April 21, 2018 11:13:35 PM
STARKVILLE -- Elijah MacNamee was bouncing around as the final out was recorded, screaming in celebration with the fans just feet behind him in right field, as he backed up in the direction of his fellow outfielders. They met midair in their own celebration, one that was followed with an extra slapping of hands with center fielder Jake Mangum, the latter junior's way of congratulating MacNamee on a job well done. The intensity on MacNamee's face began to fade to a jubilant smile weeks in the making.
This is trademark MacNamee. The saxophone riff in his walkup song, his swing with more-than-adequate power and inability to run less than full speed in the outfield exude a player who has fun playing baseball and strives to make watching him play fun. Lacking an opportunity to do it was weighing on him, until he pictured what it would be like to get back to it.
The visualizations came to reality in all of 24 hours.
The Mississippi State baseball team's first 15 Southeastern Conference games featured MacNamee in the starting lineup just five times. Given the opportunity to right the wrong, MacNamee did it with a series of clutch hits over MSU's sweep over No. 4 Arkansas (28-13, 10-8 SEC). MSU beat the Razorbacks 6-5 on Friday before sweeping the Saturday doubleheader 5-3 and 7-5; in all three games, MacNamee drove in runs in the sixth inning or later.
"It's hard when you don't get to show it," MacNamee said. "When I wasn't doing well, I kept telling myself to remember how fun this game is supposed to be. Right when I start thinking that, good things started happening."
MacNamee willing the Bulldogs to three wins took confidence on both sides of this player-coach relationship.
First, he had to get his own confidence back. Confidence was far from an issue at the end of March, when MacNamee started all three games of the Missouri series and went 5-for-12 (.416), driving in no runs but bumping his batting average up 47 points. It vanished before the month was out, after not starting the first game of the ensuing series against LSU, and he blames himself for it.
"For some reason I let that hit me too much. I'm 21 years old; if something happens, I shouldn't be down," MacNamee said. "I finally let my confidence up and it kind of got shut down. When I came out this weekend, I said, 'You know what, I'm going to do whatever I can to help this team.'"
This is where MSU interim coach Gary Henderson showed him some confidence.
MacNamee's first opportunity to help the team came Friday night. In the eighth inning, the lineup before him erased a two-run deficit and granted him the opportunity to turn it into a lead. With the go-ahead run on third, the right-handed MacNamee took the batter's box, three strikeouts to his name in as many at-bats at that point, and met a new pitcher, Arkansas righty Jake Reindl. Henderson had plenty of left-handed hitters without three strikeouts in that game he could have turned to, but decided to, "show him a little belief."
He paid Henderson for it with a RBI single. The run he drove in won the game, and it was just the beginning of the onslaught.
MacNamee did it two more times, his double in game two providing a much-needed insurance run with a double in the 5-3 win before his go-ahead single in the ensuing game.
"It seems like all year, our problem was timely hitting; when it shows, I mean, we just swept Arkansas," MacNamee said.
What happens now is the true test. Before, the Bulldogs (22-19, 8-10 SEC) had to prove themselves in the face adversity; as MacNamee put it relative to his own struggle, "do you want to pout or do you want to grind?" The grind takes on a new form now; a series win two weekends ago over a former top five team (Ole Miss) then sweeping the Razorbacks could take a team from fighting against mediocrity to a team toe-to-toe with the other members of the nation's strongest conference.
MacNamee sees it happening, in himself and in his team. He knows this weekend was the turning point for both of them: "One-hundred percent."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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