Heartbreaking Ending To Jake Mangum's Storied College Career
OMAHA — Jake Mangum lay in the outfield grass of TD Ameritrade Park. Louisville had just completed a stunning comeback against Mississippi State for a 4-3 walk-off victory Thursday night in an elimination game at the College World Series, and, around the diamond, the Cardinals celebrated, and the Bulldogs slowly made their way off the field.
But Mangum stayed down in center field, where he had tried to make a sliding, barehanded stop of Drew Campbell’s line drive. If the senior center fielder could just make the stop and come up firing, maybe, just maybe, he could throw a 500 mph strike to catch Danny Oriente at the plate and save Mississippi State’s season.
It would have been an impossible play. Mangum tried to make it anyway, going all out until the very end of his Mississippi State career. It is the only way he knows how to play.
As Mangum lay in center field, he thought about how each of his four seasons at Mississippi State came to an end. As a freshman, it was at home in Starkville, where Arizona, the eventual CWS runner-up, upset Mississippi State in super regionals. As a sophomore, it was in Baton Rouge, where Louisiana State, the eventual CWS runner-up, beat Mississippi State in super regionals. As a junior, it was here in Omaha, where Oregon State, the eventual national champion, beat Mississippi State in the bracket final.
And, now, as a senior, it was to Louisville in Omaha in a game that Mississippi State had controlled for the first six innings before the Cardinals’ late comeback.
Each time, Mangum had thought it would be the year the Bulldogs broke through. But it never happened and now his career was over.
“I’ve been very fortunate for the last four years,” Mangum said. “God has been very, very good to me for those four years, and they were the best four years of my life. Mississippi State baseball, it’s literally a part of me. I hate that it ended this way, but it is what it is. I absolutely hate it for the guys, I really do.”
Beyond heartbreaking ends to the season, Mangum and Mississippi State have gone through more in the last four years than any other program in the country. The Bulldogs have had four head coaches, eight assistant coaches and rebuilt their stadium from one of college baseball’s classics into a modern palace after a $68 million renovation.
Through it all, Mangum was the constant. The All-American has played in 262 games over the last four years, missing just three games since he arrived on campus. He collected 383 hits in his career, which ranks fourth in Division I history. He is the all-time hits king for both Mississippi State and the SEC, and on Thursday set the program’s single-season hits record with his 108th hit of the year, breaking Adam Frazier’s mark.
In so many ways, Mangum is The Mayor, as he is known in Starkville. He’s been the face of the program in a tumultuous time, and it’s hard to imagine anyone loving Mississippi State baseball more than he does.
Mangum got emotional in the postgame press conference as he talked about coach Chris Lemonis and the program’s future.
“I want to thank coach Lemonis,” Mangum said, turning to address the first-year head coach. “Thank you for everything. You’re going to bring the first national championship to this baseball program. You are. And it’s going to be awesome. I can’t wait to see it. You will.”
Mangum wanted so desperately to be a part of the team that brought that first national championship to Mississippi State. He didn’t get that storybook ending, but he has earned his place alongside Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro as Mississippi State’s greatest players. Thunder and Lightning are immortalized with statues outside of Dudy Noble Field, and Mangum is certain to someday join them.
But more than his hits records or the wins Mississippi State piled up with him in the lineup, Mangum wants to be remembered for how he played the game.
“It’s not about the hits, it’s not about the wins, it’s when you came to the ballpark you knew No. 15 was going to play his butt off,” Mangum said. “That’s the one thing. You knew all he was going to do was play as hard as he could.”
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Mangum played that way until the bitter end Thursday. It endeared him to Mississippi State fans and made him one of the biggest stars in the sport. But it wasn’t quite enough to deliver on a promise he and his classmates made to each other on their first night on campus four years ago.
On that night in July 2015, 16 freshmen promised that their class would be a part of bringing Mississippi State its first national championship. Only five players remained this year from that class—Mangum and pitchers Trysten Barlow, Kale Breaux, Keegan James and Ethan Small.
On Thursday night, Mangum and Small sat next to each other on a couch at the center of the Mississippi State locker room and reminisced about that night and their careers. Both will soon move on to pro ball—Small to the Brewers, who drafted him in the first round, and Mangum to the Mets, who drafted him in the fourth round.
Soon, they would walk out of the locker room for the last time and out into the Omaha night, greeted by a few dozen Mississippi State fans and one bulldog. There would be autographs and pictures and Mangum would get on the bus to cheers of “We love Jake!”
But for now, it was just two college seniors, sitting on a couch, remembering how it all began.
“We made a promise we were going to bring a national championship,” Mangum said. “We fell short, bro, but we fought like hell doing it.”
“Came twice though,” Small said.
“Came to Omaha twice,” Mangum said. “Just couldn’t finish it.”