Saturday, he approached Polk.
"He said, 'I'm sorry we lost, but I'm glad we came here,'" Polk recalled. "He said, 'I've never seen anything like this in college baseball.'"
Polk spent 22 years in Starkville before retiring in 1997, leaving behind a program that went to Omaha five times during his tenure. He jumped back into coaching at Georgia for two years before returning to Mississippi State in 2002.
The Bulldogs finished with losing conference records in 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2006. With Ole Miss elevating its baseball program during that stretch, the heat on Polk intensified. After Mississippi State lost at Clemson in the regionals last year, he spoke with each of his players individually.
"I looked them in the eye and asked them, 'Do you feel comfortable with me still coaching? Am I too old?'" he said. "They all said they wanted me back."
Mississippi State claimed this super regional by strafing an acclaimed pitching staff. Clemson's starter on Friday, lefty Daniel Moskos, was picked fourth overall in the draft. He lasted five innings while giving up six runs (five earned) on nine hits, including home runs by Mitch Moreland and Connor Powers to center field.
Saturday's starter, junior right-hander David Kopp, went in the second round of the draft but couldn't make it into the second inning against the Bulldogs, who were up 5-2 after two frames. They methodically answered every challenge by the Tigers thereafter, coming up with the clutch hits they couldn't produce before the NCAA Tournament.
Clemson has two other pitchers who were drafted high. But third-rounders Alan Farina and Stephen Clyne also had problems holding up against a team that faced good pitching all season.
"We see guys like that all the time in the Southeastern Conference," Rea said.
With Mississippi State up three runs heading into the bottom of the ninth, a few security guards entered the Bulldogs' dugout in anticipation of the inevitable frenzy that was to follow.
"I was like, 'I hope y'all have got a lot of Tasers,'" Rea joked.
Once Moreland struck out Taylor Harbin to end it, the players raced for the mound to form a dog pile, Bulldog style. And then came the fans, spilling over the outfield wall to join the fun.
For a team that wasn't supposed to be here, the fun is just beginning.
"We have momentum, which is something we haven't had all year," Rea said. "We've just gotten hot at the right time."
Said Polk: "This is a ball club that most people don't want to play right now."
Larry Williams covers Clemson and the ACC for The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C.