June 11, 2018
By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE - Early Monday morning, Vanderbilt players lined the railing of their usual third-base dugout at Hawkins Field and witnessed a celebration. It was not the celebration the Commodores had envisioned when they opened the Nashville Super Regional last Friday. Instead, a dog-pile commenced just behind second base - or, rather, a Bulldog pile.
Mississippi State players wasted no time raucously celebrating a hard-fought 10-6 win over the Dores in Game 3. The matchup was a series-clinching victory that needed 11 innings to sort out, and it ultimately secured a spot for MSU in the College World Series. So the time on the clock did not deter the Bulldogs from rejoicing on the host Commodores' field, an immediate eruption as the result went final.
Several yards away, however, Vanderbilt could do little more than reflect - on a Super Regional for the ages, and the missed opportunities along the way.
"From day one, before the season even started, we just had this feeling that we were a mentally tough team," junior second baseman Ethan Paul said. "We just didn't think we would ever go down this way. We always believed in ourselves."
The drama that defined Game 1 and Game 2 of the Nashville Super Regional made its way to Hawkins Field for Sunday's rubber match. Following a two-hour weather delay, Mississippi State opened up the scoring as it had all series long, building a 2-0 lead in the top of the third. But Vanderbilt rallied for a 3-2 advantage on an Austin Martin RBI single with two outs in the bottom of the fourth.
The two teams headed to the top of the ninth knotted up 3-3, seemingly destined for another dose of late-game magic. The Bulldogs quickly scored two runs before a wild pitch from Vandy's Jackson Gillis allowed MSU's Jake Mangum to reach home and push Mississippi State up 6-3. That meant Vanderbilt has one last shot to save its season in the bottom of the ninth.
The Commodores didn't disappoint. Pat DeMarco cranked a solo homer to lead things off before Paul launched a two-run shot that tied the game again, 6-6. MSU stopped the bleeding, but not before watching Vandy force a 10th inning in front of a wild Hawkins Field crowd, the majority of which had yet to leave their seats.
"That last inning I'll never forget," Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said.
But as both teams dug deep into their bullpens, Mississippi State's offense didn't fall asleep. The Bulldogs scored the final four runs of the game in the 11th inning off Vanderbilt reliever Tyler Brown. The Commodores were unable to match with their bats in the ensuing frame.
Soon after, Vanderbilt was forced to watch Mississippi State celebrate a trip to Omaha on the Dores' home field. Razor-thin margins became the theme of the Nashville Super Regional, which saw its first two games determined by walk-off home runs. But a difficult loss in Game 3 likely emphasized Vanderbilt's own missed chances along the way.
The Commodores stranded 35 combined runners across three Super Regional games; on Sunday they left 17 runners on base, the program's most ever in a Super Regional contest. Vanderbilt had momentum with the score tied 3-3 in the bottom of the eighth and Connor Kaiser at plate. With the bases loaded, two outs and a 3-2 count, Kaiser hit a chopper up the right infield when Mississippi State's shortstop collided with Vandy's Austin Martin in an effort to make the play. The result was an interference call on Martin, the final out of the inning and three more stranded runners.
Those opportunities, in retrospect, likely cost the Commodores.
"That's the try-hard of the team," Corbin said. "You've got guys on base and they just want to get the hit, and they come up short. Sometimes, the try-to gets in the way of the ability to do it. But that's part of sport."
Though Vanderbilt must now watch the College World Series from home, a young team under Corbin did well to turn around a lackluster season. The Commodores were 25-22 at the season's midpoint and unsure about their postseason future. But they rallied to reach a 13th-consecutive NCAA Tournament and their seventh Super Regional in nine years. Impactful freshmen like DeMarco, Martin and Friday's starter Mason Hickman have bright futures in black and gold.
Vanderbilt's junior class, meanwhile, stuck with Corbin as he reflected on Sunday's loss. Players like Paul, Kaiser and others were part of the country's top-ranked recruiting class when they first donned Commodore jerseys in 2016. But as is tradition, several key faces from that group are expected to depart as Vanderbilt preps for the 2019 season.
"I'm having a tough time for the juniors," Corbin said. "I really wanted them to see this. They've been through a lot from a personal standpoint, so I really wanted this for them."
After the loss, one of those juniors, Paul, looked determined but disappointed as he answered questions from gathered media. Someone asked how Paul and his teammates might use this Super Regional as fuel for the future. Even in the face of the end of his season, the junior nodded.
"Experiences like that, they go a long way in the future," Paul said. "It's going to be a positive thing in the end for us."
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.