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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

College World Series Final Preview: VandyBoys with a chance to defend their title

In bizarre fashion, the Vanderbilt Commodores have earned a chance to face off with conference rival Mississippi State for the 2021 College World Series title.
The Vanderbilt Commodores have advanced to their second consecutive College World Series final. (Vanderbilt Athletics).

The No. 4 Vanderbilt Commodores have advanced to their second consecutive College World Series final—this time, in the most bizarre way possible.

A surreal 36 hours in Omaha late last week culminated in a shocking middle-of-the-night proclamation from the NCAA Saturday morning that Vanderbilt would advance to the final due to COVID-19 complications within the North Carolina State program.

The drama began before the Commodores and Wolfpack were set to face off at 1 p.m. CDT on Friday. Numerous sources began reporting that NC State was struggling with positive COVID-19 cases within their program. Ultimately, positive tests and contact tracing left them with just 13 available players for the contest.

The Commodores squeaked by the short-handed Wolfpack 3-1 before COVID-19 left—hopefully—its final major mark on the sports world. The NCAA announced at 1:10 a.m. CDT Saturday morning that the win-or-go-home matchup scheduled for Saturday afternoon would be declared a no-contest.

Kendall Rogers of provided further details on the status of NC State’s student-athletes, but in short, the ruling of a no-contest paved the way for Vanderbilt to advance into the final series. Head coach Tim Corbin and his team will now look to become the first school to win consecutive College World Series since South Carolina did so in 2010 and 2011. 

“We certainly sympathize with their team, their fan base too, understanding that we don’t know the level of hurt that they are exposed to right now,” Corbin said on Sunday. “We certainly would want to play them on the field or have played them on the field, but we didn’t. So we are in the situation where we move forward.”

Opposite them stands conference rival No. 9 Mississippi State. For the fourth time in College World Series history, two SEC teams will duke it out for the national championship. The Bulldogs enter the final three-game set of their season after beating No. 2 Texas 4-3 on Saturday night. 

“They have some really good players who compete really well. Their pitching staff is like ours. They have quality starters. They have quality arms out of the bullpen. They take care of the baseball and they have been there,” Corbin said of Mississippi State. “It is exciting that way and as far as the SEC is concerned, we are very proud to be in the conference.”

How the Commodores got here

Even before the events of this past weekend, the road to the College World Series has been a dramatic one for the 2021 VandyBoys. Following an early exit from the SEC Tournament in May, Vanderbilt was pegged as the fourth overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. They went on to host both a regional and super regional at Hawkins Field before advancing to Omaha for the College World Series.

Through their nine-game run to the championship series, the Commodores boast a win margin of just two runs per contest and have been forced to find numerous creative ways to pull out wins.

A thrilling, 14-11 victory over Georgia Tech in the Nashville regional proved indicative of the road to come for Vanderbilt. After the Commodores blew a one-run ninth-inning lead, Isaiah Thomas delivered a grand slam in the 11th to send the Hawkins Field faithful home happy. 

That win propelled Corbin’s team into the super regionals where they handled No. 13 East Carolina in a pair of intense pitching matchups.

The Commodores then arrived in Omaha and have delivered two walk-off victories in the span of just four games. In their first game against No. 5 Arizona, the VandyBoys overcame three crucial errors and a ninth-inning rally from the Wildcats to prevail 7-6 in 12 innings. Jayson Gonzalez played the hero with an RBI single to push the Commodores to the winning side of their bracket.

After dropping their first matchup with NC State 1-0 despite a tremendous eight-inning performance from Jack Leiter, the Commodores rebounded with yet another walk-off win—this one even more peculiar than the last.

With two outs in the ninth inning, the Commodores appeared dead, trailing No. 9 Stanford 5-4. Despite facing a 1-2 count, Javi Vaz managed to draw a two-out walk and would later come around to score thanks to a pair of singles from Spencer Jones and Enrique Bradfield Jr. Then, Stanford’s Brandon Beck airmailed his catcher with a 2-0 pitch, allowing Jones to come home and clinch the win for Vanderbilt on a wild pitch.

Finally—in the strangest victory of their run—the Commodores waited an extra hour to face off with NC State on Friday. Another quiet performance from the bats may have cost Vanderbilt its season against a full Wolfpack squad, but the Commodores did just enough to secure the victory before the NCAA’s ruling on Saturday.

Pitching Outlook

To no credit of their own, Vanderbilt will now enter its final series of the season in a fortunate pitching situation. Although Corbin declined to affirm Sunday that Jack Leiter would start the first game of the series, it is reasonable to assume that the sophomore will get the ball in the series opener. Leiter last pitched in a gut-wrenching, 1-0 loss to NC State on June 21, thus pitching on Monday will have afforded him his usual one week of rest. 

If he does get the nod Monday, he will have a fully available bullpen behind him. While not a strength during the regular season, the Commodores’ bullpen has been impressive thus far in the College World Series, boasting a 1.19 ERA thanks to 15.1 innings pitched and just two runs allowed.

That bullpen effort has started with Luke Murphy, who has throwin 6.1 clean innings so far in Omaha. Despite tossing 54 pitches on Friday, Murphy will almost certainly be ready to pitch Monday—if need be—after two full days of rest.

“Often, you come into a situation that is very tight, and the temperature of the game is hot. He’s [Murphy’s] done a good job of getting into those environments and throwing strikes,” Corbin said of his junior.

Nick Maldonado and Chris McElvain have also been impressive. Maldonado last pitched against Stanford on June 23, so he will be ready to go. McElvain tossed just 18 pitches in Friday’s victory over NC State, making him eligible as well.

After Game 1, Corbin will have some interesting decisions to make. Kumar Rocker threw 111 pitches in a gutsy six-inning performance on Friday, but Corbin said he was “confident” that Rocker could come back to pitch in the final series on short rest. Besides Leiter and Rocker, both freshmen Patrick Reilly and Christian Little seem to be in line for some high-pressure work this week.

Little started the Commodores’ 6-5 win over Stanford and although he lasted just three innings, that was in large part due to lackluster defense behind him. Reilly last took the mound in the Commodores’ 14-11 extra-inning victory over Georgia Tech on June 7.

Vanderbilt’s Keys to the Series

With a full bullpen and one of their two aces on long rest, the key to this series for the Commodores will be responding to recent subpar performances at the plate. In four College World Series games, the Commodores are hitting just .216 (31-143) as a team. By contrast, in SEC play this group boasted a batting average of .292.

These struggles are largely thanks to a slumping middle of the order. Troy LaNeve, Carter Young and Thomas have combined to hit just 4-40 (.100) with 3 RBIs in four College World Series games. The Commodores have also left 31 runners on base over that span.

In order to match Mississippi State’s dynamic pitching staff, the Commodore offense will certainly need a jolt. This jolt could potentially come from the designated hitter spot, where Corbin has recently inserted Spencer Jones. Jones has two hits in five at-bats thus far in the College World Series and earned his first start on Friday against North Carolina State.

Another source of energy for the Commodores of late has been Javi Vaz. The former junior college transfer appeared in just three SEC games all season but has emerged as a useful bottom-of-the-order piece for Vanderbilt amid its postseason run. Vaz has started each of Vanderbilt’s four games in Omaha and reached base safely eight times total in those contests. The 5’9” junior has used his small stature and speed to draw walks and race around the basepaths.

“I think the unique part about kids like that that come on at the end of the season is they never lose their spirit and personality during it,” Corbin said of Vaz. “There’s a Tony Kemp element to [Vaz] and there’s a Javi Vaz element to Tony. They are very positive people and they play with a lot of bounce and enjoy the game.”

The Commodores did have success at the dish against Mississippi State in the regular season, tallying 17 runs over three games against the Bulldogs at Hawkins Field. But there is no doubt more production will be needed if Vanderbilt hopes to clinch its third national championship.

The Commodores and Bulldogs will begin the much anticipated, all-SEC College World Series final on Monday at 6 p.m. CDT.

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About the Contributor
Justin Hershey
Justin Hershey, Former Sports Editor
Justin Hershey ('22) was Sports Editor for The Vanderbilt Hustler. He has been on staff since freshman year, previously serving as a Staff Writer, Deputy Sports Editor and Lead Sports Analyst. He majored in human and organizational development with minors in business and economics. In addition to writing, he hosts The Hustler Sports 30 Podcast, enjoys playing golf and is waiting for his hometown Philadelphia 76ers to complete The Process. For tips and comments, feel free to reach out to: [email protected]    
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