- Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. She previously wrote for The Kansas City Star and The Omaha World-Herald.
OMAHA, Neb. — In the moments before his plate appearance Saturday night at the College World Series, a couple of Tanner Leggett’s Mississippi State teammates approached him in the dugout.
They told him he was going to get a chance to win the game.
On paper, at least, the prospect of that did not exactly inspire confidence — 5-foot-10 and 164 pounds, Leggett was a .206 career hitter who had just two plate appearances in the past month. In one of them earlier this week at the CWS, he stranded the bases loaded.
But tied in the bottom of the ninth inning in a win-or-go-home game with Texas on Saturday night, the prediction proved true. And Leggett didn’t flinch.
“Some people get nervous for that situation,” he said. “But I pray for that situation.”
Leggett roped an RBI single to left-center field, lifting Mississippi State to a 4-3 walkoff win over the second-seeded Longhorns for a trip to Monday’s best-of-three finals against Vanderbilt. A lot was on the line Saturday for the Bulldogs, who aren’t just seeking their first national championship in 12 tries in Omaha. They’re playing for Mississippi State’s first national championship in any team sport.
None of this was lost on Leggett, who grew up in Randolph, Mississippi, and, like most boys in the state, dreamed of wearing maroon and white. The journey first took Leggett, and teammate Brayland Skinner, to Northwest Mississippi Community College. And in front of a packed TD Ameritrade Park Saturday, Leggett drove in Skinner, who sprinted home from second base.
Skinner is another one of the Bulldogs’ role players. He was pinch running in the ninth, and he stole second on a high fastball earlier in Leggett’s at-bat. Coach Chris Lemonis calls them his JUCO bandits, and one of the things he’s been telling his team this week is that it will take everyone to win a title.
It will also take some resiliency. The Bulldogs sat out a long rain delay Friday night in an 8-5 loss to Texas, a game that didn’t finish until after 2 a.m. ET.
“I told the team last night in the rain delay, ‘If you ever thought it was going to be easy, it’s not our way,'” Lemonis said. “[It] seems like we have to be dramatic. We have to fight for it, and for us to get here, it was going to be a battle. Our team has been so resilient all year. Probably our No. 1 quality is just grit, being able to stay locked in, focused and keep competing.”
Mississippi State trailed 3-1 after Mike Antico’s RBI double in the fifth inning, but tied the game in sixth during Longhorns’ pitcher Tristan Stevens third time through the order. The Bulldogs appeared on the verge of breaking the game open that inning, loading the bases with no outs. But Texas reliever Cole Quintanilla proceeded to strike out the next three hitters, and jumped and pounded his glove.
The Longhorns needed to stretch out Quintanilla — they ran through their bullpen arms during a long week in the elimination bracket. And Quintanilla delivered, facing the minimum in the seventh and eighth innings.
“I just went out there and tried to leave it all out on the line for my brothers,” Quintanilla said. “Just doing everything I can to keep us in the game.”
It was also clear, even before the teams took the field Saturday night, that the Bulldogs were going to ride their two best arms — Will Bednar and Landon Sims. They combined for 21 strikeouts last week in a 2-1 victory over the Longhorns in their first game at the CWS, a crucial game that kept them in the winners’ bracket most of the week.
On Saturday night, Bednar scattered four hits and three runs over 6 1/3 innings, striking out seven. Then Sims took the mound. Eight outs, along with a little offensive help, and the Bulldogs were in the finals. He retired the next five batters, four on strikeouts, and rocked his shoulders back and forth.
Sims hit the leadoff batter in the top of the ninth, but was nearly perfect. He allowed no hits or walks. Sims said he was confident the Bulldogs’ hitters were going to end the game in the bottom of the ninth.
With one out, Kellum Clark reached when he was hit in the foot by a pitch. Then Skinner pinch-ran, and Leggett emptied the dugout. Skinner tossed his helmet in celebration, and the Bulldogs ran out to Leggett and swarmed him in the outfield.
Leggett said it was his first walkoff hit since high school. When the swarm enveloped him, Leggett said he kind of blacked out. Sims ripped off Leggett’s jersey, and later said the pitcher stole it. But Leggett didn’t seem to care. The seventh-inning defensive replacement was right where he was supposed to be.
“Right when it went off the bat,” Sims said, “I think everybody in the dugout knew that it was game right there. You know, he put a really good swing on it. Probably the best swing of his life. I think he would say that.”
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