Mississippi State and Ole Miss got what they needed from starters Peyton Plumlee and Gunnar Hoglund, respectively, in Sunday’s regional clinchers. Plumlee went five-plus, yielding two runs for the Bulldogs, who used four relievers to close out the 5-2 win against Miami at Starkville. Hoglund worked 5 1/3 for the Rebels, allowing just one earned run, before three relievers finished up the 19-4 romp vs. Jacksonville State in Oxford. But the most impressive mound performance on Sunday might have came from a pitcher who took a loss, the one that ended Southern Miss’ season. In a must-win game, against LSU at night in a packed Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, the Golden Eagles’ Josh Lewis delivered six-plus innings, taking a lead into the seventh, against the national No. 13 seed. Left-hander Lewis, a junior transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, hadn’t pitched since May 17. He had only one previous start, and his ERA in 15 games was approaching 6.00. But the Eagles’ pitching depth was depleted after the wild 13-12 win over Arizona State earlier Sunday and an 8-4 loss to LSU on Saturday; they trotted out 11 pitchers in those two games. So Lewis got the ball with the season on the line. “Really, it’s a moment I’ve been waiting for,” Lewis told the Hub City Spokes. “I’m glad I went out there and gave us a chance to win.” After allowing a leadoff homer and then two more runs in the second inning, the undaunted Lewis settled in, and the Eagles rallied to take a 4-3 lead before the game got away from them in the seventh. Lewis was charged with eight hits, a walk and five runs in the 6-4 defeat. Those numbers don’t tell the story a truly valiant effort.
The quest for an elusive national championship begins this weekend for Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Southern Miss, with both State and UM hosting NCAA regionals. The Magnolia State claims three national titles in baseball, but none in NCAA Division I. Fifty years ago, William Carey University won the NAIA World Series. Fifteen years ago, Delta State took the NCAA D-II crown. And in 2016, Jones County Junior College came home with the NJCAA D-II title. (Pearl River CC’s run ended on Tuesday.) The D-I schools have come close to winning it all in recent years. MSU lost in the best-of-3 final to UCLA in 2013; that’s the Bulldogs’ best showing in 10 CWS appearances. Ole Miss reached the semifinal round in 2014 in its first CWS trip since 1972. (USM made its first and only CWS appearance 10 years ago but didn’t stick around Omaha long). As a No. 6 national seed, the Bulldogs have the clearest path – if it can ever be called that — to Omaha this year. The Rebels, the No. 12 overall seed, likely would have to go on the road (to Arkansas) for their Super Regional. The Golden Eagles go to Baton Rouge as a regional 3-seed but are riding the wave of another C-USA Tournament championship. Baseball is a major source of pride for the state. It has become commonplace for the Big 3 to show up in preseason national polls, contend for conference titles and even get regional host bids. Just imagine what a national championship would do for the state’s growing reputation as a baseball hotbed.
These aren’t household names – ballpark names? – that are coming to Oxford for the regional. Tennessee Tech, Missouri State, St. Louis. But they are hardly chumps. Tech has 48 wins and is ranked 25th by Baseball America. Missouri State is No. 23 and won the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. St. Louis won the regular season and tourney titles in the Atlantic 10. Fourth-ranked (and national 4-seed) Ole Miss isn’t likely to coast through to the Super Regional round. The Rebels likely will face a stern test in Friday’s opener against St. Louis’ Miller Hogan, the A-10 pitcher of the year and a 10-game winner with strikeout stuff. Tech, a heavy-hitting club, brings the OVC player of the year: Kevin Strohschein (.406, 18 homers, 65 RBIs). Missouri State shortstop Jeremy Eierman is a highly regarded draft prospect. The SEC champion Rebels, 46-15 and a top 10 team most of the season, roll out an impressive crop of stars: Ryan Rolison, Ryan Olenek, Nick Fortes, Parker Caracci and those other guys in the bullpen. Yet the deciding factor for the Rebels might just be the crowds at Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field. “It’s going to be a rowdy, rowdy, rowdy group,” SLU coach Darin Hendrickson, who has been to Oxford before, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. P.S. Southern Miss, nationally ranked and a double champion in C-USA, got kind of a tough draw from the NCAA, being sent to the Fayetteville Regional at Baum Stadium, where the national 5-seed Arkansas Razorbacks are 30-3. The Hogs are 9-15 elsewhere. Baum Stadium is a homer-friendly park, and USM can play that game. Led by Matt Wallner, the Golden Eagles rank 15th nationally in homers. Of course, first-round foe Dallas Baptist ranks ninth and Arkansas third. Watch for bombs at the Baum. … There is an interesting subplot to watch in Mississippi State’s regional opener in Tallahassee, Fla.: Bulldogs ace Konnor Pilkington and Oklahoma’s Jake Irvin, the likely starters, were roomies last summer when they played for Team USA. “That’ll be a fun matchup for sure,” Irvin told newsok.com. OU outfielder Steele Walker, a top pro prospect, was also on that squad. Florida State, the host and the national 7-seed, will be a tough out at Howser Stadium. But MSU, the 2-seed in the regional, has played well the role of giant killer this season, going 9-1 against top 5 seeds Florida, Arkansas and Ole Miss.
Beyond top-seeded Southern Miss and No. 2 Mississippi State, there are other significant Magnolia State connections in the Hattiesburg Regional. South Alabama, the 3-seed and State’s first-round opponent, features a trio of Mississippians: Wells Davis from Columbus and New Hope High, Dylan Hardy from D’Iberville High and Randy Bell from Woodville, Centerville Academy and Hinds Community College. Hardy is one of the Jaguars’ top hitters with a .358 average and has 18 stolen bases. Davis is second on the team in homers with 12 and is batting .290 with 55 RBIs. Bell, who was the NJCAA Division II pitcher of the year at Hinds in 2015, is one of the Jags’ top starters. He is 6-3 with a 3.75 ERA this season after going 7-1, 2.45 (including a regional victory) in 2016. South Alabama, traditionally a strong program, is 39-19 and champion of the Sun Belt Conference.
Southern Miss might not leave Biloxi today with a Conference USA Tournament championship, but win or lose against Rice, the Golden Eagles won’t leave feeling deflated. They’ve already packed a season’s worth of highlights into their run at MGM Park, likely cemented their bid for a regional host role and clearly established themselves as a team to watch once NCAA play begins. After suffering a shocking loss in the opening round of the tournament, USM stormed back to win four straight, including two drama-filled victories against Charlotte on Saturday, to reach the title game. The Eagles got great pitching when they needed it: See Kirk McCarty, Taylor Braley, Nick Sandlin (again and again and again). They got big hits when they needed them: See Matthew Guidry, Mason Irby, Bryant Bowen, Taylor Braley, Hunter Slater, Daniel Keating, Matt Wallner. Braley threw eight shutout innings with nine strikeouts on Friday, then hit a walk-off homer in the first game on Saturday – that’s the stuff of legend. Sandlin, who has 10 wins and seven saves out of the bullpen, got both W’s on Saturday, working 4 1/3 total innings to close out both games. At 48-13, USM already has set the school record for wins. These Eagles score 8.5 runs a game. They’ve got 84 homers, 76 steals. The pitching hasn’t been dominant (4.03 ERA), but it keeps them in games. “Right now, it’s all about attitude,” USM coach Scott Berry said in a school release after Saturday’s second game, a 10-8, come-from-behind job. The Eagles should be brimming with confidence as they move on. They’ll be a tough out in the NCAAs. P.S. The C-USA title game will be televised by CBS Sports Network at 1 p.m.
Junior college teams in the state have played in the considerable shadow of the big schools this season. For one day at least, Jones County Junior College owns the spotlight. The Bobcats won the NJCAA Division II national championship on Saturday night, beating GateWay College of Arizona 7-1 in Enid, Okla. Ben Stiglets, a freshman from Gulfport, threw an eight-hitter with eight strikeouts, and World Series MVP Erick Hoard, a freshman from Brandon, led a 15-hit attack with a 3-for-6 effort as the third-ranked Bobcats (54-9) rolled to their first national title. Jones reached the championship round in 2011. Jones got homers from Mason Irby, Tanner Huddleston and Shelton Wallace in the clincher, its second win of the day. Stiglets (10-0) was knocked around by GateWay in the Bobcats’ loss on Monday but bounced back with a sterling outing on Saturday, continuing a string of such performances by Bobcats hurlers in Enid. “It kinda helped to get slapped in the face,” first-year coach Chris Kirtland told the Enid News & Eagle. Calder Mikell, Mason Strickland and Will Brand also stepped up as JCJC won its last four games in Enid by a 40-11 count. P.S. Elsewhere, Mississippi State is in fine shape for a regional title, Southern Miss faces an uphill battle and Ole Miss is done. The Rebels bowed out in shocking fashion Saturday in the Oxford Regional, when Will Stokes gave up a two-run homer in the ninth inning against Tulane. USM, after a 7-2 loss to Florida State in the Tallahassee Regional, will have to beat South Alabama today and then take down FSU twice to win the region crown. State is 2-0 in the Starkville Regional, needing only one win to advance to a Super Regional.
There’s baseball in Starkville and Oxford today, and in Tallahassee, Fla., too, where Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Southern Miss begin the chase for regional championships. The fourth Magnolia State school still playing also gets back on the field in Enid, Okla. It will be a battle-tested but well-rested Jones County Junior College team that plays tonight in the NJCAA Division II World Series. The third-ranked Bobcats (51-9) haven’t played since Tuesday, when they beat Brunswick (N.C.) in an elimination game. JCJC now faces GateWay (Ariz.) College, 3-0 in the tournament, following an elimination game between Mercer County (N.J.) and Sinclair (Ohio). The Bobcats were in fine form in the 11-3 victory against Brunswick: Erick Hoard (a .402 hitter with 18 homers) drove in three runs and Clint Sasser (.382 with 84 runs) scored three, Calder Mikell earned his 11th win with a strong start and Brunswick pitchers contributed 11 walks and five HBPs. For tonight’s game, pitching-rich Jones likely will bring back Mason Strickland (11-0), the starter from its Game 1 victory last Saturday.
Don’t overlook Utah in the Oxford Regional. Picked by at least one national publication to finish last in the Pac-12, the Utes won the league championship. They had to win the last two games of the regular season to earn that title and keep playing in June. They did, beating Washington by scores of 12-8 and 21-7. So forget that 25-27 overall record. This team went 19-11 in the Pac-12, a very competitive league. And this team has a legitimate ace, Jayson Rose, who’ll face Ole Miss and counterpart Brady Bramlett on Friday at Oxford-University Stadium. “I’ll take Jayson Rose over anybody right now,” Utah coach Bill Kinneberg told the Salt Lake Tribune. “I feel pretty good about that matchup.” Rose, a 5-foot-11 right-hander, went 8-5 with a 2.62 ERA and a school-record 102 strikeouts in 103 innings. In Pac-12 competition, he was 6-3, 2.44 with wins over Arizona, Arizona State, Stanford, Cal, Oregon and UCLA. Against Ole Miss (43-17), Rose may face as strong an array of hitters – Henri Lartigue, Tate Blackman, J.B. Woodman, et al. – as he’s seen all season. That could be a challenge. But the Utes seem to like it that way.
The other Bulldogs in the Starkville Regional, the ones not wearing maroon, will have their fair share of fans around the state this weekend. Louisiana Tech, which came from out of nowhere this season to earn an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, is loaded with Mississippi connections. The third-seeded Bulldogs are coached by Greg Goff, a former Delta State player and assistant coach. Their pitching coach is Christian Ostrander, another ex-DSU player and coach who just last year was the head man at Jones County Junior College. There are seven Mississippi juco products on the LaTech roster, including former Clinton High and Hinds CC star Chase Lunceford, the team’s best hitter. Lunceford is batting .325 with 11 homers and 49 RBIs. Cody Daigle, an East Central CC alum, has 10 homers and 37 RBIs. Hinds CC product Casey Sutton is 7-1 with a 1.63 ERA. LaTech went 40-18 this year and reached the semifinal round of the C-USA Tournament in Hattiesburg last week. This is the school’s first NCAA appearance in 29 years. “We were picked 11th out of 12 teams in our league,” Goff said in a school release. “No one believed this would ever happen except for our guys.” LaTech, the 3-seed in the regional, plays Cal State Fullerton on Friday at Dudy Noble Field. Mississippi State, the No. 6 national seed, takes on Southeast Missouri State. P.S. Southern Miss’ opening round foe in the Tallahassee Regional is South Alabama, which counts five Mississippi jucos on its roster, including 2015 NJCAA Division II pitcher of the year Randy Bell. The right-hander is 6-1, 2.38 for the Jaguars.
Ole Miss went a long way for its short stay in the NCAA Tournament. Losses to Maryland and Cal State Bakersfield in the Los Angeles Regional over the weekend ended the Rebels’ season – and put a lid on the college season in the state. A year after making a deep run at the College World Series, a rebuilt UM team finished 30-28. Not a glittery record, but, yes, it did come against a tough slate. Reliever Wyatt Short (4 wins, 11 saves, 1.38 ERA) emerged as a Big Man on Campus (subcategory: pitcher) for the Rebels. The Rebs’ BMOC hitter was Sikes Orvis, who belted 16 homers, drove in 53 runs, scored 41 and slugged .587. … Southern Miss had a good year – a 35-16-1 regular season and a third-place finish in C-USA – that ended on a sour note. After going 1-2 in the league tournament in Hattiesburg, the Golden Eagles did not get a bid to the NCAAs. This year marked the 25th anniversary of USM’s first regional appearance; it would have been sweet if the current bunch could have duplicated the feat. Right-hander James McMahon (11-1, 1.56 ERA) was perhaps the biggest man on any campus in the state, winning the Ferriss Trophy as the state’s best player at a four-year school. Tim Lynch (.313, nine homers, 32 RBIs, 38 runs) was USM’s best all-around hitter. … Mississippi State endured what was likely the most disappointing season among the state’s four-year colleges. The Bulldogs, nationally ranked early in the year and 13-0 at one point, finished 24-30, 8-22 in the SEC. BMOCs for the Bulldogs were Jacob Robson (.324, 41 runs) and Trevor Fitts (2-4, 2.03, six saves). … Jackson State could not manage a third straight SWAC championship but wound up 32-25, getting a monster year from Melvin Rodriguez (.422, seven homers, 65 RBIs). The Tigers’ other BMOC: Vincent Anthonia (5-3, 4.45). … Alcorn State went 16-41 but did make the SWAC Tournament. BMOCs: Scotty Peavey (.345, 11 homers, 46 RBIs) and Cedric Walker (6-3, 7.59). In Aaron Stevens’ first year as coach, Mississippi Valley State ended 8-35-1, an improvement on 2014 (4-38). BMOCs: Kalik May (.335, four homers, 22 steals) and Tyler Case (3-10, 7.20). Delta State overcame a slow start to wind up 25-18, falling short, however, of a Division II regional bid. The Statesmen were led by BMOCs Jacob Swiney (.396, 35 RBIs, 32 runs) and Jonathan Moody (5-2, 4.04). In its first year back in D-II, and in Brian Owens’ final season as coach, Mississippi College finished 12-34. BMOCs: Hunter Bolin (.342, 24 RBIs, 24 runs) and Brooks Fortenberry (2-6, 5.87). New coach on campus: Jeremy Haworth. Southern Athletic Association player of the year Keith Shumaker (.390, 52 runs; 8-3, 2.48) led Millsaps to a 29-14 mark and a trip to the D-III regionals. Adam Kowalczyk, an All-Southern States Athletic Conference selection, hit .329 with 14 home runs and 66 RBIs as a BMOC for Belhaven (33-24). The Blazers’ best pitcher was Ben Allison (7-4, 4.15). William Carey wound up 30-23, led by All-SSAC picks Tyler Richardson (.385, 50 runs) and Gavin Culpepper (9-2, 2.75). Seth Davis (.396, eight homers, 40 RBIs) was an All-SSAC performer for Blue Mountain, which finished 17-27. The Toppers’ other BMOC: Dylan Earnest (4-6, 4.52). Tougaloo went 7-40 in Earl Sanders’ first year as coach. BMOCs: Lige Mims Jr. (.305, four homers, 28 RBIs) and Bennie Warner (2-7, 8.10).