By JOEL COLEMAN
In the top half of the seventh inning on Saturday at Dudy Noble Field, a loud cheer erupted. It had nothing to do with what was happening in Starkville. As fate would have it, the ovation was for No. 4 MSU’s instate rival Ole Miss.
“I can’t remember a time when that many Mississippi State people were cheering for Ole Miss,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said.
Some 570 miles away in College Station, Texas, the Rebels had just put the finishing touches on a 3-2 win over Texas A&M. The Aggies entered Saturday with an identical league record as the Bulldogs, meaning if MSU could pull out a win on its home field over Arkansas, State could lay claim to an outright Southeastern Conference regular season championship.
About an hour after Ole Miss did its part, Mississippi State was celebrating on its infield. After topping Arkansas 9-4, the Bulldogs wrapped up the SEC title, the school’s first since 1989.
“You can’t describe this,” MSU outfielder Jake Mangum said. “This is unreal. I don’t even know what to say right now.”
MSU (40-14-1, 21-9) became the first school in SEC history to win an outright championship after finishing last in the conference the season before. The Bulldogs’ worst-to-first story featured new school records with 21 conference wins and nine SEC series victories.
“The amount of work and the time and effort and the sweat and tears in the fall and early spring, it’s all worth it,” Bulldog third baseman Gavin Collins said. “We have been grinding for so long and it’s starting to show up. It’s awesome.”
A splendid relief outing from Ryan Rigby sparked the Bulldogs’ conference-clinching win over the Razorbacks (26-29, 7-23). After MSU starter Konnor Pilkington was removed after 2 1/3 innings with the Bulldogs down 2-1, Rigby entered and completely shut down Arkansas over the next 4 2/3 as State came from behind to take the lead.
In his outing, Rigby allowed just two hits. He didn’t allow a run and struck out six.
“I just tried to come in and get to the bottom of the zone with my fastball and let my defense do work,” Rigby said. “My defense was great. The offense was great. You couldn’t ask for a better night.”
State trailed 2-0 after one inning. Arkansas took its lead in the top of the first on a two-run homer from Clark Eagan. MSU rallied back to tie things with an RBI groundout from Ryan Gridley in the second and a Jacob Robson sacrifice fly in the third.
Mississippi State pulled away in the fifth. Collins had a run-scoring double to give MSU a 3-2 lead. Later in the inning with the bases loaded and two outs, Reid Humphreys hit a deep fly ball to centerfield that was dropped by Arkansas’ Carson Shaddy allowing the Bulldogs to clear the bases for a 6-2 advantage.
That was the score in the top of the seventh when MSU fans went wild as the Ole Miss win went final.
“No one verbally confirmed what happened, but I assumed there was a win that had worked to our benefit,” Robson said of the unique moment. “I tried my best to keep the guys calm and just move on to the next pitch.”
Over in right field, Mangum had been getting updates on the Rebels’ game from the fans just beyond the outfield wall.
“A pitch was being thrown and everything just went crazy,” Mangum said. “I’d never been so freaked out.
“Being 10 feet from all those (fans) in right field, they let me know what’s going on even if I don’t ask. As soon as everyone else went crazy, they started yelling at me and I heard everything. It was awesome.”
Not long after the seventh-inning roar, Mangum’s glove provided MSU with even more excitement. As Arkansas threatened with runners on the corners and one out, Mangum caught a line drive and fired to first base to double off the Razorback base runner to end the potential rally.
State rode the momentum to a three-run bottom half of the inning as John Holland drove in a run with a single and Jack Kruger knocked home two more with a base hit.
Though Arkansas closed the gap with a pair of RBI singles in the eighth, MSU was well on its way to the SEC title. That crown was secured when Blake Smith struck out the side in the ninth.
“This is the result of a ton of work by a group of kids who really put a chip on their shoulder this year,” Cohen said. “They just competed in everything they did. They competed in the weight room. They competed in practice. They competed in a really tough SEC. Now we get to talk about making really good decisions and competing our hearts out in the SEC Tournament and getting ready to play in the NCAA Tournament.”
The Bulldogs open up play in the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama, on Wednesday. As the tournament’s top seed, MSU has earned a first-round bye and will face the winner of Tuesday’s Kentucky versus Alabama matchup at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
That’s all in the days to come though. For now, MSU can relish its regular season championship. As gratifying as it may be, Cohen says his team isn’t satisfied.
“If you don’t end up in Omaha (for the College World Series) it’s not the year you want it to be,” Cohen said. “You want to finish this thing off. Our kids have bigger goals. They have bigger goals than winning the Southeastern Conference. It’s just a nice byproduct of the journey.”