OMAHA — On a bizarre day when the College World Series entered baseball’s version of “The Twilight Zone,” Mississippi State’s road to a national championship hit a stormy detour.
The Bulldogs, 8-5 losers to Texas Friday night (and Saturday morning), now have to defeat the Longhorns Saturday night in order to advance to the CWS championship series. They’ll need to throw more strikes to do it.
The really weird stuff was on the other side of the CWS bracket, where Vanderbilt was declared the winner after a strange sequence of events sci-fi legend and Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling would appreciate. First, the Vandy-North Carolina State game was delayed for more than an hour because the NCAA had to sort out major problems with North Carolina State’s COVID-19 testing. Stay with me here. Apparently, several Wolfpack players tested positive. Others were sidelined because of contact tracing.
North Carolina State was given a choice: forfeit or play with 13 available players, missing several starters and facing Vanderbilt All-American Kumar Rocker on the mound.
The Wolfpack, playing baseball’s version of the Texans at The Alamo, made a terrific game of it before falling 3-1. Then, early Saturday morning, the NCAA announced Saturday’s rematch of the two teams would not be played. North Carolina State was effectively disqualified from the CWS. Because of privacy concerns, the NCAA would not elaborate. So weird. So awful for NC State. And so fortunate for Vandy, which enters the national championship series without having to use any more pitching.
Texas and Mississippi State also endured their own delay, but it came in the ninth inning and was much more routine: a thunderstorm that delayed the game for two hours, 27 minutes and well into Saturday morning.
Amid all the craziness and delays, one fundamental maxim of baseball rang all too true for Mississippi State, that is: Walks will kill you.
The Bulldogs had fought back from a 5-2 deficit to tie the game with a three-run eighth inning. It should be noted that Texas pitchers walked four Bulldogs in that inning, fueling the comeback.
And then, just when it seemed we were watching another one of State’s patented late-game comeback victories, rain commenced and Bulldog reliever Cade Smith walked Mike Antico to start the Texas ninth. There may be worse things than walking the leadoff hitter in a tie game in the ninth inning. Maybe.
State quickly found out. It started raining harder. After a sacrifice bunt, new reliever Parker Stinnett walked Zach Zubia, putting runners at first and second with clean up batter Ivan Melendez coming to the plate. The count went to three balls, two strikes, before Melendez smashed a grooved fastball through the now-pouring rain for a three-run home run to make it 8-5. Stinnett walked the next Texas batter and apparently Mother Nature had seen enough. Heaven knows, Chris Lemonis had. Lightning in the vicinity sent the game into a long delay.
Here’s the deal: The home run surely hurt. But the two walks that preceded it count twice as much in the scorebook. Walks do kill. Seven State pitchers walked 11 Texas batters. Three of those scored. The final score was 8-5. Do the math.
“It’s hard to beat anybody when you walk 11 guys,” Lemonis said. “We’ve just got to make sure – got to throw strikes. We’ve got to compete in the zone. I think that’s where we fell short a little bit tonight.”
He doesn’t think. He knows so.
So, we are left with so many questions. Will we ever learn all that happened behind the scenes on the North Carolina State-Vanderbilt side of the bracket? Eventually, I suspect, the news will leak.
Another question: Had North Carolina State somehow won Friday afternoon’s game, thus eliminating Vandy, would Saturday night’s Texas-Mississippi State winner have been declared the national champion?
We must assume so. As it is, Vandy will have a fresh Jack Leiter to start the championship series. That’s a huge advantage.
On the other side of the bracket: Does State pitch ace Will Bednar Saturday? Surely, the Bulldogs would have much preferred to have Bednar available to open the championship series. Of course, you have to win to get there.
Lemonis wouldn’t say, but I have to believe he goes with his best available and that’s Bednar for certain.
And who does Texas go with? Probably Tristan Stevens, a junior right-hander with an 11-3 record and a 3.23 earned run average, who was mostly ineffective against Tennessee earlier in the week. We can surmise from his numbers he is usually better than that.
Finally, will State pitchers throw strikes?
Where the majority of readers of this column are concerned, that might be the most important question of all.