Vanderbilt’s dreams of a repeat baseball championship ended with a 9-0 loss to Mississippi State, ending the craziest Commodore World Series run ever.
To recap: It started with a back and forth contest with Arizona which the Dores finally took in the 12th inning.
Next, a single homerun was the only blemish in Leiter’s otherwise masterful pitching performance against NC State. Unfortunately, the bats failed him (which would be a theme in Omaha) and a 1-0 loss put the Dores in the losers bracket.
Then things really got wild.
In an elimination game against Stanford, the Dores trailed the entire game through the bottom of the ninth. Down 5-4, there were two outs, no one on, and a full count to Javier Vaz facing Pac 12 Pitcher of the Year Brendan Beck. In other words, the situation was about as hopeless as possible. A walk, a Spencer Jones pinch hit, followed by a hit by Enrique Bradfield and a wild pitch later, complete pandemonium as the Dores pulled out a game they had had no business winning.
Still, the Dores faced the daunting challenge of having to beat red-hot NC State twice to reach the World Series finals… or so they thought. There were whispers early Saturday about an “illness” with certain members of the Wolfpack team, which turned into rumors about positive COVID-19 tests. When the game was delayed, no one knew what was going on or if the game would even be played. Eventually, NC State salvaged enough players to put a team on the field. Vandy ace Kumar Rocker took care of the undermanned Wolfpack, and the Dores were one win away from the finals.
Then, THE story. The one that put “niche sport” college baseball into the national forefront in the midst of NBA and NHL playoffs. At about 1:00 AM, the NCAA ruled that NC State could not continue the tournament due to COVID-19 protocols, and Vanderbilt would advance to the World Series finals without having to play.
And just like that, the VandyBoys became national villains, due to no fault of their own. Social media blew up with absurd conspiracy theories and virulent venom directed at the team and Coach Corbin in particular.
It was truly VandyBoys against the world at that point, which became even further exacerbated when Mississippi State emerged as their finals opponent. MSU, a traditional baseball power, has one of the largest and most passionate fanbases of any program in the country. True to form, they completely took over TD Ameritrade Park. What should have been a neutral site was unquestionably a hostile road environment for the Commodores.
As game 1 began, it looked like Vandy might still have some magic left when they scored 7 runs in the first inning and cruised to an 8-2 win. Unfortunately, after that incredible first inning, the Dores would only score 3 runs in the next 26 innings, as the Bulldogs would easily take games 2 and 3 for the school’s first National Championship in any team sport.
Corbin used five freshman arms, starting with Christian Little, in game 2 which were overwhelmed in a 13-2 loss. The Dores looked to be in good shape in game 3 with Rocker (who had never lost an elimination game) starting and their top bullpen arms available. Unfortunately, the usually clutch Rocker didn’t have his best stuff, and MSU pulled away for the 9-0 clinching win. The Dores could only muster 4 hits in game 2, and were almost no-hit in the final game before Carter Young managed to get a meaningless hit late.
It was a shock the way the season ended, but it probably shouldn’t have been. It became very clear this wasn’t the 2019 team part 2. While this team certainly had talent, it was also a very flawed group which was exposed in the postseason.
For one, the injuries were ridiculous. They are too numerous to list here, but Corbin has never had a team where so many key players missed extensive time as this one. Maybe the COVID-19 break and offseason conditioning was a factor, who knows?
Another problem is the team’s youth, and much of that youth missed a season of valuable experience with the lost year. Combine that you with the injuries, and it’s unsurprising they just ran out of gas. The defense completely fell apart by the end, with three errors in each of the final two games. While the Dores have played in some of the toughest environments in the country over the course of the season, there’s no question the crowd in Omaha affected them. It’s also impossible to quantify how the national scrutiny wore on them with so many inexperienced players making their first World Series appearance.
Another disappointing facet of this team was hitting, and clutch hitting in particular. The season didn’t start that way, but don’t be fooled when you look at the SEC stats this season when you see Vandy finished second to Ole Miss in batting average at .285 while actually finishing first in SEC games at .292. The bats cooled off considerably toward the end of the season, and by the start of postseason in Hoover it was clearly a problem. They batted .232 in 3 SEC tournament games, including .190 in their 2 losses. When you consider Vanderbilt hit .179 in Omaha, and .116 against MSU, it’s amazing they got as far as they did.
While Rocker and Leiter lived up to the billing as the greatest pitching duo in the country, and on the short list of greatest duos of all time, unfortunately Corbin could never find a reliable third starter which is a huge handicap in the playoff format. The two freshmen Little and Reilly looked really good at times, and not so good at other times, but neither could show the consistency to grab that third spot.
Obviously, this was a very good team. But you could also make a strong argument that this was the weakest team Corbin has taken to Omaha. Outside of Rocker and Leiter, how many future MLB All Stars do you see on this roster? Bradfield maybe, but the point is the lineup doesn’t look particularly imposing when you get the two pitching aces. This makes their runner-up finish even more impressive. Their season really should have ended against Stanford, but Corbin willed his team to a victory.
Tip your cap to Mississippi State, they are deserving champs. It’s always disappointing to end the season with a loss, especially so close to the title, but if we’re being honest do we really think Vandy was the second best team this year? Their coming so close is a testament to their heart and character.
I won’t spend time dwelling on the lost year of 2020, when studs like Austin Martin, Tyler Brown, Mason Hickman, and Jake Eder were part of a roster that looked more equipped for a title run.
I will also not yet fret about next season, imagining life without Rocker and Leiter.
For now, just appreciate this team, and everything they accomplished under ridiculously unfair scrutiny. Despite all the noise, they EARNED everything they received. Finally, be thankful we got to enjoy a duo as special as Rocker and Leiter for the time we had them.