College World Series: While you were sleeping, Vandy advanced to the finals ... will MSU join them?
There are people who will contend that baseball is boring. Not enough scoring plays, too long of a season, too many hours spitting and scratching and waiting. It’s safe to assume that anybody who feels that way didn’t witness a Friday to remember in Omaha, one that sets up a do-or-die Saturday for both Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.
Or so we thought when we went to bed Friday night.
Turns out, Vanderbilt secured a spot in the best-of-3 finals without having to beat NC State again Saturday. The Wolfpack, who played short-handed Friday because players were in the NCAA’s COVID-19 protocols, were ruled out of the tournament after organizers and medical staff huddled up overnight.
NCAA Statement from Division I Baseball Committee:
The NCAA Division I Baseball Committee has declared the Vanderbilt-NC State Men’s College World Series game scheduled for Saturday, June 26 at 1 p.m. Central time a no-contest because of COVID-19 protocols. #CWS pic.twitter.com/amxdQwkQ6l
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 26, 2021
The reaction was swift, but the result is that Vandy will advance to face the winner of Saturday’s winner-take-all game between Mississippi State and Texas.
It was a wild turnabout for Vandy, which would have had to decide whether to pitch ace Jack Leiter on shorter rest than usual or try to win without him and have him ready for Game 1 of the finals on Monday.
Now, there is no such drama. Only more COVID controversy, after a strange day of COVID controversy.
Friday began with a delay. NC State had numerous players implicated in the NCAA’s COVID-19 protocols. The game was pushed back an hour, and eventually, NC State had enough players to field a team, with ESPN reporting the Wolfpack had 9 position players and 4 pitchers available. Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent said his squad was given the choice of forfeiting Friday’s game or trying to play on. State did play on, albeit with a lineup featuring pitcher Sam Highfill at first base (Highfill hadn’t batted in 2021) and also including freshman Eddie Eisert, who had batted 5 times all season. State started 6-7, 187-pound freshman Garrett Payne on the mound. Payne had pitched 8 2/3 innings all season. All of this against Vandy ace Kumar Rocker created an outright presumption of a mismatch.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a certain drubbing. State fought all the way. Highfill, who was 1-for-5 in his collegiate career entering the game, quadrupled his career hit total with a 3-for-4 day. State actually outhit Vanderbilt 8-6. But Rocker worked in and out of trouble, and the Commodores combined their hits into a trio of runs and took a 3-1 lead into the 7th inning.
Vandy’s Luke Murphy then held on for dear life. He induced a bases-loaded pop out in the 7th, and stranded a pair of State runners in both the 8th and 9th innings. But when Carter Young fielded the last ground ball and turned a game-ending force play, Vandy managed the 3-1 win they had to have.
On to Saturday. Or so we thought.
Instead, Vanderbilt will get the opportunity to defend the CWS it won in 2019. Rocker, in theory, could be available for a possible Game 3 on Wednesday night.
Meanwhile, Mississippi State needs a win over Texas to set up another all-SEC CWS final.
The Bulldogs very nearly got it Friday night. Trailing 5-2 in the 8th, the Bulldogs put together another big 8th inning, mirroring their 5-run explosion that turned a 4-0 deficit into a win on Tuesday. A Tanner Allen double was followed by a trio of walks, the third narrowing Texas’s lead to 5-3. Junior outfielder Brad Cumbest then lined a single into right-center, driving in a pair of teammates, and State had tied the game at 5-5.
— Mississippi State Baseball (@HailStateBB) June 26, 2021
Another walk reloaded the bases, but Texas eased out of further trouble.
Chris Lemons dug deeper into the MSU bullpen, summoning his sixth pitcher of the game, but a pair of walks put MSU into trouble. That trouble then culminated during a driving rainstorm, when Texas’s Ivan Melendez crushed a Parker Stinnett offering over the left-center field wall. Texas 8, State 5.
— Texas Baseball (@TexasBaseball) June 26, 2021
One batter later, the day was back where it started, in a delay, this time due to rain.
State would have loved to win their way into the final, but do-or-die Saturday should have sophomore Will Bednar back on the mound. In his last outing, against the same Texas squad, Bednar fanned 15 Longhorn hitters, allowing a single hit in 6 sterling innings of work. Meanwhile, Texas has to use standout Ty Madden just to reach Saturday.
Friday carried plenty of action and one of the sport’s craziest endings.
One thing’s for sure — Saturday will have plenty to do to surpass Friday as a memorable day in Omaha.