June 11, 2018 11:13:09 AM
Brett Hudson - [email protected]
NASHVILLE -- Jake Mangum put off a lifelong dream for this experience, one he met with an expression of disbelief.
Mississippi State's junior center fielder could easily be somewhere in the New York Yankees' minor league system -- many in his shoes would be -- after they drafted him in the 33rd round nearly a year ago to the day. Mangum declined, as his postseason vacation revealed something eating away at him: he had to go to Omaha, Nebraska. He wanted to take MSU to the College World Series.
In less than a week, he will do it.
Twice before, Mangum found himself where he was on Sunday: in a Super Regional, two wins away from college baseball's championship event. With Sunday's 10-6 triumph over Vanderbilt (35-27), MSU won the Nashville Super Regional and punched that ticket for Mangum.
"It's worth all the coaching changes, it's worth all the 6 a.m. workouts, it's worth everything," Mangum told The Dispatch as he celebrated with family. "As a little kid in the summer time, you grow up watching Omaha. We get to go."
For a fleeting moment, it looked like Mangum would be the hero getting the Bulldogs there. Locked in a 3-3 tie entering the ninth inning, Mangum took the first pitch he saw and smashed it for a double to right field. The always supercharged junior could do nothing but plant his hands on his head, looking to his dugout in disbelief, crouching under the significance of what everyone believed he had just done.
"At that moment, I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is real, we're about to do this,'" Mangum said.
That feeling was taken away with two Vanderbilt home runs in the bottom half of the inning, but it would not take away his drive to make the moment happen again. This is the player, after all, who Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin praised as the kind of person who goes 100 percent in batting practice. More than once, Corbin counted on the reputation he has built in saying, "Mangum is Mangum," knowing that name now resonates in the college baseball community.
For the second time this season, Corbin got to see it firsthand. In the regular season meetings between the two, Mangum hit safely in each game against Vanderbilt, serving as the lone shining light for an offense that mustered four runs over three days. In the Super Regional, Mangum went 6-for-16 (.375) driving in three runs and scoring two of his own.
Excellent performance in all circumstances -- both in the futile stretches of March and with the season on the line in June -- is the calling card of Mangum. Corbin saw it spread to the rest of the roster in between meetings.
"Broadly, mental toughness," Corbin said. "You look at the kid in center field, he's one of the best. He gives you everything. (Second baseman Hunter) Stovall's a heck of a player, and I don't want to leave anyone out because they're all tough, tough kids."
The fact that it showed on this stage is what Corbin loves most about college baseball and why he made another pitch for it. He said he wishes players weighing professional careers versus college careers would consider moments like that, where the emotional investment is as high as nearly any other stage of baseball, where he believes the passion for the result is more intense than anywhere other than the World Series.
Corbin loves college baseball for the moments expose the best in players like Mangum.
Eleven times on Sunday, and extending into the first hours of Monday morning, Mangum trotted from his dugout to center field knowing each one got him closer to an unforgettable ending, be it haunting or joyous. The 12th trip was different; fear of the impending gone, the weight of a dream realized off his shoulders, he broke out running for the center field wall he's spent three years protecting.
On the other end was his father, John. Jake jumped to the top of the wall and climbed over it, stopping for nothing before wrapping his father in an embrace. Jake's reality beared repeating.
"We did it. We're going to Omaha."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson