Mississippi State players watch from the dugout during the seventh inning against Vanderbilt in Game 1 of the NCAA College World Series baseball finals, Monday, June 28, 2021, in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz)

OMAHA — Mississippi State faithful filled TD Ameritrade Park like a maroon-clad army Monday night for Game One of the College World Series championship round. They came ready to make noise — and they made plenty, especially after Kamren James blasted a first inning home run well over the left centerfield fence.

If there were 24,402 people here, as announced, fully three-quarters of them were State fans. It was the most non-neutral neutral site crowd these eyes have seen or these ears have heard. They were standing and cheering, even before James slugged his homer when the count went to three balls, one strike. They went bonkers afterward.

Rick Cleveland

Then, two things happened: 

One, State starter Christian MacLeod couldn’t throw a strike and never got out of the bottom of the first inning. Vandy put up seven runs, silencing the crowd.

Two, Vanderbilt’s Jack Leiter, soon to be a top five pick in the MLB Draft, settled down and pitched like the several million dollars he’s about to earn. He kept the State partisans out of it — to the point that the loudest and certainly the most piercing — noise was the infamous Vandy Whistler, who whistled the night away during the Commodores’ 8-2 victory.

So, the Bulldogs find themselves down one game in the best-of-three series. State has played its baseball all season long when backed up against the proverbial wall. That’s where the ‘Dogs are now — backs squarely against the wall — and they are playing the defending national champions who have a 49-16 record this season.

“We came this far for a reason,” Bulldogs star Tanner Allen said. “We played eight great innings after the first. We kept playing. We’re gonna bring the same mentality and same attitude to the park tomorrow.”

State coaches clearly were hoping MacLeod could return to the form he often showed before the calendar turned to June and the games became far more meaningful. Over his last five appearances, the tall left-hander has allowed 19 earned runs and 10 walks in 16.2 innings. His problem has been all about command. He falls behind, issues free passes and then when he throws a strike, it’s right over the middle of the plate and somebody makes him pay.

MacLeod walked two of the first three Vandy batters and then hit the next two.

“It’s really frustrating,” Chris Lemonis said postgame. “You can’t give it to them. You have to make them earn it. It’s frustrating to come in here and not play like you have all year long and command the strike zone and pitch aggressively.”

Asked specifically about MacLeod’s recent problems, Lemonis said, “I just think he’s trying to do too much in the moment. And it’s gotten away from him. …He’s been great all year for us, pitched in big stadiums, pitched in big moments. The last couple weeks have been frustrating, more frustrating for him than anyone else.”

Allen was more protective of MacLeod.

“Obviously C-Mac didn’t have his great stuff tonight,” Allen said. “That’s part of the game. As a teammate, watching him the way he worked in the offseason and the fall and in spring training, you can’t do nothing but just slap him on the butt and pick him up and encourage him, because he’ll get the ball again. The sun’s going to come up again for him.

“I know he’s probably catching a lot of flak on social media right now,” Allen went on, “but 99.9% of those people have never played in a national championship game and never pitched in front of even maybe 500 people. … And you know what, he’s a good friend of mine. So as a good friend, I really do feel bad for him. I do. But I know what kind of competitor he is and he’ll pick himself up and he’ll be fine ready to go his next start.”

Vanderbilt had scored a total of 16 runs in its four previous CWS game. The Commodores had scored a total of 10 in their last three. They scored seven in one inning against State.

Then, State’s bullpen limited the Commodores to one run over the next seven innings. When State pitchers threw strikes — “pounded the zone,” was the way Lemonis put it — they kept Vandy bats silent. Indeed, the only run Vandy scored was in the seventh inning and was scored by a player who reached first on a leadoff walk. Again, the Commodores are good enough. You can’t help them.

If the Bulldogs are that charitable Tuesday night, this magical State run comes to an end.

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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.