Vandy silenced MSU and provided the blueprint of a championship performance in the College World Series
Karl Ravech opened the College World Series broadcast by calling Omaha “Starkville North.” Mississippi State fans packed TD Ameritrade Park in hopes of watching the Bulldogs pick up a Game 1 win and move closer to winning the school’s first national title in any sport. An hour rain delay didn’t deter a raucous MSU-dominated crowd, which was evident especially after Kamren James tagged Vandy star Jack Leiter for a solo home run in the top of the first inning.
And then the defending champs silenced a packed house of maroon and white.
In the process, Vandy provided a classic reminder of what it looks like to win on the championship stage.
Instant pressure on the opposing pitcher? Yep. The baseball school scored a touchdown (and an extra point) for its second-best single inning output of the season to kick off the opening frame of Game 1 of the College World Series finals.
A solid, steady performance from an ace starter? You bet. Leiter, AKA the future top-5 pick, turned in a quality start with 2 earned runs and 8 strikeouts in 6 innings of work.
A lights-out relief performance to keep the comeback-hungry MSU bats (and crowd) at an arm’s length? Definitely. Nick Maldonado came in and didn’t allow a run in a 3-inning save.
One team was composed, confident and opportunistic, and it showed in the final score.
That’s not to say MSU collapsed in its first CWS finals in 8 years. The Bulldogs only surrendered 5 hits, and they made Leiter grind his way to a quality start.
So what was the difference in the game? It was pretty simple. Once again, MSU starter Christian MacLeod struggled to settle in, and Vandy made him pay. Badly. After a couple of walks, a couple of hit batters and a pair of well-placed hits, MacLeod’s night was done. He didn’t get out of the first inning, which had never happened for a starter in a CWS final.
The back-breaking play of the game was a 3-run bomb from Jayson Gonzalez immediately after MacLeod’s exit, which increased Vandy’s lead from 4-1 to 7-1 in the first inning.
— Vanderbilt Baseball (@VandyBoys) June 29, 2021
But you could make the case the turning point was right before that when Vandy was up 3-1 with 2 on and 2 out. On a 2-2 count, Isaiah Thomas somehow muscled a ball in on the hands that went down the left field line for a 2-out RBI double.
All 3 of Vandy’s hits came from the latter half of the lineup.
Giving Leiter a 7-spot in the 1st inning was, by all accounts, ballgame. Sure, MSU gave him a loss with 4 earned off the right-hander back in April. But spotting Leiter a 6-run lead after the opening inning allowed him to attack all night. And while his accuracy and strikeout pitch wasn’t at the level it was at in his 15-strikeout gem against NC State in the 1-0 loss last week, Leiter got the breathing room that Vandy’s bats hadn’t exactly provided their starters before Monday.
In 9 NCAA Tournament games before Monday, Vandy had only scored 5 combined runs in the 1st inning. Overall, they had 22 runs in the last 6 games dating to the start of Super Regionals. Only once in that stretch did Vandy hit 7 runs, and it was in a 12-inning thriller that kicked off the CWS against Arizona.
With that atypically large lead to work with, Leiter stranded 4 MSU baserunners and still hit 96 MPH on pitch No. 103. He was well-rested.
Jack struck out 8️⃣ in his #CWS Finals debut.
— Vanderbilt Baseball (@VandyBoys) June 29, 2021
After Vandy jumped out to its big lead, Tim Corbin did a mid-game interview and Ravech asked if he thought about potentially preserving Leiter for Game 3. “My mind’s not that big,” Corbin said (we can agree to disagree on that). One would think there’s a decent chance that Leiter has thrown his last pitch for Vandy.
That’s the path that Corbin would prefer. That would likely mean Vandy completes the sweep Tuesday night of Kumar Rocker stepped up on Wednesday night and gave the Dores a chance to repeat. It was 2 years ago that Rocker stole the show in Omaha. He saved Vandy from elimination in Game 2, and Mason Hickman closed the door on Michigan in Game 3.
In some ways, Monday night’s effort resembled that all-or-nothing showing in 2019. Both games were 8-2 Vandy wins. Both games involved the visitors jumping out to a 1-0 lead in the 1st inning. Both games saw Vandy put up an early crooked number thanks to timely hitting from the non-meat of the order.
The big difference, of course, was that one of those games clinched a national title and the other was only Game 1. Since the CWS moved to a best-of-3 final, the Game 1 winner went on to win 11 of 17 times. Vandy bucked that trend 2 years ago against Michigan. Tuesday night, Corbin’s squad has a chance to become the first team to repeat as champs since South Carolina in 2010-11.
Leiter said afterward that Vandy’s confidence level was pretty high, “but we’re gonna do our best to get back to the middle because we know they’re a very good team. We’ve seen it all year. We’re expecting a really good performance from them (Tuesday night), so we’ve gotta match it.”
Vandy earned the right to be confident, whether that’s medium or pretty high. It has championship DNA running through its veins.
It was clearer than ever on Monday night.