OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Tanner Leggett’s first hit in more than a month was the biggest of the season for Mississippi State.
Leggett’s single in the bottom of the ninth inning scored the tiebreaking run, and the Bulldogs advanced to the College World Series finals with a 4-3 victory over Texas on Saturday night.
“What an opportunity,” he said. “Some people get nervous for that situation, but I pray for that situation. Thank Coach for putting me in the game.”
The No. 7 national seed Bulldogs (48-17) reached the finals for the first time since 2013, when they were runners-up to UCLA. Mississippi State will play for its first national title against No. 4 Vanderbilt in an all-SEC, best-of-three series starting Monday night.
Vanderbilt (48-16) got its spot in the finals when the NCAA removed North Carolina State from the tournament because of COVID-19 protocols. Vandy and NC State were supposed to play a bracket final on Saturday, but that game was declared a no-contest.
Vandy won two of three against the Bulldogs in Nashville in the regular season. The Commodores are the reigning national championships, having won the CWS in 2019. There was no tournament last year because of the pandemic.
“We have to go against the best,” MSU coach Chris Lemonis said, “and that’s the way we want it.”
Leggett grew up 2 1/2 hours from Starkville, rooted for the Bulldogs in all sports growing up, and said yes, with no hesitation, when MSU recruited him out of a junior college two years ago.
Leggett has appeared in 40 games and typically is a defensive replacement in the late innings. The .206 career hitter has only gotten occasional chances to bat late in the season.
His last hit came May 22 against Alabama. In his only previous at-bat at the CWS, he had an inning-ending groundout with the bases loaded against Virginia on Tuesday.
Leggett got his opportunity in the ninth after Cole Quintanilla hit Kellum Clark with a pitch. Brayland Skinner pinch ran for Clark and stole second to set the stage for Leggett, who drove a 1-1 pitch into left-center.
Skinner came around to score easily, and Leggett rounded first base and tossed his helmet into the grass as teammates rushed to mob him.
“You black out,” Leggett said. “It’s a great feeling, knowing we’ve worked so hard to get here. Just what a moment, what a moment.”
Lemonis said assistant coach Jake Gautreau told him moments earlier that Leggett might be about to have the highlight of his career.
“Next thing you know,” Lemonis said, “the ball is in the gap.”
Texas had won three straight elimination games to force a second bracket final. The Longhorns needed to win to go to the finals for the first time since 2009.
“Baseball is a crazy sport,” Texas center fielder Mike Antico said. “We had a man on second in the top of the ninth, they had a man on second in the bottom of the ninth. They got it done, and we didn’t and the season’s over that quick. You blink your eyes and it’s over.”
Mississippi State started Will Bednar, who had 15 of the Bulldogs’ CWS-record 21 strikeouts in a 2-1 win over the No. 2 Longhorns (50-17) last Sunday.
Bednar was solid again, but not untouchable, striking out seven in 6 1/3 innings. Cam Williams hit a two-run homer in the second and Mike Antico doubled in a run to put Texas up 3-1 in the fifth.
The Bulldogs tied it in the sixth on Logan Tanner’s RBI double, and threatened to go ahead after loading the bases with none out. But Quintanilla (5-1) got out of the jam and allowed only one hit before Leggett’s winner.
MSU closer Landon Sims (5-0) took over for Bednar with a runner on base and one out in the seventh, and ended the inning with two strikeouts. Sims retired five of the last six batters he faced.
Quintanilla said he expects Texas to be back in CWS sooner than later.
“It’s good for the younger guys to experience it and know what it’s like to be in Omaha and what it’s like to win,” he said. “It will motivate the younger guys even more to come back next year and finish unfinished business here.”