Fellows, Vanderbilt make statement on the mound

Vanderbilt has proved its status this season as an offensive juggernaut. Last night, they showed they have the pitching to match.

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Fellows, Vanderbilt make statement on the mound

Drake Fellows was masterful Thursday night, striking out eight en route to a 1-0 win.

Drake Fellows was masterful Thursday night, striking out eight en route to a 1-0 win.

Drake Fellows was masterful Thursday night, striking out eight en route to a 1-0 win.

Drake Fellows was masterful Thursday night, striking out eight en route to a 1-0 win.

Vanderbilt has shown all season just how dangerous it can be with the bats.

In what is the toughest conference of the highest level of amateur baseball, the Commodores have put up double-digit run totals with regularity – 21 times to be exact – the most recent of which resulted in a bashing of Auburn in the first round of the SEC Tournament via run rule. It’s offensive onslaughts like these that have allowed Vanderbilt to win 20 of its last 21 games.

But as the aphorism goes, good pitching will always beat good hitting.

And on Thursday night in Hoover, the Commodores showed they can win that way too, defeating Mississippi State in a 1-0 pitcher’s duel.

Forget the fact that #2 Vanderbilt and #3 Mississippi State are arguably the two best offenses in college baseball, let alone the SEC. This was never going to be anything but a close, low-scoring game. 10 of the 11 SEC Tournament games to that point had been decided by two runs or less. Only 12 runs had been scored in the three earlier games that day combined. That trend didn’t seem likely to break with Ethan Small on the mound for Mississippi State, a guy who hasn’t allowed more than three runs in a single start all season.

Small is a tall lefty with an electric fastball. It’s not the kind of fastball that will venture into the high-90s, but its fast enough, has just enough movement, and he locates it with perfection. There’s a lot of Chris Sale in Small, as his release is in part what makes him so difficult to hit, especially for left-handed batters. The numbers don’t lie, and his numbers – 8-1, 1.84 ERA, 139 K’s – dictated that Drake Fellows was going to have to match him on the mound for Vanderbilt to advance to the Tournament semi-final.

Fellows has pitched in big games before. He has been in the starting rotation for each of his three years at Vanderbilt, taking over the Friday role midway through his sophomore campaign. He has three NCAA Tournament starts under his belt, including a masterful shutout of St. John’s. However, the Illinois native struggled mightily in his most recent postseason start against none other than Mississippi State. The Bulldogs knocked him around for 4.1 innings, and knocked Vanderbilt out of the postseason just two days later.

Even this year, despite a perfect 11-0 record, Fellows has struggled at times, leading to questions about whether or not he can be a number one guy on a World Series roster – he entered yesterday with a 4.34 ERA – especially if the offense isn’t carrying him.

Fellows answered those questions and more on Thursday night. He didn’t just match Ethan Small.

He beat him.

Fellows was masterful, tossing six shutout innings and striking out eight. He did it with almost exclusively a fastball and a slider, the latter of which made the Bulldog bats look silly all night, waving at pitches that were sinking into the dirt. Even Jake Mangum, the SEC’s all-time hits leader, had no answer for the slider. Save for a few scattered hits, Fellows was virtually untouchable.

 

“Just trust the stuff,” he said of his mindset heading into the nightcap. “Trust what we work on every week and good things will happen.”

He was right. The 6’5 righty showed on the national stage that he is a legitimate top-of-the-line starter, and simultaneously proved that this Vanderbilt team is a whole lot more than an offensive juggernaut.

Even when the game looked to be slipping away from the Commodores, the bullpen closed the door in a way it might not have earlier in the season. After Ethan Smith plunked two batters in the seventh, Zach King came into the ballgame and got the Commodores out of a jam, striking out Mangum and inducing a groundout to preserve the lead. Tim Corbin had the utmost faith that his guy, even sporting a plus-6 ERA, would get the job done.

And when it came down to it in crunch time, Corbin called on his closer for a five-out save, and Tyler Brown delivered.

 

It’s hard to poke any holes in Vanderbilt’s game the way they have played this year, but if you were going to find one, it would be reliability on the mound for nine straight innings.

They might have just closed that hole last night, and that makes this team very dangerous.

It might even make them the frontrunners to win the College World Series.

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