Title Bout With Mississippi State Awaits

Commodores and Bulldogs start three-game championship series Monday

by Chad Bishop

Vanderbilt's College World Series Championship press conference

OMAHA, Neb. — Time and time again this season, and more notably during the NCAA Tournament, Vanderbilt has found a way to counterpunch when it has been hit first.

Perhaps an offseason program in the fall that involved elements of boxing has helped Vandy learn how to get up off the mat any time it gets knocked down.

It did so after a disappointing 1-2 showing at the SEC Tournament in May by going 3-0 the next week in an NCAA Nashville Regional – an event which included a come-from-behind, 14-11 win over Georgia Tech to advance. It did so this week by staving off elimination two with wins over Stanford and North Carolina State and by capturing one of those games 6-5 with two dramatic runs in the bottom of the ninth inning.

The Commodores really have done so all season long by going 12-3 in games after losses. Vandy also had just two losing streaks all season.

Those are notable numbers as the Dores now turn to their most-difficult bout of the season, a championship series with heavyweight Mississippi State starting at 6 p.m. CT Monday at TD Ameritrade Park at the College World Series.

“You see the pieces in the fall, you see the spring and the guys know where we’re going to end up and we’re here right now,” Vanderbilt junior pitcher Kumar Rocker said. “I think it means a lot for everybody and especially my class. Those guys have waited two years to play in this spot. Those are my guys I’m excited for.”

Vanderbilt (48-16) is in the best 2-of-3 title series thanks to wins over Arizona, Stanford and North Carolina State, respectively. It was also on the verge of elimination Friday having lost to North Carolina State on Monday.

The Commodores then moved into the championship series after Saturday’s elimination game against North Carolina State was deemed a no-contest by the NCAA due to COVID-19 protocols.

Vandy is making its fourth appearance in the College World Series championship series and second straight having won the 2019 national championship.

“We’re very proud to be part of something that is celebrated for the kids and on a (national) network and how we play the game of baseball,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “At the same time it’s joyous for both communities to be here together. I certainly respect Mississippi State a great deal. I enjoy their fan base. We have many friends from Mississippi State and we’ll stay that way.

“But we’re just proud. We’re proud to represent our bracket. Happy to be lined up against a very good opponent – we’re grateful and fortunate.”

Mississippi State (48-17) finished the regular season in second place in the SEC West, two games back of Arkansas. It also bounced back from a poor showing at the SEC Tournament (0-2) to win the Starkville Regional, the Starkville Super Regional when facing elimination in a third game and with a 4-3, walk-off win over Texas on Saturday after having lost to the Longhorns Friday.

Vanderbilt took 2 of 3 from the Bulldogs at the end of April at Hawkins Field in Nashville. The Dores got a complete-game performance from Rocker in a 6-2 opening-series win and then three RBIs from Carter Young in a comeback 7-4 victory in the series finale.

But in the middle game, Mississippi State handed Jack Leiter his first loss of the season by scoring four earned runs off of six hits and three walks. Leiter could get another crack at the Bulldogs this week.

“We’ll see how (Leiter) feels (Sunday) and then we’ll determine who is going to pitch. But we need time (Sunday),” Corbin said. “These kids have thrown as of late and we’ll just take care of the health of the kids first before we determine who is going to start.

“Starting pitching sets up fine and everyone’s a factor.”

Vandy, in its fifth College World Series, is aiming for its third national title since 2014. Mississippi State will be looking for its first national champion – not only in baseball, but in any sport in school history.

Both sides, undoubtedly, will be ready when the bell rings Monday night.

“We’re here for a reason,” Vanderbilt junior Dominic Keegan said. “We earned our spot here and we got here because of our abilities and what we can do. So (we’re) just not putting pressure on ourselves and just having fun. When this group’s having fun I think we’re at our best.”

• The Commodores trail the all-time series with the Bulldogs 72-53-2. The programs first met in 1913.

• Vanderbilt is 45-1 this season when leading after eight innings.

Rocker and Leiter will become the first teammates to finish first and second in the nation in strikeouts in at least 30 seasons. Rocker has 173 Ks in 2021 while Leiter has 171 going into the week.

• David Price holds the Vanderbilt record for strikeouts in a season with 194 in 2007.

• Vandy has recorded 758 strikeouts this season. The 2019 team set a program record with 765.

• Vanderbilt is batting 7-for-31 (.226) with runners in scoring position in the College World Series.

• Vanderbilt is the third program to make the championship game in four straight CWS appearances joining Southern California (nine straight from 1968-98 as well as four straight from 1958-63) and Arizona State (five straight from 1965-73).

• Vandy is now 19-8 at the College World Series.

• The Dores are 22-5 in their last 27 NCAA Tournament contests.

• Corbin is tied for the 11th-most wins in College World Series history with 19. Rod Dedeaux tops the list with 60.

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