The wins keep coming for the Bulldogs while the Gators took care of Texas in an elimination game.

By Associated Press
June 19, 2018

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Go bananas, Mississippi State Bulldogs! You’re one win away from the College World Series finals.

Jordan Westburg hit a grand slam, doubled and drove in seven runs and Mississippi State continued its surprise postseason surge by beating North Carolina 12-2 on Tuesday.

The Bulldogs (39-27), with two wins at the CWS, are off until Friday. Win then or on Saturday, and they’ll be playing for the national championship next week.

This game was all about Westburg, the freshman who two weeks ago came up with the “Rally Banana” that’s become the Bulldogs’ good-luck charm in the NCAA Tournament. His seven RBIs, on the slam in the second inning and three-run double in the eighth, tied a CWS record.

“I think we had a good banana today. That’s all I can say,” Westburg deadpanned.

Westburg crushed a breaking pitch Austin Bergner left hanging, and the ball landed in the seats above the left-field bullpen for a 4-1 lead.

When Westburg returned to the dugout, a teammate handed him his Rally Banana.

Westburg came up with the Bulldogs’ alternate mascot during a regional game against Oklahoma on June 3. The Bulldogs were struggling when he went into the tunnel and grabbed a banana. Instead of eating it, he put it on his head in hopes of turning the Bulldogs’ luck. It must have worked. Mississippi State won, Westburg and his banana got some TV time, and the meme took off.

Since then, Westburg has been the curator of the fruit. (No, it’s not the same banana every game.)

He’s put sunscreen and bug spray on it. He’s wrapped one in a towel, as if it were releaxing at a spa. Sometimes Westburg or a teammate puts the banana up to his face like a mustache; other times it’s a faux radar gun.

A couple Mississippi State fans have been dressed up in banana outfits, others wear Rally Banana T-shirts, and the Bulldogs have received best wishes from banana producers Dole and Chiquita.

“If you’re going to do all the shenanigans in the dugout,” Westburg said, “you might have to step it up on the field and back that up. It was nice to do that today.”

MSU interim head coach Gary Henderson said the Rally Banana offsets the pressures of the postseason, so he’s all for embracing the fun of Westburg’s fruit.

“He’s got to make the phone call on the banana, right?” Henderson said. “You’ve got to be able to do those things and become somebody different when you’re in the box. He’s an intense kid. Super intense. He’s not a goofball. When he finds a way to let some of the air out a little bit and enjoy it and have some fun, and not grind, grind, grind, I think it’s incumbent upon us to notice that and respect that that’s important.”

After Westburg’s slam, Bergner (7-3) retired 16 in a row until the start of the eighth inning, when the Bulldogs converted six hits, a walk, a hit batter and two errors into eight runs.

“Well, the good news is we get to play again,” Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “You’ve got to turn the page pretty quickly out here. I don’t think any of us will want our season to end on that performance, but you’ve got to give Mississippi State credit.”

Carolina’s Kyle Datres doubled leading off the game against Konnor Pilkington (3-6) and came home on a sacrifice fly. The Tar Heels (44-19) didn’t score again until the seventh.

It’s been an improbable run for the Bulldogs so far. Andy Cannizaro resigned on Feb. 20 for off-field conduct, pitching coach Henderson took over on an interim basis, and the Bulldogs got out to a 14-15 start and lost seven of their first nine Southeastern Conference games.

A sweep of defending national champion Florida in the last regular-season series earned them an NCAA at-large bid, and they’ve won three postseason games in walk-off fashion.

Thanks to Westburg’s grand slam and Carolina’s eighth-inning meltdown, no fantastic finish was needed this time.

***

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Jackson Kowar’s first inning didn’t portend the stellar afternoon he was about to have Tuesday. He didn’t give up a run in the first, but he threw 25 pitches.

“Just reminded him he’s going to have to be a little more economical,” Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.

No worries, coach.

Kowar struck out a career-high 13 in 6 2/3 shutout innings, mixing his changeup with a fastball still touching the mid-90s deep into his season-high 121-pitch performance that flummoxed Texas in a 6-1 win eliminating the Longhorns from the College World Series.

“It’s probably the best I’ve seen him, to be honest with you, with the whole package, with everything concerned,” O’Sullivan said. “I thought he was really good last week with Auburn, too. He was really good against A&M during SEC play. But on this stage, I think this is about as good as he’s pitched all year.”

The Kansas City Royals’ first-round draft pick struck out the side in the third and sixth innings and broke his previous high of 11 Ks he set against TCU in the CWS last year. He became the first pitcher in the CWS since UCLA teammates Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer in 2010 to record 13 strikeouts.

“Those guys are doing pretty well for themselves right now, so that’s pretty cool company,” Kowar said.

He’s the first to strike out 13 at the CWS in fewer than seven innings in 40 years, according to ESPN.

Jonathan India, the No. 5 overall draft pick by the Cincinnati Reds and Southeastern Conference player of the year, singled to make it 1-0 in the first inning and he broke the game open with a three-run homer in the sixth.

Texas starter Blair Henley (6-7) struggled with his control and lasted only 2 2/3 innings, the second-shortest of his 22 career starts. He gave up four hits, walked four and threw a wild pitch.

Florida (48-20) came into the game after a 6-3 loss to Texas Tech in its CWS opener. The Gators had committed 16 errors in their last 11 games and had batted .186 and scored a total of eight runs in their previous three games.

The Gators played error-free against the Longhorns, and their offense had 10 hits.

Kowar (10-5) didn’t allow a base runner past second until the seventh. With runners on second and third, Kowar struck out Tate Shaw and Ryan Reynolds and then left to applause from both Florida and Texas fans.

“The first inning, the first three batters I didn’t make really any quality pitches,” Kowar said. “Getting through that first was big, and then I was able to kind of get the fastball command working, and everything else played off of that the rest of the way.”

Chase Shugart took over for Henley in the third and kept it a 1-0 game until there were two outs in the sixth. Nelson Maldonado’s RBI single came before India’s 21st home run of the season made it 5-0.

“Nelson, the whole year, he’s a clutch hitter for us,” India said. “He rarely strikes out. He competes at the plate. That’s what we needed. And he came through clutch for us. As they say, hitting is contagious. Just pass it on to me and I’ll pass it on to the next.”

Texas (42-23) broke through for a run in the eighth on DJ Petrinsky’s one-out single.

The Longhorns struck out a season-high 15 times against Kowar, Jordan Butler and Michael Byrne, the most for the program since fanning 17 times against TCU in 2017.

“People expected it to be a building year due to everybody we lost last year,” Shugart said. “But these guys proved everybody wrong and that’s because of their attitude. The attitude we had was gritty. We weren’t giving anything; we had to take it. We took the Big 12 championship and the regional and super regionals. We went out and competed every inning, every out, and that’s what good teams do and I wouldn’t trade this for the world.”

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