By Brett Hudson
STARKVILLE — Peyton Plumlee spent a second looking down the filled sections of grandstands, first to his left and then his right, after he finished his 6.2 innings of 2-hit, 1-run pitching. His hat partially covered his face, an effort to keep himself from crying, as a giddy JT Ginn met him with an emphatic embrace.
Before this triumphant stroll, Plumlee got a word of advice from coach Chris Lemonis: “Take it slow.”
This was his Dudy Noble Field sendoff, and one Lemonis wanted Plumlee to enjoy.
The 2.1 innings of baseball to follow was much more of the same. Yes, Sunday’s night’s 8-1 win over Stanford was one that won the Starkville Super Regional, one that sent Mississippi State to Omaha for the 11th time in program history and to the program’s first back-to-back Omaha trips in 21 years. But it was also the heroic exit the soon-to-depart crop of players deserved, one immediately after the other with 11,597 people applauding every step of the victory lap.
Few fit that description — and bolster it with raw emotion — better than Plumlee. Plumlee took the advice to soak it in; his parents did the same.
“I said, ‘Y’all film, I’m watching,’” Mia Plumlee said.
She said she could see the emotion on her son’s face, but, “It was hard to see through mine.”
Mia Plumlee would be thrust back into that emotion later, recounting an added layer to the meaning of the night.
“Omaha’s been talked about in our family since he was a little kid. My dad, we grew up South Carolina fans because we lived there, but all my dad wanted to see was Peyton to get to Omaha one day,” she said, choking back tears. “He’s watching from above, and he did it.
“Peyton did it. For this town, for this school, he did it.”
Peyton’s father Michael also had to choke back tears as he watched Peyton exit the game from left field. His mind went back to 2010, when Peyton was 13 and they went to the College World Series as fans for its final season at Rosenblatt Stadium. For Peyton to play such a big part in sending the team there is still surreal to him, but by now it shouldn’t be a surprise.
“He’s not afraid,” Mia said, and Peyton’s performance in the big moments proves it.
Plumlee got the start in the Governor’s Cup game against Ole Miss and responded with 4 innings of 3-hit, 1-run ball; he started five days later for a chance to sweep top-5 Georgia and threw 6.1 innings with one hit and no runs allowed. He got a rubber match start against Texas A&M and delivered 6 strong innings and a win.
Plumlee’s gotten wins in both of his NCAA Tournament starts, one to send the Bulldogs to a Super Regional and another to send them to Omaha.
In tow on that route to Omaha: Elijah MacNamee’s redemption story.
* * *
The usually eloquent MacNamee didn’t have many words roughly 36 hours after not hearing his name called in the MLB Draft. He was short and to the point: he’ll put his trust in God’s hands and trust all will work out as it’s supposed to.
It did nothing to stop everyone around him from voicing their frustrations.
“There’s 1,200 picks in the draft and he doesn’t get drafted. It’s a joke,” Jake Mangum said. “All week he said God’s got him, he’s going to stay with God and good things happened.”
Chris Lemonis added, “Elijah’s week’s been really hard. He’s such an awesome kid, he’s a great player but an even better person. It was really hard, but the day after he’s working hard and pumping everyone up, and the game rewards that.”
MacNamee had faith in that basic principle, but at least he gets to have the bat in his hand and control the situation in some way. His mother, Jen Horton, is not as lucky. She had moments of being bitter, contemplating how Elijah’s chase of the national championship he so covets could be influenced by such an important outside event right in the middle of it.
“He’s my hero, and I’m going to cry saying that,” Horton said. “It hurt me down to the core as a mom. You want to hear the name called.”
If MacNamee allowed his frustration to show to anyone, it was Horton. She felt the urge to send him a long text message before Sunday night’s game, reiterating her pride in him, how his performance as a Bulldog is far beyond anything they could have imagined. Part of his response: “You’re my best friend. Let’s finish this.”
MacNamee finished it with a behemoth of a home run that twisted the cap off his emotional bottle. He admired his work and flashily flipped the bat back to the dugout as he yelled, screamed and repeatedly pumped his fist, the gyrations of his body not all that different from the “trot” around the bases in Tallahassee for which he will be remembered forever.
In the stands, Horton did the same thing she did when MacNamee’s home run walked off game one of last year’s Nashville Super Regional: she collapsed and cried. She wanted to surround herself with other mothers — Mia Plumlee, Stacy Mangum and Jennifer Self, to name a few — as their boys went through their final motions in this stadium (Riley Self excluded). As MacNamee’s ball left the yard, Horton was surrounded by hugs and brought into them.
Stacy Mangum had her own moment just three at-bats earlier, when her son Jake Mangum couldn’t help but notice his first and last Dudy Noble Field hits resembled each other: through the left side of the infield.
“And of course it’s on the first pitch,” Jake Mangum said.
Mangum stood on first base and blew a kiss to the throngs of fans, Stacy Mangum among them, almost certainly shedding tears. She’s still coming to terms with these four years ending — and frankly would take another one in a heartbeat if the NCAA would let her — but Jake’s sendoff had her smiling ear to ear in the wee hours of Monday morning.
Third baseman Marshall Gilbert got to have two hits in his final day at Dudy Noble. Jared Liebelt recorded four outs between the starter and the finisher in his last time on that mound. He returned to Mississippi State to stare long odds in the face in hopes of proving he belongs and proving he can help a championship team, and he did both in his heroic goodbye.
Cole Gordon’s sendoff moment was muzzled and came with a different view: his came from the bottom of a dogpile. Eleven months prior, Gordon was weighing life after baseball, even as far as having one foot into that life. Instead, he and his fellow seniors have reached the pinnacle of their sport and done it with the storybook moment to share forever.
“If you think I can put that into words,” Jake Mangum said, “you’re crazy.”