Mississippi State faces defending national champion Vanderbilt’s much-feared, soon-to-be-multi-millionaire Jack Leiter.

OMAHA — You scratch. You claw. You somehow fight you way through three dramatic, one-run victories to get to the championship round of the College World Series. And then, who do you face?

Why, defending national champion Vanderbilt’s much-feared, soon-to-be-multi-millionaire Jack Leiter, of course. 

Rick Cleveland

Mississippi State has a chore on its hands tonight in the first game of the CWS best-of-three championship series that begins at 6 p.m. at what will be a jam-packed TD Ameritrade Park.

“Best arm in the country,” Tanner Allen, Mississippi State’s SEC Player of the Year, said Sunday. “Unbelievable talent.”

Leiter, son of former Major League star Al Leiter, probably will be the first college pitcher chosen in next month’s Major League draft. He won 10 games for the Commodores this season. More impressively, he struck out 171 batters in 104 innings. He throws a 95 mph fastball that he can accelerate to 98. His curveball, which seems to drop off the face of the planet, is devastating. And he has a terrific slider, too. He commands all, which is why some Major League team is going to write him a huge check later this summer.

Funny, Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said Sunday he didn’t know if he would start Leiter. He said it with a straight face, too. Forget that. Leiter will pitch tonight. He would have thrown against North Carolina State Saturday had the game been played. Now Leiter has had another 48 hours of rest. 

Even so, State knows Leiter can be beat. After all, the Bulldogs beat him in Nashville back in April. The Bulldogs lost two of three in the series, but they did scorch Leiter. Rowdey Jordan homered to lead off the game and the Bulldogs scored four runs on six hits in five innings off Leiter en route to a 7-4 victory. Logan Tanner also homered. Tanner Allen had two hits and scored twice off the Vandy ace.

So, it can be done, and the Bulldogs know it.

To win, the Bulldogs will need a terrific pitching performance of their own. They are counting on left-hander Christian MacLeod to provide that. MacLeod (6-5, 4.61 ERA) blanked Vandy for three innings in the opener of that April series before Vandy knocked him out of the box with four runs in the fourth inning en route to a 6-2 victory.

“I had some pretty good stuff early,” MacLeod said Sunday. “My changeup was really working well.”

MacLeod struck out seven over those first three innings before he lost command of his pitches, especially his changeup. He fell behind in counts. The results were not good.

“I left some pitches up,” MacLeod said. “They made me pay for it. That’s a good lineup they have over there.”

It is. Vanderbilt, the defending national champion, has won eight of its last nine games.

“They have been here,” Chris Lemonis said. “They know how to win. … They know how to play the game and they are really well coached.”

Said Tanner Allen, “Vanderbilt is an unbelievable team… They have good arms and they can really swing it. We’ll have our hands full, but like I said, we didn’t expect this to be a cakewalk. We’re ready for it.”

Vandy is, too. These two Southeastern Conference teams have played some memorable games over the last few springs. There’s no reason to expect anything different here when the stakes are even higher.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.