Mississippi State has a proud standing in baseball lore, rich with stars and legendary college baseball players, but Jake Mangum, perhaps, stands out brighter than the rest.
While I won’t say he’s the best player in their storied history, he’s inspired a team like no one who has come before him – he is the heart and soul and the unquestioned best player on his team, a team that has faced adversity that hit them out of nowhere.
Whether he is mowing down baserunners who dare to test his arm, chasing down surefire extra-base hits in the gap, pressing the issue for opposing defenses as a nightmare on the bases, or frustrating pitchers by getting on base over 40 percent of the time, Mangum has been an emotional leader and a production leader for the Bulldogs since stepping on campus.
As a freshman, he slashed .408/.510/.458 with 40 runs scored. In his sophomore season, Mangum formed a lethal one-two punch with Brent Rooker that carried Mississippi State into a Super Regional.
But his junior season is the one that stands out above all. The 2018 Mississippi State season was doomed from the start, or at least it would have been if it wasn’t for Jake Mangum.
Sure, Mississippi State started the season getting swept by Southern Miss and later got off to a 2-7 start in SEC play after losing their young, up-and-coming head coach to off-the-field misconduct.
Mangum doesn’t have it in him to give up, though, and he wasn’t going to let his team give up.
The fortune of the Bulldogs’ season was reversed on April 8 in series finale against rival and No. 3 ranked Ole Miss. The Rebels had split the first two games in Starkville, and they looked to keep rolling along against a seemingly dead-in-the-water Mississippi State.
Jake Mangum was having none of that, however. When his team needed him the most, Mangum was other worldly, batting 5-for-5 and scoring five runs, while driving in an RBI. Jake was also hit by a pitch and stole a base in the game.
Mississippi State won that game, 7-5, on a walk-off home run courtesy of Luke Alexander, but not before Mangum saved the day to allow for that walk-off to happen. Jake drove in the tying run in the ninth, before getting on base in the 11th to stress the Ole Miss defense as Alexander hit his walk-off home run.
Alexander got to play hero, but Mangum inspired the heroics. Jake Mangum saved the season, and Luke Alexander blasted the Bulldogs into a new light.
Mississippi State’s upsetting the Rebels was the catalyst for the rest of the season, featuring sweeps of top-five opponents Florida and Arkansas. Starting with the Ole Miss series, the Bulldogs won 13 of their next 21 SEC games (13-8) and won a mid-week game against the Rebels, in which Luke Alexander played hero in with a walk-off hit, again. Remember Luke Alexander, he has another role to play.
They made the postseason because of that weekend. Other things – like going 9-1 against Top-10 teams – had to happen, too, but they don’t happen without that catalyst.
But the Bulldogs weren’t satisfied with making the postseason. No, they were determined to make some noise. After dropping the first game of the Tallahassee Regional, Mississippi State ripped off four consecutive wins to advance to a Super Regional against Vanderbilt.
No, it wasn’t easy to reach that point, but nothing about their season had been easy. So no one was surprised when their season came down to a win-or-go-home game three in Nashville that was knotted up at 3 after nine innings, even though the Bulldogs jumped out to an early 2-0 lead.
And no, there may not have been another possible ending to the eighth inning than Vanderbilt running their way into a runner’s interference call to squander a bases-loaded situation, sending Mississippi State to bat in the ninth.
There should have been no surprise when Luke Alexander got on base to start the ninth, or when Jake Mangum came up with runners on the corners and one out, either. No, this team hangs around and, most importantly, wins.
On the first pitch of his at-bat, Mangum knocked a run-scoring double into right field to take a 4-3 lead. Had there been more foul territory, it would have been a two-run triple, but Rowdy Jordan came through with a sacrifice fly to score Jordan Anderson. Of course, Mangum was going to score, too. On a 2-1 count, Mangum raced home following a pitch escaped the catcher’s grasps. Just like that, the Bulldogs had a commanding three-run lead, seemingly clinching their historical College World Series berth.
But as explicitly stated earlier, nothing is allowed to come easy to this team. No, Riley Self had tough luck on good pitches, and Vanderbilt refused to die. No, the Commodores hit two home runs, one a solo shot and one a two-run bullet to right, tied the game at six. But it could have been worse – Elijah MacNamee made a Mangum-esque catch in right field to rob an extra-base hit.
And to the 11th the game eventually made its way. Mangum strolled to the plate following a leadoff walk to Josh Hatcher, but he wasn’t able to come through with a hit this time.
Every star eventually needs to be picked up by a teammate, and Mangum’s teammates picked him up when it mattered most. Freshman Rowdy Jordan, diving headfirst, beat out a high-hop infield single to put runners on the corners with one out. Fellow freshman Tanner Allen answered the call, too, delivering a run-scoring double that left two runners in scoring position.
Vanderbilt then decided to intentionally walk Hunter Stovall, which loaded the bases. That decision didn’t pay off, as the ‘Dores walked Justin Foscue two batters later to walk in a run, bringing up Luke Alexander, who was apparently born for these moments. Alexander flared a two-run single into No Man’s Land in shallow right field, blowing open a four-run lead for the Bulldogs.
Mangum had given the Bulldogs a golden opportunity to win earlier, but Vanderbilt fought back. Two freshmen picked him up, and then Luke Alexander put a symbolic stamp on the game.
After two weeks of scintillating, nerve-wracking baseball for the Bulldogs, they are Omaha bound, with no intentions on slowing down. As for Jake Mangum, he has scratched out his own special place in Mississippi State’s storied history – Luke Alexander has a spot, too, as does the rest of this Bulldogs team; they’ve earned every bit of it.