In dramatic fashion, the No. 4 Vanderbilt Commodores have advanced to face the No. 9 Mississippi State Bulldogs in the 2021 College World Series.
After their semi-final opponent North Carolina State was eliminated due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols, the Commodores moved on to the final series for the second consecutive season. Mississippi State bested No. 2 Texas on Saturday night to join them, creating the fourth all-SEC College World Series final.
There are storylines galore in this heated rivalry matchup. From Vanderbilt’s creative path to the championship to who pitches Games 2 and 3, Sports Editor Justin Hershey and Deputy Sports Editor Bryce Smith answer all your questions in The Hustler’s first ever mailbag.
Q: Will Vanderbilt be tested and show any symptoms after competing against NC State on Friday?
Bryce Smith: Yes, Vanderbilt was tested and no, they didn’t show any symptoms. According to ESPN, the Commodores underwent testing on Saturday morning and reported that there were zero positive tests amongst the groups. Obviously, this is a situation that will be continually monitored—and Vanderbilt will get tested again on Monday before Game 1—but as of right now there are no concerns with the health and safety of the Vanderbilt contingent.
Justin Hershey: Not much more to say here. The NCAA has a system in place for testing teams in these situations and according to all reports, the Commodores seem in the clear at the current time. A few things to remember, however. First, positive COVID-19 cases can take 24-72 hours to show, meaning Vanderbilt seemingly would not be 100 percent in the clear until Monday. Second, a number of key Vanderbilt players have already had COVID-19, including Dominic Keegan early this year. This will certainly be a closely-monitored situation in advance of Monday’s game, but there are no complications at this time.
Q: Will Tim Corbin comment on the events that transpired?
BS: Corbin commented after the game on Friday against NC State, prior to the cancellation of Saturday’s game. The Vanderbilt skipper called it “an odd situation” and one that required the VandyBoys to stay focused on the task at hand—winning the baseball game. Corbin didn’t go near addressing the crazy rumors on Twitter about his “involvement” in the NC State COVID-19 situation, which I think was absolutely the right call. Corbin mentioned in Sunday afternoon’s presser that he was comfortable with Vanderbilt’s COVID-19 situation and that there was nothing he or his team could do about what happened with NC State. Am I wrong Justin?
JH: Of course not and unsurprisingly, he didn’t address that stuff on Sunday. His job is to coach baseball and make sure his players are prepared both on and off the field, not to entertain conspiracy theories from fans. This is a really unfortunate situation that not even the team is happy about. There are few people in sports more competitive and dedicated to the integrity of a game than Tim Corbin and he demonstrated that today. He addressed the situation by attempting to empathize with the NC State fan base and team:
“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.”
When emotion takes over in sports, irrationality often follows. As sports fans, each one of us is subject to this phenomenon once in a while and I think we are seeing that play out, especially on Twitter the last couple of days.
Q: Would it have been Jack Leiter or Patrick Reilly if the game was played on Saturday?
BS: Despite the campaign from our former leader Simon Gibbs, I would have gone with Patrick Reilly on Saturday against NC State. The Wolfpack patched together a squad of just 13 players on Friday afternoon and it was anyone’s guess what that roster would have looked like on Saturday. Most important to that equation is pitching—NC State reportedly had just four pitchers available, meaning they would have been really thin on arms. Reilly could have given Vanderbilt a couple of quality innings to start off the game and see how the events transpired from there. If you had to go to Leiter, you go to Leiter, but I certainly would have saved him for Game 1 of the finals if given the opportunity. Your thoughts Mr. Hershey?
JH: The Twitter explosion in response to Simon’s adamant pitching take on Saturday was quite amusing and I tend to side with the masses here. Although Leiter is your best weapon in a do-or-die situation, Vanderbilt is in Omaha to win a national championship, not to survive another day. The best move to win a national championship would have been to throw Patrick Reilly—against a likely still disheveled NC State team—on Saturday and save Leiter for a crucial first game of the College World Series final. Since the College World Series implemented the three-game final series format in 2003, 11 of 17 national champions won their first game of that final series. Leiter would have given the Commodores the best chance to do exactly that.
I think there are also two other angles to this. First, if you throw Reilly and things start going south quickly, you can bring Leiter out of the bullpen. I know it’s unorthodox but for a kid that has the mental approach that Leiter does, I would trust him to come out of the bullpen if necessary. And second, by trotting Reilly to the hill, Corbin would signal an inordinate amount of confidence in his team that would likely provoke a positive response. Not only would he be trusting Reilly in the biggest game of the season, but he would show trust in Vanderbilt’s lineup to deliver the runs necessary to get Reilly a win.
BS: Totally agree with those points. Starting Reilly would have inspired the rest of the defense behind him and hopefully put the onus on Vanderbilt’s lineup to wake up at the plate. In addition, one thing that Reilly has done for the Commodores is throw strikes and eat innings—he has just five walks in 42 innings pitched this year—and that’s exactly what Vanderbilt would have needed with a bullpen that had been pretty taxed over the past couple of games.
Also, with as much confusion as there was going on with NC State’s COVID-19 situation, I would have hated to waste Leiter on a game that Vanderbilt really should have won. Yes, NC State was scraping to keep themselves in the game on Friday afternoon, but this was simply a game that I do not think Tim Corbin would have let his team lose against such a depleted opponent. Roll with Reilly and if things get bumpy, bring in Leiter.
Q: Will Spencer Jones be the permanent designated hitter moving forward?
JH: This is a really tough one for me. I have been a huge Troy LaNeve fan over the past two months but it may just be time for a switch-up in that designated hitter spot. LaNeve is just 2-14 (.142) with six strikeouts in four College World Series games thus far. In the Commodores’ 3-1 win over NC State on Friday, he actually replaced Isaiah Thomas in right field, but I don’t expect that to happen again.
Spencer Jones has two hits in his five College World Series at-bats so he is far from proven, but may be seeing the ball a bit better lately. Corbin mentioned after Vanderbilt’s win over Stanford that Jones has been swinging quite well in practice and really “barrels up” the ball well. I think I lean Jones to start on Monday night in that designated hitter spot. Do you still believe in LaNeve Bryce?
BS: I kind of like Jones in that spot too. Like how LaNeve originally entered into the lineup, I think that Corbin should reward the hot hand and let Jones continue to gain momentum offensively. Jones has come in and been nothing but productive thus far and has actually been good on the basepaths as well after some struggles in that area earlier in the season. The trio of CJ Rodriguez, Javier Vaz and Jones was Vanderbilt’s best source of offense against NC State on Friday and I wouldn’t be eager to break it up. That said—you mentioned you think LaNeve will be subbed out in right. So is Isaiah Thomas coming back in the lineup then?
JH: He’s got to be. I don’t think there is any question about that. I think a day off was certainly in order for him as he was just 1 for his last 13 at the dish, but he provides pop and home run potential that few other guys in this order have. Plug him back in and let him find a groove.
Q: What will be the pitching rotation against Mississippi State?
JH: Leiter is going to get the ball in Game 1. Even though Corbin remained noncommittal about that on Sunday, there’s no way it’s anyone else in the series opener. Game 2 is where things become interesting.
Kumar Rocker threw 111 pitches on Friday against NC State. Corbin did affirm that he is confident in Rocker’s ability to pitch on short rest this upcoming week. In 2014, the Commodores found themselves in a very similar situation with Carson Fulmer and Walker Buehler. After Buehler pitched in Game 1 against Virginia, Fulmer pitched in the do-or-die Game 3 on just three full days of rest. Tuesday’s Game 2 would mark three full days of rest for Rocker, but it seemed as though Corbin was thinking Rocker would go on Wednesday if necessary. Considering the competitor that Rocker is—and that it would be his final start in the black and gold—I think it simply has to be him on the mound if this thing extends to Wednesday night.
For Game 2, I would still ride with Christian Little. The freshman really did not look bad in his start against Stanford last week. Defensive miscues behind him really derailed a potentially solid outing.
BS: You nailed it. Leiter Game 1. Little Game 2. Rocker Game 3. I think this is pretty straight forward, but it gets interesting if you think about what to do in Game 2 if Mississippi State takes the opener. I think I’d lean on Rocker one final time as well—especially because not many of those 111 pitches on Friday were high-stress.
In any scenario, I’m really excited about each of these starters. Leiter is going to be absolutely locked in in his first-ever CWS Final. Like you said, Little had some tough luck but it wasn’t like he was overwhelmed in the moment—he just had some bad luck behind him and I like him to regress to the mean in Game 2. Then, you’ve got Rocker in Game 3 if need be in his last-ever game as a Commodore. Does it get any better than that?
JH: Three top MLB pitching prospects back-to-back-to-back? It doesn’t get much better. Kumar Rocker in a potential Game 3, how could you not be confident as a Vanderbilt fan? Rocker is 7-0 with a 1.19 ERA in 54.1 postseason innings. Just absurd.
Q: What will Mississippi State’s pitching rotation look like?
JH: Mississippi State’s head coach Chris Lemonis confirmed on Sunday that Christian MacLeod (6-5, 4.61 ERA) will take the hill on Monday, but said the rest of the way is very unconfirmed. The Commodores teed off MacLeod to the tune of four runs in 3.2 innings earlier this season, but Games 2 and 3—if necessary—will get more challenging. Will Bednar (8-1, 3.34 ERA) is the clear ace of this Bulldog staff, but he took the mound on Saturday in State’s win over Texas so Vanderbilt may not see him at all. I think the Commodores can count on seeing Houston Harding (7-2, 3.10 ERA) possibly on Tuesday or definitely on Wednesday after he pitched Friday against Texas. And whichever game Harding doesn’t pitch, I would expect to see a combination of bullpen arms for Mississippi State.
BS: Yep, with you here as well. That said—like we mentioned about Rocker—it is hard to imagine that the Bulldogs won’t turn to Bednar for at least a few innings if things go south for them. He is the best pitcher that Mississippi State has and the Bulldogs are going to be hungry for their first-ever CWS title—especially over the rival Commodores. I feel like they will pull out all the stops and that includes throwing Bednar if need be.