When the bottom of the ninth inning started Sunday night, it didn’t look very likely that former Central star Marshall Gilbert was going to get another at bat.
But when he did, Gilbert made the most of his opportunity.
Boy, did he ever.
Gilbert came up with the biggest single of his baseball career when he lined a shot off Auburn reliever Tanner Burns to drive in the winning run for Mississippi State in a heart-stopping 5-4 victory in the first round of the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
In a telephone interview Monday night from his hotel room, Gilbert said the entire day has been quite a blur, minus a couple of well-deserved naps, of course.
But while seeing his moment all over national television has certainly been exciting, he also knows he needs to keep himself grounded a bit.
“It definitely has been a whirlwind,” Gilbert said. “It’s kind of easy to get lost in that kind of stuff and get caught up in it. ... It was definitely a dream to see that happen. I don’t really believe (that it) did when I do see it. It was definitely really cool.”
Prior to the at bat, Gilbert, who earlier this spring was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, had struggled through an 0-for-4 night — but he was ready for the opportunity if it presented itself.
With two outs and the tying run on second, the Bulldogs took advantage of a throwing error to knot the score — and after an intentional walk to Rowdey Jordan and an infield hit by Josh Hatcher, it was Gilbert’s turn.
Gilbert said he couldn’t dwell on missed chances earlier in the game as he entered the batter’s box for what turned out to be an historic at bat.
“Throughout the game, there were a couple plays that I felt I needed to make in order for us to win,” he said. “I definitely had a little bit of pressure, but I just kept reminding myself to just keep going and just play the game.
“Going into the (ninth inning), I was thinking that all it takes is one person to do something.”
He saw just one pitch, a fastball, and drilled it up the middle and off Burns’ glove to score Dustin Skelton and set of a frenzied celebration by his Mississippi State teammates.
The celebration included plenty of personal emotional, too, as Gilbert took a moment to reflect on his journey to get to the national spotlight.
“I was thinking about everything I had worked for and all the stuff I had done, even as a little kid,” he said. “I was pretty emotional, I’m not going to lie, and then afterward, I was glad I was there to celebrate with my teammates. It was pretty incredible.”
Mississippi State’s final at bat, which included a three-run rally just to tie the game and seven straight batters, including Gilbert, who reached was indicative of the kind of team the Bulldogs are, he said.
In other words, any opponent expecting them to quit before the 27th out is recorded may want to do a little bit of rethinking.
“There is not a single guy on this team that believes a pitcher can get them out,” he said. “Even if there’s a little bit of self doubt, when you watch your other brothers go up there, it kind of just boosts your confidence and reminds you that you have this.”
The walk off is the second for Gilbert, who came through with the game-tying and game-winning home runs during his two-year career with John Logan, a junior college in Carterville, Ill.
On that night, he struggled to an 0-for-3 game with three strikeouts before a two-run homer to tie the game with a conference title at stake, followed by the winning blast in his next at bat.
During Sunday night’s chaos after the game winner, Gilbert said he only had one wish, and that was to avoid the bottom of the dog pile if at all possible.
“I was just trying to make sure that nobody was going to take me down on the ground,” he said. “In the dog pile in the super regional, was kind of at the top of the pile, and I was definitely feeling pretty squished. I was just trying to stay on my feet.”
Gilbert said his parents, Phil and Denise, are in Nebraska for the World Series and that other family, including fellow Division I baseball player, his brother, Garrett, who is at Creighton, are back in Kenosha County.
In a rare moment Sunday, Gilbert said he was able to pick out his parents in the stands after the dust had settled.
“For whatever reason, when I was walking back to the dugout, I was able to find them,” Gilbert said. “I was able to find my mom as clear as day. That made that extra special right there.”
One proud coach
Back in Kenosha County, there was one very interested observer in Gilbert’s former high school coach, Central’s Jake Morman.
While he didn’t see it live because of a family obligation, Morman had the game on DVR, and of course, saw plenty of the highlights and the aftermath all over social media.
And he certainly was beaming with pride for what his former player had accomplished.
“Over the past couple weeks, with all the stuff unfolding with (Mississippi State), the College World Series, him getting drafted and things like that, I’m just super proud of him,” Morman said.
“I always knew he was an extremely gifted and talented player. His goal was always to play at a really high level. The hard work that he’s put in, it’s just great to see it paying off for him.”
All that hard work that Morman referred to and the journey that Gilbert has traveled is a true testament to his drive and character, Morman said.
“There’s been a lot of obstacles,” he said. “It would have been really easy for a lot of people to just go in a different direction, and he’s just continued to fight and stick with his dream. ... Now it’s all paying off. His dreams are coming true, and it’s just awesome to see.”
Gilbert and his teammates will have to quickly turn the page, as top-ranked Vanderbilt is next in a winner’s bracket game tonight at 6 p.m.
The Bulldogs lost, 1-0, to Vanderbilt in the Southeast Conference Tournament earlier this season in a game that saw Gilbert go 2-for-3.
He’s fully aware the Commdores present quite a challenge.
“We’re going to have to play some really good baseball in order to beat them,” he said. “We know that we’re just going to have to keep putting pressure on them and make sure we’re there to make the plays.
“They’re a really good ball club. They’re the same as us in every aspect. Whoever gives in first is going to be the one to lose the game. We’re just going to have to keep playing the way we’ve been playing.”