NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The talk going into game one of the College World Series Finals was whether or not Vanderbilt deserved to be there after it automatically advanced from its bracket when N.C. State was removed from the competition due to an outbreak of eight positive COVID-19 cases late last week.
While what happened to the Wolfpack is heartbreaking, it’s not like Vanderbilt is undeserving. The Commodores are in their fifth College World Series in 11 years, and started off their fourth appearance in the finals in impressive fashion with an 8-2 win over no. 7 Mississippi State Monday night. Now they stand one more win away from their third national championship, and second straight after the 2020 season was canceled.
This year’s version of the Vandy Boys may not be as deep or as experienced as the champions in 2019, but they are deserving to be here with or without the N.C. State default. The Commodores have now won 49 games that includes a 9-1 record in the postseason after taming the Bulldogs for the third time in four meetings this season, and for the ninth time in 12 since the start of 2018.
At the start of Monday night TD Ameritrade Park felt like Dudy Noble Field in support of a Mississippi State team seeking its first national championship in any team sport. The capacity crowd of 24,052 was decidedly maroon, and they were on their feet and making noise when Kamren Jones ripped a 3-1 Jack Leiter fastball over the left field wall for a 1-0 lead in the top of the first.
The only thing missing was the cowbells.
But the mood, and the momentum of this best-of-three championship series, shifted quickly in the bottom of the first. Christian MacLeod struggled in his second straight start in Omaha, walking two and hitting two of the first five batters he faced. All of them scored in a first inning meltdown.
MacLeod was able to locate well enough to get two strikes on C.J. Rodriguez and Isaiah Thomas, but both managed to get run-scoring hits. Rodriguez reached out and slapped a ball through the left side of the infield to score two runs and give Vanderbilt a 3-1 lead. Then Thomas muscled an inside pitch down the line in left for an RBI double that chased MacLeod.
Even a pitching change didn’t stop the onslaught. The big blow came when nine-hole hitter Jayson Gonzalez greeted Chase Patrick by blasting a three-run homer to left, capping the seven run first inning that gave Vandy complete control.
The inning was reminiscent of the third inning of game one of the 2014 CWS Finals when Vanderbilt plated nine runs against erratic Virginia starter Nathan Kirby. Those were the only runs the Commodores mustered that night, and they had to hold on 9-8 en route to a 2-1 series win for their first national championship.
There was no such drama on this night. With the big lead, Leiter settled in, pounding the zone with a fastball that routinely hit 95-96 MPH, topping out at 97 MPH. He buckled the knees of a potent Mississippi State lineup with that devastating breaking ball. He struck out the side in the third, pitched out of danger in the fifth with a double play, and allowed just two runs on three hits over six innings as he avenged the first loss of his college career, a 7-4 loss to the Bulldogs in Nashville back in April.
In two starts in the CWS, Leiter allowed just three runs on six hits in 14 innings. He struck out a whopping 23, including a school-CWS record 15 in his 1-0 loss to N.C. State last Monday. If it was possible for Leiter to surpass his own lofty reputation in Omaha, he did just that.
You have to like Vanderbilt’s chances with their other ace, Kumar Rocker, waiting in the wings to pitch in game three if necessary. Rocker’s 7-0 in the postseason in his career and was the Most Outstanding Player of the CWS back in 2019.
Tim Corbin coached Vandy teams have now won 20 of their 28 College World Series games; the second best record in the history of the CWS. The game one win may also be a good omen. Since the Finals moved to the best-of-three format, 11 of the 17 game one winners have gone on to dogpile as national champs.
If Vandy’s able to do the same it will become just the seventh repeat national champion in college baseball history, and capture its third CWS title in the last eight years, further cementing the program, and Corbin as its coach, as the best in the country.