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OMAHA – So now we have Vanderbilt vs. Mississippi State – Whistler vs. Cowbell – two baseball teams that seem to bring out the best in each other and quite likely the two best teams coming into this 2019 College World Series.
Don’t just take it from me. Butch Thompson, the Auburn coach, said as much before the tournament began and again Sunday night after State’s astonishing 5-4, comeback victory over his Tigers. “The best two teams I’ve seen coming in here,” Thompson called State (52-13) and Vandy (55-11).
Just look at the records: 107 victories against 24 defeats, between them. They are the best two teams in the best conference in America. Tuesday, weather permitting, they square off at 6 p.m. (ESPNU) in a game that could go a long ways toward determining this season’s national champion.
Said Chris Lemonis Monday prior to State’s afternoon practice: “Us vs. Vandy, it’s almost destined for us to play.”
The winner, to quote the late, great Red Barber, will be in the catbird seat. The loser will face an uphill struggle.
These two teams have a history, including last year’s Super Regional at Nashville – crazy good college baseball – with the teams trading walk-off victories in the first two games and then State winning in extra innings after midnight on a Sunday in the rubber match.
Said an exhausted Vandy coach Tim Corbin in the early hours of Monday morning: “It was like you were running a race with somebody and every time you sped up, they just sped up and went that much faster. You gotta give (State) credit. They came to our place, they battled and they won, fair and square.”
Said State’s Jake Mangum, “Everybody gave up on us but us.”
Vandy defeated State 1-0 in the SEC Tournament, beating All American Ethan Small in the process.
The expected Tuesday night pitching matchup is sublime. Vandy is expected to go with freshman sensation Kumar Rocker, the strapping right-hander who threw a no-hitter against Duke in the recent Super Regional with the Commodores’ season on the line. All Rocker did was strike out 19 Blue Devils in a performance that made him an instant Nashville legend. He throws upwards of 95 mph and has an evil curve ball that even has its own name: McNasty.
State will counter with Peyton Plumlee, an Olive Branch senior who has been sparkling lately, shutting down Miami in regional play and then powerful Stanford in the Super Regional.
Many had anticipated a freshman All-America matchup of Rocker vs. State’s heralded JT Ginn, who famously turned down $2.8 million from the Los Angeles Dodgers to play baseball at State.
But Ginn has had a sore arm lately and Plumlee has been splendid. And there’s another factor.
Lemonis said he was opting for Plumlee because “he gives us the best chance with this matchup. He’s been good against left-handers, and six out of their nine in the lineup are lefties. They remind me a lot of that Miami lineup we faced…”
“When Plumlee is good, he’s got that good sinking movement on his fastball and he can give our defense a chance to make some plays behind him,” Lemonis added.
Given that, State’s infield defense will need to be really proficient. It says here if this State team has a weakness, that weakness is sometimes leaky infield defense. With Plumlee and his sinker on the mound against a team that hits like Vanderbilt, you simply can’t be leaky.
To listen to first baseman Tanner Allen, Plumlee’s teammates have utmost confidence in Plumlee.
“That’s a no-brainer to give the ball to Plumlee,” Allen said. “Just look how he’s pitched the last couple weeks. The guy goes out there and pitches every game like it’s the last one of his life. We really appreciate him because he’s a fighter.”
Rain is in the Tuesday Omaha forecast and might put a damper on the showdown. But, sooner or later, they’ll play and it should be quite the fight.