Allen Gum remembers vividly the when the tidal wave against the Bears turned into a rising tide that carried them to the Southland Conference baseball championship.
It occurred during an elimination game against Stephen F. Austin.
"Forrestt Allday found a line in right field for a bases-loaded double that was barely fair," he said. "Michael Marrieta had a swinging land for a hit. We hadn’t had a break in a month and we got two in a row. The whole team fed off breaks like that. It’s like we all took a deep breath and just played ball like we had at the beginnng of the season."
The Bears (39-20) will continue that season as they make their first NCAA baseball playoff appearance Friday at the Starkville Regional against ninth-ranked Mississippi State (43-19) at raucous Dudy Noble Field, where the Bears won two games against the then 18-0 Bulldogs in March. South Alabama and Mercer are also in the regional, which is ranked the toughest among the 16 by several observers.
"Everybody has momentum; it will come down to who gets the breaks at the right time," Gum said. "It will likely come down to defense and on the mound. If it’s like most tournaments I’ve been involved in, the team that wins will turn the most double plays."
The Bears, who left via bus for the regional Wednesday afternoon, will be making their second trip to Starkville. In March, they lost 4-2, then defeated the Bulldogs in back-to-back games, 7-5 in 10 innings and 7-3.
"I don’t think this team will be overwhelmed by the situation; they haven’t all year," Gum said. "We are familiar with Mississippi State, but they are probably more familiar with us than when we went there last."
One key to the Bears’ season has been an ability to get on base and manufacture runs while being stingy with opponents. They lead the nation in walks an sacrifice bunts and are No. 3 in hit batsmen. Their pitching staff is No. 2 in walks allowed.
"Even before we had the new (restricted) bats and there were a lot more home runs, I was always a proponent of just getting good at-bats, hitting good pitches. We try to teach each hitter about the kind of balls he is capable of hitting. We emphasize plate discipline.
"We do a lot of teaching about plate discipline but we also try to recruit players who have it. We want to make the pitcher work. If we can make him work, we are counting on him making a mistake."
That works with two different strategies depending on the batter, Gum said.
"If you take a lot of pitches, you can get behind in the count but we have hitters who are good two-strike hitters," Gum said. "The other way is being able to foul off tough pitches. If we can force a pitcher to throw the ball right in there, sooner or later he will make a mistake. We want on base anyway we can. The most important stat in baseball is runs scored and you can’t score runs without baserunners."
Gum will start his ace, Caleb McClanahan, against Mississippi State in the double-elimination tournament. The rest of the pitching rotation will be determined by situation and matchup.
The winner of the Starkville Regional will be paired with the winner of the Charlottesville Regional in a best-of-three Super Regional that will determine a College World Series participant.