By Brett Hudson
OMAHA, Neb. — Josh Hatcher and Marshall Gilbert were running the scenarios through their heads. They got back into the dugout with 4-1 deficit entering the bottom of the ninth and wondered aloud how Mississippi State could win this game, even placing their predictions on how it would.
Shortly thereafter, Hatcher made it possible for Gilbert to play the hero. But Gilbert wasn’t eagerly watching, silently begging for a chance to have that at-bat. He, “just waited for the sound of the bat,” not even bothering to take practice swings.
As he stepped into the box, his approach was solidified: “Alright, whatever, just let it rip and see what happens.”
Gilbert did let it rip. He connected with the first pitch and watched it bounce off pitcher Tanner Burns’ glove, high into the air, high enough that the ensuing bounce was too tough for second baseman Ryan Bliss to corral. Then he watched the mob of Bulldogs running to bring him down.
The man at the center of Sunday’s huddled mass is the same one who had to reinvent himself midseason. Gilbert has grown from risky option to everyday starter in a matter of weeks, just to add another surreal moment to what feels like a run to be remembered with his Sunday night walkoff single, beating Auburn 5-4 in the crucial game one of the College World Series.
“We’re all sprinting on the field to tackle Marshall and it’s like, ‘Dude, this isn’t real,’” Jake Mangum said. “How many times have we had these moments. So many, ‘Is this real?’ moments.”
The most recent, “Is this real?,” moment is, in fact, real — because Gilbert made it so.
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If not for his propensity to work, Gilbert would have been watching someone else in that crucial spot.
Gilbert had to grind his way into that spot in the lineup by taking on a new position. Gilbert is a catcher by trade that had to learn third base to get in the lineup. He had to work hard and work extra at it, even when Mangum — his roommate — wondered to himself if that experiment would work.
All of that work ensured him an opportunity, no guarantees attached. Gilbert did not need the guarantee: he needed the opportunity to come within this team.
He needed the opportunity within this group of players, one that enjoys his disposition that Mangum describes as, “happy-going,” while respecting the work he puts in. He needed the opportunity playing for this coaching staff, which assistant coach Jake Gautreau told Matt Wyatt Media is, “not real big on getting mad at guys for making mistakes, nobody’s trying to make mistakes.”
He would need that disposition Sunday, when he was part of the parade of Bulldogs that fell silent with runners in scoring position: his grounder coming with runners on second and third in the second inning. Gilbert was also a part of Auburn’s first two runs, unable to make a difficult play before the two-run home run that followed.
Their faith in Gilbert never wavered, and why would it? He’s been in worse positions before, having lost catcher playing time both at the end of 2019 and the middle of 2019. They’ve seen how he reacts.
“The thing I can give him the most credit on is the fact that, if he’s not playing great, he stays focused and lives at-bat by at-bat by at-bat,” assistant coach Jake Gautreau told Matt Wyatt Media. “Maybe a play on defense doesn’t go well, but he’ll flush it, come up and give you a good at-bat.”
Mangum has seen the other side of it: “Dude has worked his tail off, man.”
As Gilbert put it, “Going back, I would say that I didn’t exactly earn the opportunities that I wanted. It fuels me knowing this is what I did last year, it’s not good enough and I have to do more, do better this year.”
With one swing, the final swing on Sunday, Gilbert has already done more than he did last year. Of course Gilbert is thrilled to do it, having sought Mississippi State out of junior college in hopes of adding to its winning legacy, but those around him might be more excited to see him do it.
To Mangum, Gilbert embodies three things: “Selflessness. Humble. Team-first guy.”
In another way of putting it: Gilbert is the type of teammate players love to celebrate, and Sunday was the perfect occasion.