Leiter, Gonzalez Lead Vandy in Finals Opener

Commodores beat Mississippi State 8-2, national championship within reach

by Chad Bishop

OMAHA, Neb. — Vanderbilt knew it wouldn’t be easy Monday. It also knew it wouldn’t be impossible.

The biggest thing was playing loose, having fun,” Vanderbilt senior Jayson Gonzalez said. “We knew the atmosphere was going to be loud and a lot of fun. So the biggest thing was just having fun, playing loose and just helping (Vanderbilt starter) Jack (Leiter) win.

“I think it started did during (batting practice). We were having fun out there hitting BP loose, taking ground balls loose, just trying to have as much fun as we could. And just trying to enjoy the atmosphere that we had tonight. We’ve played on the road at a lot of tough stadiums. And I think throughout the year that’s helped us a lot. Coming in tonight we were trying to enjoy it as much as we can. We knew what the atmosphere was going to be like. We knew what the mood was going to be like.”

In front of 24,052 fans, the overwhelmingly majority of which were wearing maroon and white, Gonzalez hit a three-run home run to cap a seven-run first inning. That allowed the Commodores (49-16) to control an eventual 8-2 victory over Mississippi State in the opening game of the finals of the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park.

Vandy is now one win away from its third national championship in program history. It will get its first crack at that at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the second game of the series.

“We knew this was going to be difficult. And it will continue to be difficult,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “This place is filled with people that aren’t wearing gold and black, and we’re playing a very good team.

“I think the thing that’s helped us in some regards is we have played well on the road. And we’ve played well in tough environments.”

Gonzalez’s blast Monday made a quick memory of what was a dream start for the Bulldogs (48-18).

Kamren James, with two outs in the top of the first, hit the fourth pitch he saw from Leiter out to deep left giving Mississippi State a 1-0 lead and sending Bulldogs fans into a frenzy.

But the Dores countered.

After Parker Noland was hit by a pitch with one out and the bases loaded, CJ Rodriguez drove in two more with a single to left and then Isaiah Thomas doubled down the third-base line plating another.

Gonzalez, who hit a walk-off single to beat Arizona on June 19 in Vandy’s College World Series opener, walked to the plate with two outs and two on later in the inning. For the second time in the College World Series the Californian provided the biggest moment of his team’s win.

As he rounded second he looked to the stands behind the third-base dugout to give a quick wave to his family in attendance.

It was special, you know, coming all the way across from California and having the support system that I have from them,” Gonzalez said. “So much sacrifice that they put into this. It just truly means a lot. It was great seeing them up in the stands today.”

Those seven runs in the first were all Leiter (11-4) needed and then some.

The sophomore struck out eight over six innings and allowed just two earned runs. He worked around three hits and three walks while lowering his ERA to 2.13.

Leiter threw 107 pitches and has now struck out 23 hitters and allowed just three earned runs in two College World Series starts.

“The home run in the first, that happens,” Leiter said. “It was a fastball count and I gave him a fastball in a very hittable place and he’s a great fastball hitter. And he kind of did what great fastball hitters do with it.

“But after that, I feel like I settled in and my command was pretty good. And I was feeling my off-speed pitches pretty well. Then later in the game kind of lost the feel for it a little bit. The command was a little down and the feel for the breaking balls was as well. So at that point it became sort of a pitch-to-contact type situation.”

If Leiter made it look easy at times Monday, he and his teammates know it won’t be so Tuesday – and possibly Wednesday. Mississippi State, now needing two wins in two days, has lost consecutive games only three times in 2021.

And the Bulldogs plan to make things increasingly difficult in Game 2.

“These guys went out and competed. That’s what we have to do,” Mississippi State head coach Chris Lemonis said. “If we want to win this thing, we have to compete. We have to play tough. And we’ll have to make them earn it. We didn’t do that at times tonight but we’re going to do that the rest of the week.”

— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.