The cliché is that baseball is a game of inches.
On Friday night, the Vanderbilt Commodores got a few inches. Mississippi State got just one more.
That’s what made the difference in a wild, wacky 10-8 Bulldog win at Hawkins Field. Vanderbilt never had a lead, but they sure never quit. Each team got the breaks they needed, but Mississippi State got the one that mattered.
With the game deadlocked at 7-7 in the bottom of the eighth, Mississippi State’s Jordan Westburg flew out to right field. Luke Alexander made a mad dash for third base. The throw came in a hair too late, leaving Alexander within 90 feet of the bag.
On the next at-bat, Jake Mangum bounced a grounder just over the glove of first baseman Julian Infante, allowing Alexander to score and give the Bulldogs the lead.
In the top of the ninth, with Vanderbilt down to its last out, Pat DeMarco roped a ball that glanced off the wall in left field. He bolted for third base and stumbled, but the throw missed the bag.
An inch for Vanderbilt.
DeMarco made the heads-up play and dashed for home plate. The throw home was off, and the game was tied.
The inches are even.
“The cliché is 100 years old,” Mississippi State head coach Gary Henderson. “It’s a game of inches. I thought we had DeMarco out twice, maybe three times on that play. We had him out in the outfield, we had him out at third, we had him out at home. Add up all those inches. We didn’t get any of those outs, he scored. Those are the types of things that determine winners and losers when the game is close. We’ll probably have another close game tomorrow.”
Just when it looked like Vanderbilt had gotten their break, the Bulldogs weren’t ready to put away their ruler.
With one on and one out, regional hero Elijah MacNamee stepped to the plate. Down 0-2 in the count to Zach King, MacNamee caught a glimpse of something.
“I saw the pitcher wiggle his glove and it was the first time he wiggled his glove in three at-bats, so I knew he wasn’t coming with the fastball because that was the first time I’ve seen off-speed from him,” MacNamee said. “I just kept my hands back as long as I could and just got a pitch I could handle.”
With the off-speed pitch on the way, MacNamee drove the ball just over the left field wall.
The last inch. Game over.
It was an instant classic game that came down to something as small as the wiggle of a glove. In the regular season, that could bump someone’s record down by one game. In the postseason, it could mean the difference between Omaha and a longer-than-desired summer.
For Vanderbilt, all they can do now is focus on their end and in order to put a foot between them and their opponent in a game of inches.
“We’ll come back tomorrow and play well, that’s all,” head coach Tim Corbin said. “As a whole, we didn’t really play that well. Defensively, that was probably the worst game we played all year. For the game to be tight and come down to the last inning, it says something about the kids.”
“They’re very scrappy, they came back several times. They got some big hits, but we gave them some opportunities too and we took advantage of their opportunities too. It wasn’t the prettiest game, obviously. We’ll come back. I’m not worried about that.”
In a season defined by players with wisdom beyond their years, Vanderbilt’s young core will have to find something special to keep the season alive past tomorrow night.
Age is just a number at Vanderbilt.
“Doesn’t matter if we’re young,” Corbin said. “Throw that away.”
Game Two is scheduled for 8:30 PM CT on Saturday night. It will be televised on ESPN.