How Landon Sims transformed from a top starter into Mississippi State's clutch closer
STARKVILLE, Miss. — Landon Sims called the infield to the mound for a meeting before South Forsyth High School coach Russ Bayer made it out of the dugout to do it himself.
It was the opening game of 2018 region play in Georgia's highest level of high school baseball. Sims, South Forsyth's No. 1 starter as a junior, was on the mound. The fielders behind him committed two errors, and his catcher dropped a third strike in the top of the first.
"In the blink of an eye, I think Landon had thrown eight pitches, and the bases were loaded with nobody out," Bayer told the Clarion Ledger.
Bayer didn't say much during the mound meeting. Sims said everything he wanted to and more. He proceeded to strike out the side. Then he drove in a pair of runs in the bottom of the first in a 2-1 victory. Sims had a no-hitter going into the seventh.
"He's an absolute Bulldog," Bayer said. "A true warrior."
Bayer was reminded of Sims' heroics when he displayed the same demeanor in the top of the ninth in Mississippi State's 3-2 win over Kentucky on April 2. Sims, now a second-year reliever at MSU, forced a popup that landed in the infield after miscommunication. UK had runners on the corners with one out.
Just as Bayer had three years earlier, Bulldogs coach Chris Lemonis looked at Sims after the popup landed. Sims stretched his arms out and bobbed his hands calmly up and down. He made eye contact with Lemonis as if to say, "Everything is fine."
It was. Sims got the next batter to ground into a game-ending double play.
"You know you have a special player in Landon Sims when the ball falls and everybody is upset, and Landon is telling the team to relax," Lemonis said. "'Relax, we got this. We're going to make a play.'"
Sims has made plenty of them. He carries a 1.55 ERA with 85 strikeouts in 46 1/3 innings into the College World Series opener Sunday night against No. 2 overall seed Texas (47-15).
Sims recorded the final nine outs in a 6-5 win over Campbell in the Starkville Regional final for No. 7 Mississippi State (45-16). It was his ninth save of the season. His 10th came one week later in Game 3 of the super regionals against Notre Dame, sending the Bulldogs to Omaha.
Every time he trots out of the bullpen, the fans at Dudy Noble Field seem to cheer just a bit louder as "Still of the Night" by Whitesnake blasts over the speakers.
"Being in those big situations, that's what you come here for," Sims said. "You don't want to go anywhere else in the country and play in front of anybody else."
It was only a matter of time before Sims became one of Mississippi State's best pitchers. He played on a travel team in Georgia with Vanderbilt ace Kumar Rocker and many future Division I players.
He brought a bevy of accolades to Mississippi State, but Sims couldn't have gotten off to a worse start. He threw 11 pitches in his Bulldogs debut against Wright State on Feb. 14, 2020. Nine of them were balls. He walked two batters and gave up a run without recording an out before Lemonis pulled him.
"I was overhyped a little bit," Sims said. "Being a freshman going out there in front of 10,000 people for the first time was a little overwhelming, as much as I don't want to admit it."
In his next appearance two days later, Sims struck out the side in his only inning. That was more in line with what was to come. He recorded his 100th career strikeout against Campbell, and he had needed 53 1/3 innings to reach that mark.
Just over 50 innings in 26 appearances is something new for Sims. In high school he was always a starter. Getting called on to get the last three outs of a game is much different than being asked to get the first three and however many more thereafter.
It's an adjustment Sims has welcomed, though. He channels the same competitiveness out of the pen that made him a two-time first-team all-region high school football player.
Brannon Sims, Landon's father, said he wouldn't have been surprised to see his son pursue a career on the gridiron rather than the diamond.
Something Sims told his dad, who constantly nagged his son to play quarterback, early in his high school football career has resonated with him.
"'Dad, why do I want to get hit when I can hit somebody?'" Brannon recalls.
Now, it's why would Sims want to run the risk of striking out when he can strike somebody out? Just as he acclimated to becoming a closer, he transitioned from his perches in right field and the batter's box while at South Forsyth to solely the mound at MSU.
"We're on the edge of our seat with every pitch he makes, but we wouldn't change it for anything," Brannon said. "We feel very fortunate and humbled we get to experience this ride with Landon and Mississippi State baseball."