By JOEL COLEMAN
In a world where one mistake can sometimes be imprinted so deeply upon one’s life that it becomes their label, Mississippi State pitcher Peyton Plumlee was in need of a second chance.
It was last summer. It’d been a year since Plumlee, who was a key piece of MSU’s 2017 run to a super regional, was suspended after he failed an NCAA drug test. The punishment at the time? Plumlee was to miss 365 days from the date of the test. That meant the 2018 Mississippi State season was out for him.
The days and weeks passed for Plumlee. He wavered on whether or not to return to Starkville and shoot to return for 2019. It wasn’t long before he made his choice.
“The goal was always to be back out here (at MSU),” Plumlee said. “I kind of steered in a different way to maybe (play at an NAIA school) at one point, but then after talking to my dad, I realized my best shot was going to be to try to come back to Mississippi State and finish out the school year as a regular student for my junior year and then prepare for maybe getting a shot to come back (and play baseball) for my senior year.”
Plumlee put his head down and went to work. He waited for the opportunity to return.
Last June, Mississippi State was enjoying one of the school’s most improbable runs ever. The Bulldogs were floundering at midseason, but righted the ship. Under interim head coach Gary Henderson – the previous pitching coach at the school who took over after former head coach Andy Cannizaro resigned due to what he called “poor decisions” just three games into the season – MSU reached the College World Series for the 10th time in program history.
Henderson was hailed as a national coach of the year by a pair of outlets for the job he did resurrecting the Bulldogs. He wasn’t retained as the full-time head coach though. That job was handed to Chris Lemonis.
Henderson did have an impact on the 2019 Bulldogs though, particularly where Plumlee was concerned. Henderson had firm faith in Plumlee. He thought he absolutely deserved the chance at redemption.
“I believed in him as a kid and a person first,” Henderson said. “I thought he was genuine in his desire to make things right.”
A plan was put in place for Plumlee to try and work his way back to the MSU roster. It was the foundation for Plumlee’s ultimate return to Starkville.
“The biggest part of getting to come back here was Coach Henderson,” Plumlee said. “Coach Henderson was a big fan of me and I’m a big fan of him. I have the utmost respect for him and he always respected me and I appreciate that. I think he had the most pull with getting me back here. I know a lot of people were waiting and considering the stuff I’d been in trouble for and wanting to either give me another chance or not give me another chance because of the stuff I’d done in the past, but Coach Henderson saw past it and luckily he was able to get (Lemonis) on board with him and (Lemonis) was able to look past that too. So that’s why I’m back out here.”
Henderson said he didn’t have a conversation with Lemonis about Plumlee, but had made his thoughts known to MSU hitting coach Jake Gautreau. All the conversations between former and current Bulldog coaches ultimately led to the invite to Plumlee to return.
Plumlee was playing summer ball last year when he got a call from Lemonis.
“He called me and welcomed me back to the team,” Plumlee said. “It was a big weight lifted off my shoulders. I knew I was going to be able to come back out here and compete again.”
On a short leash
MSU forgave Plumlee. They didn’t completely forget his past mistake.
What people see when they look at Plumlee now is a pitcher that has gone out in 2019 and been a large piece of a team on the doorstep of this year’s College World Series. He’s limited opponents to a .213 batting average while compiling a 6-4 record. He completely solidified MSU’s weekend rotation alongside ace Ethan Small and freshman sensation J.T. Ginn.
What people haven’t seen though is that internally, Plumlee has been under a little more scrutiny than the average Diamond Dog. In baseball terms, one more strike might’ve been enough to punch Plumlee out. However he’s done nothing but take advantage of the opportunity afforded to him.
“None of my guys and none of our coaches are perfect,” Lemonis said. “We felt like (Plumlee) deserved a second chance. He’s been on a tight leash, so he has to probably do a little more than some of the other guys, but he’s been great.”
Patience pays off
Jake Mangum is one of Peyton Plumlee’s best friends. Mangum, MSU’s star centerfielder, saw the pain his buddy went through in missing out on the Bulldogs’ memorable 2018. When Elijah MacNamee hit dramatic postseason walk-off homers last year in the regional at Florida State, then again in the super regional at Vanderbilt, Plumlee wasn’t in the dugout. When the Bulldogs got to within one win of the national finals, Plumlee wasn’t with MSU.
A year later though, Plumlee is firmly in the mix. More than that, there’s a chance he could get the ball in a game that could actually punch MSU’s ticket back to Omaha. One of the guys happiest to see it is Mangum.
“Man, I love that guy,” Mangum said of Plumlee. “He was great my sophomore year and now that he’s back, it’s awesome. It’s patience man. Just a guy that’s as hungry as he is to play and just going through the crazy ride last year…I’m glad he’s getting to soak it all up this year. Last year, he saw all that stuff happen and I can tell you that man wants to get to Omaha. He hasn’t had an Omaha trip like these (returning players) have. He’s just out here competing his butt off and just playing the game he loves.
“What he went through is something I don’t want anyone to go through. It’s tough. But he’s kept a good attitude and he’s exceeded expectations this year. That’s for sure.”
What’s the next chapter?
Plumlee’s incredible comeback – from suspension to star – isn’t quite over yet. In fact, it got even better on Wednesday when Plumlee heard his name called in this year’s MLB Draft. The Houston Astros picked Plumlee in the 31st round of the draft with the 946th overall selection.
A fellow drafted Bulldog – Small, who went in the first round to the Milwaukee Brewers – attributes such Plumlee successes to the difficulties Plumlee had to endure along the way the last couple of years.
“For him to go through all that, it could’ve been the best thing to ever happen to him as far as being thankful for the opportunity to pitch here,” Small said. “I think you’re seeing him take advantage of the opportunity he’s been given to really step up.”
Can Plumlee’s already-sweet story get even sweeter? Of course it could. He could help pitch State back to the College World Series this weekend and make good for that Omaha trip he missed out on a year ago. Either way though, Plumlee is a young man full of gratitude.
His mistake didn’t define him. It was a steppingstone to this year and the ones to come.
“I’m just grateful,” Plumlee said. “It’s really all I can say is just I’m grateful and blessed. It’s been a wild ride. There are so many different things that come into play with all this different stuff, but just being at the doorstep of Omaha and back in a super regional where I was two years ago, it’s a special feeling.”