Three up, three down: VandyBoys drops series against unranked Mississippi State

Vanderbilt Baseball lost its first series at home since the 2021-2022 season after falling to Mississippi State on Saturday and Sunday.
Bryce Cunningham delivers a pitch to home plate. As photographed on April 26, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Kadyn Lee)
Bryce Cunningham delivers a pitch to home plate. As photographed on April 26, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Kadyn Lee)
Kadyn Lee

Following a series win against Florida, the Vanderbilt Baseball team continued its homestand, hosting four games at Hawkins Field, including an SEC matchup against unranked Mississippi State. Earlier in the week, the Commodores secured a tight 5-4 win over UT Martin off of a Davis Diaz walk-off home run. Vanderbilt seemed to be riding high on the walk-off win when it blanked the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the first of its three-game weekend series. Yet, the Commodores let the Bulldogs fight back with wins on Saturday and Sunday. The defeat was the first regular season series loss at Hawkins Field since May of 2022. Due to the loss, the VandyBoys moved down to a No. 17 ranking nationally and now sit in third place in the SEC East, four games behind Tennessee and six games behind the leader, Kentucky. 

Vanderbilt needed a win against Mississippi State to cushion the tough schedule and improve its SEC record, especially at home. Now that the VandyBoys lost the series against the Bulldogs, the road ahead looks even tougher. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let us look at what went well and what went astray in the series against the Bulldogs.

Three up.

Bryce Cunningham shutout

Special. Bryce Cunningham blanked Mississippi State, where he pitched a complete game shutout. Cunningham was phenomenal, to say the least. The junior collected four strikeouts and allowed just four hits and four walks across nine innings pitched. Cunningham has matured and continued to contribute to the Commodores’ efforts on the mound. Cunningham also has the second most strikeouts of the Vanderbilt pitching staff with 76. In SEC matchups, Cunningham has pitched a stunning 40.1 innings, which is second on the team to Carter Holton, who has pitched 41.2 innings. Lately, Cunningham has extended his starts further into the games, which has been crucial to Commodore’s success this season. 

The weekend rotation is back

The series against Mississippi State marked the first time since its series at South Carolina that the perceived go-to weekend rotation in Cunningham, Holton and Devin Futrell appeared. Futrell had been out for weeks recovering from a shoulder injury before starting his first SEC game in just over a month in the third game of the series. Futrell’s start was far from perfect, allowing 3 runs on 4 hits in just 2.2 innings pitched. However, his return and strong likelihood to produce more quality starts are promising for a pitching staff that was dwindling by the day in arms. Futrell’s return adds another starting pitcher option, whether in a mid-week or a weekend position. In turn, JD Thompson — who can return to play this week after being suspended for four games for using an illegal substance — and Ethan McElvain’s role will be more flexible. McElvain and Thompson are both guys who have been used in starts and high-leverage relief. Not needing to start them if they are wanted in the bullpen should help the Commodores on the back end of games. Although the devastating series loss to the Bulldogs and Futrell’s performance does not feel entirely hopeful right now, in hindsight, I think his return will add a lot more leverage, experience and options to the Vanderbilt pitching staff. 


Espinal’s bat is heating up


Vanderbilt catcher Alan Espinal is having a breakout season offensively. As a result of this improvement, his ceiling for how he can contribute to this team is much higher. Last year, Espinal ranked eighth among his teammates in batting average, where he hit .275 on the season, collecting 25 hits, 5 of which were for extra bases and 5 home runs. This season, Espinal has already surpassed all those numbers, collecting 8 home runs; 47 hits, of which 11 were for extra bases; and a batting average of .318. In a single offseason, Espinal went from being kept out of the lineup because of his offensive unreliability to remaining in the lineup as a designated hitter at the cleanup spot when he’s not catching. Against the Bulldogs, Espinal went 5-of-11 at the plate, including a massive 496-foot, 3-run homer on Saturday to put the Commodores on the board. Consistently, Espinal is hitting the ball the hardest and furthest on a team that has struggled to find a consistent offensive rhythm.



Three down. 

Down a second baseman?

Although Vanderbilt has used many different lineups this season, sophomore transfer Jayden Davis is a name that has remained. On Saturday, Davis was hit in the face amidst an attempt to advance runners on a sacrifice bunt. When asked about Davis’s status on Sunday, Tim Corbin remarked that his orbital was fractured and would need surgery. While Commodore fans are indeed relieved to hear that Davis is not severely injured, the Commodores are now without their starting second basemen. Davis’s surgery doesn’t warrant a complete removal for the season; however, the Commodores will be without Davis for at least a little while. 

Davis is valuable to the Commodores on offense and defense, holding a batting average of .318 (team’s third best) while consistently fielding the second base position. While the obvious answer for the empty spot seemed to be sophomore RJ Austin, who played the second base position for the Commodores all last season, it appears as if Corbin would rather try other players there.  The freshman Kozeal, who has been playing as a designated hitter this season, took Davis’s place. While Kozeal is undoubtedly a talented middle infielder, he is not as dangerous on the offensive side of the ball as Davis. While Kozeal started the season strong, he has seen fewer appearances in games at the DH position, likely because he hasn’t been hitting as well as he once was. At one point, Kozeal had been moved up to the two-hitter position but has since been moved to the back half of the lineup and went 1-of-7 against Mississippi State. The Commodores will likely look to a freshman, if not Kozeal, to step up and fill the role Davis occupied on both sides of the ball. Who exactly that will be is yet to be determined.

Lack of offense from the start

When the Commodores score at least one run in the first two innings of play, regardless of lead, its record in SEC play is 8-2. The VandyBoys win games when they get runs across the plate early. This did not happen against Mississippi State and as a result, the Commodores had to attempt to win two games off of rallies in the bottom of the ninth. The past three Commodore losses are symptoms of an inability to get the offense going at the beginning of the game and trying to work out of a deficit. Getting the bats going early in games becomes even more crucial when the team lacks true high-leverage power hitters who can drive in two to three runs at a time. Vanderbilt’s offense thrives off of small-ball offense, such as getting base hits and extra-base hits to advance the runners; this best works when the offense doesn’t have to dig itself out of a hole. 

[A lack of] an X factor

I know what you’re thinking: no one person makes a team, so why is this even a point? But hear me out. When you look back at the other College World Series teams that Vanderbilt has had, there were always one to two X factor guys, either on the mound or at the plate. The X factor is the guy who comes up to the plate and you pitch around him or even, in some situations, opt to walk him. On the mound, the X factor guy is someone the other teams know dominates their opponents. This Vanderbilt team does not have that. While Vanderbilt is certainly a formidable and well-respected opponent, no player is the X factor. In 2019, teams were genuinely worried about facing the Rocker on the mound during the weekend, and they worried about giving up homers to the powerhouse that JJ Bleday was. Plenty of other teams in the SEC and the nation have it right now. Just look back to last weekend when Vanderbilt opted to walk Jac Caglianone last weekend instead of pitching to him in the top of the ninth inning. Or, take Paul Skenes, who dominated on the mound for LSU last year, as another example. When working well as a whole, Vanderbilt is an outstanding team, but there’s not that one guy who everyone knows and fears. The lack of an X factor for this Vanderbilt team has become apparent in the back half of the season. 

Vanderbilt will look to bounce back by hosting Tennessee Tech for a mid-week matchup before hitting the road to face No. 20 Georgia in Athens, Ga. for one of its three remaining SEC series.

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About the Contributors
Grace Hall
Grace Hall, Deputy Sports Editor
Grace Hall (‘26) is from Belfast, Maine, and is majoring in public policy studies in the College of Arts and Science. Grace is also the vice-president of the Vanderbilt Club Field Hockey Team. When not writing for The Hustler you can find her watching the Boston Red Sox or Celtics, reading or at a concert. You can reach her at [email protected].
Kadyn Lee
Kadyn Lee, Staff Photographer
Kadyn Lee ('26) is majoring in economics in the College of Arts and Science. She is from Atlanta, Georgia and loves photography, The Weeknd and spending time with friends. She can be reached at [email protected].
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