STARKVILLE, Miss. — The opening weekend of Mississippi State’s baseball season couldn’t have been much more demoralizing. The proud program lost three straight games, lost its head coach and had multiple excuses to totally fall apart.
Instead, the Bulldogs’ season will end at the College World Series.
Mississippi State’s unlikely road to Omaha comes less than four months after coach Andy Cannizaro resigned on Feb. 20 for off-field conduct . Pitching coach Gary Henderson took over on an interim basis and the struggle to save the season began.
It was not an overnight turnaround.
“There was no miracle cure, that’s for sure,” Henderson said.
The Bulldogs started with a 14-15 record, including 2-7 in the Southeastern Conference, and looked nothing like a team that would come close to finding its way to Nebraska. But slowly, Mississippi State started to play better.
Center fielder Jake Mangum credits the coaching staff with giving the offense a “stubborn” identity that has served it well throughout its turnaround.
“We never gave up,” Mangum said. “Our coaching staff continued to push us every day and they’re still pushing us.”
The Bulldogs (37-27) gained confidence with good performances in the second half of the season against some of the nation’s top teams. Mississippi State earned three-game sweeps over Arkansas and Florida — teams that are also in Omaha this year — to finish the regular season at 31-25 overall and 15-15 in the SEC.
That was enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and the Bulldogs have taken advantage of the opportunity. Mississippi State will face Washington (35-24) in its CWS opener on Saturday.
Mississippi State’s postseason run has been punctuated by huge moments to win close games. The Bulldogs were one strike from elimination in the Tallahassee Regional before Elijah MacNamee hit a three-run homer to beat host Florida State .
MacNamee had another walk-off homer — a two-run shot — to beat Vanderbilt last weekend in the first game of the super regionals.
The Bulldogs’ final win over Vanderbilt to earn a trip to Omaha also had plenty of drama. Mississippi State jumped ahead 6-3 in the ninth before Vanderbilt tied the game in the bottom of the inning. The Bulldogs finally prevailed after a four-run 11th inning.
Mangum said it’s been stressful and thrilling at the same time. Henderson said it’s just part of the postseason.
“You’ve got to get comfortable playing tight games and winning late,” Henderson said. “You just have to, especially on the road. It’s part of the deal. You signed up for it. Embrace it, love it, appreciate it and be grateful for the opportunity to compete at Mississippi State.
“If you can be grateful for the opportunity, it can turn your perspective in the right direction.”
Henderson’s steady, low-key guidance has been a perfect fit for a team that needed stability in the aftermath of Cannizaro’s surprise resignation. He was the head coach at Kentucky for eight seasons before resigning in 2016 after missing the NCAA Tournament two straight seasons.
He has gotten another chance in the SEC and it’s been a rewarding few months.
“It’s really nice to know you can lead a team to Omaha,” Henderson said.
Henderson said he would “absolutely” like to remain at Mississippi State and wants to keep his coaching staff intact as well. The man who will make that decision — athletic director John Cohen — is Mississippi State’s former baseball coach and knows Henderson better than most.
Cohen coached at Kentucky before coming to Mississippi State and Henderson was his pitching coach. Cohen said Henderson “has a great baseball mind” and he “hasn’t taken anything off the table” when it comes to the coaching search.
Like everyone else at Mississippi State, he’s just happy the Bulldogs are still playing baseball in mid-June after the season’s rough start.
“They have all the excuses in the world why this shouldn’t happen, but it happened because they didn’t use any excuses,” Cohen said. “To me, that’s what I’m most proud of.”