NASHVILLE – When it comes to drama, this Mississippi State-Vanderbilt Super Regional has been truly superb.
State won Game One 10-8 in walk-off fashion Friday night. Vanderbilt won Game Two 4-3 in another walk-off finish in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
No telling what happens in Game Three, which begins at 5:04 p.m. Sunday afternoon. But we do know this: The winner goes to Omaha for the College World Series. For the loser, the season is over.
“We’ve had two tight games,” State coach Gary Henderson said. “My guess is we’ll probably going to have another.”
That’s more than an educated guess. Indeed, it seems a no-brainer. Just look at the facts. These are two evenly matched teams.
Mississippi State is 36-27. Vandy is 35-26. State finished 15-15 in the SEC. Vandy finished 16-14.
Neither is what you would call a great college baseball team. But both are tough, scrappy and have learned, with scars, how to win close baseball games.
As Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said, “We’ve both been beaten up some during this season. It has made us both better.”
Late Saturday night, State was within five outs of Omaha. The Bulldogs led the Commodores 3-2 in the eighth inning. Zach Neff, the third of three State pithers, got Pat DeMarco to fly out to left field for the first out of the eight. That was just before the clock struck midnight.
Then Harrison Ray, Vandy’s third baseman, ripped a gapper to left centerfield that went to the wall. It looked like a sure double, but Ray never hesitated rounding second and slid into third with a triple. Ethan Paul then singled him on with a soft line drive single that fell just in front of State center fielder Jake Mangum.
That made it 3-3 going into the ninth. Chandler Day, the fourth of Vandy’s four pitchers, retired the Bulldogs in order, which brought Vandy to bat with a chance to win it in the ninth.
Neff struckout Stephen Scott for the first out, bringing JJ Bleday to the plate. Bleday, hitless in four at bats, looked at two balls. But he didn’t just look at the third pitch, a belt-high fast ball.
No, he ripped it to straight-away centerfield. Mangum turned and sped toward the green wall in center. He leaped, stretched his glove above the fence – and came down empty.
“I knew he hit it really good,” Neff said. “I was just hoping Jake could get it.”
Vanderbilt players mobbed Bleday. Vanderbilt fans cheered wildly, just as State fans had about 25 hours earlier.
Said Corbin, the Vandy coach in his 16th season, “That’s the best atmosphere we’ve ever had here. Our fans were great and I appreciate it. We needed it. Mississippi State fans were great, too.”
Corbin’s Commodores swept three straight games from State in Starkville back in March when the Bulldogs were headed to a 2-7 start in the SEC.
Asked about the difference in State now and then, Corbin answered, “In broad terms, it’s mental toughness. . . . Those are tough, tough kids, and they are inspired by one another. They’ve been beaten up some and it’s helped them. You go through critical moments together like they’ve been through, there’s a bonding that happens.
“It’s happened with them and it’s happened with us,” Corbin said.
State’s Henderson said he will go with senior Jacob Billingsley (5-3, 5.05 earned run average) on the mound Sunday. Vandy is expected to counter with freshman Mason Hickman (8-2, 5.25). Both teams will have plenty of fresh arms in the bullpen.
The stakes are high. One will advance to the College World Series. The other will be done. Expect drama.