- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
Don’t you love those movies when the two tough guys have a big fight in the beginning, establishing that they really don’t like each other, and then we spend the next few hours or even years watching their separate arduous journeys, only to find them standing toe-to-toe once again with the fate of the world on the line?
Well, that’s our situation beginning tonight in Omaha, Nebraska, when familiar SEC foes Vanderbilt and Mississippi State square off in a best-of-three bout where the fate of the world might not be on the line, but the fate of College World Series most certainly is.
Yes, they have already played this season, when then-No. 2 Vandy took two of three from the then-No. 4 Bulldogs in Nashville during the final full weekend of April. But this isn’t April, and it certainly isn’t Nashville. This is the end of June on college baseball’s biggest possible stage, the very last stop at the very end of the Road to Omaha.
What do you need to know about the #VandyBoys and #OmaDawgs as they step onto the field at TD Ameritrade Monday night (7 PM ET, ESPN2 and ESPN App)? Read ahead, take notes and feel free to spout any and all facts aloud to your family, friends and neighbors to impress them with your sudden CWS knowledge … unless those family, friends and neighbors are NC State fans. Then give them a hug. Trust me. I grew up in Raleigh. They make up most of my family, friends and neighbors.
How they got here: 48-16 record; No. 4 national seed; won Nashville Regional and Super Regional by defeating Presbyterian, Georgia Tech and East Carolina; won CWS Game 2 over No. 5 Arizona 7-6 (12 innings); lost Game 6 to NC State 1-0; won Game 9 over No. 9 Stanford 6-5; won Game 11 over NC State 3-1; won Game 13 over NC State (no contest)
CWS History: Fifth CWS appearance, all since 2011; national champions in 2014 and 2019
The Big Headline: The Commodores didn’t make their first Omaha trip until a decade ago, the 125th season of Vandy baseball. Now they are trying to Anchor Down one of college baseball’s most difficult tricks, winning back-to-back CWS titles. No one has done it since the Series moved to TD Ameritrade Park a decade ago, when South Carolina completed a repeat over Florida, in another All-SEC finals. Back in the day, USC made winning bunches of championships look easy, winning five straight from 1970 to 1974, but in the 47 seasons since the CWS double has been accomplished only four times. In other words, it’s not easy to do, especially when you’re this Vanderbilt team, trying to do it over three seasons instead of two thanks to last year’s season cancellation.
What you need to know about their pitching: All due respect to everyone else in black and gold, the story of 2021 Vanderbilt baseball was always going to be the story of Jack Leiter, SEC Pitcher of the Year, and Kumar Rocker, the 2019 CWS Most Outstanding Player. We hope you like shots of dads during game broadcasts, because you will be seeing a lot of former big league hurler Al Leiter and former Auburn All-American linebacker Tracy Rocker over the next few nights. Rocker struggled in his 2021 CWS opener vs. Arizona but won Friday’s bizarre game against COVID-depleted NC State, striking out 11, including the first six of the game. Leiter was amazing against the Wolfpack three days earlier, striking out 15 but losing 1-0 because the Vandy bats were, well, the Vandy bats (more on that coming up).
The Big Arm(s): Have we mentioned Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker?
What you need to know about their hitting: Not surprisingly, Vandy’s offense hasn’t seen the spotlight much as it perpetually swung toward the big two pitchers. Honestly, the offense didn’t do a whole lot to earn much attention during some large chunks of the regular season, primarily due to lack of experience. The 2019 CWS championship team had a dozen players with three or more years on the roster. Vanderbilt entered this season with a whopping 31 players who had never experienced an SEC game. In Omaha, the Commodores have shown flashes of pop but have still been dogged by inconsistency. See: sophomore infielder Carter Young, who started 2021 with a 14-game hitting streak, hit the homer that essentially clinched the Super Regional win over East Carolina, opened the CWS with a huge late-inning game-tying homer against Arizona, but has zero hits since. This lineup has experienced a lot of that.
The Big Bat: Dominic Keegan, 1B. CWS stats: 6-for-18, 2 RBIs, 4 R, at least one hit in every game.
What you need to know that has nothing to do with pitching or hitting: One year ago, Vandy head coach Tim Corbin stopped in Omaha as he and his wife were driving from Nashville to Mount Rushmore, visiting TD Ameritrade Park during what should have been the very week of his team’s CWS title defense. The ballpark was padlocked, the result of the only cancellation in College World Series history. Corbin says he kind of wishes he hadn’t seen it that way.
MLB draft spotlight: According to ESPN MLB draft analyst Kiley McDaniel, Leiter and Rocker are currently projected as the No. 4 and No. 7 picks, to Boston and Kansas City, respectively, when the July 11 MLB draft rolls around.
Reading material: So, now that we’ve established that Rocker and Leiter are awesome, why not learn more about how they got that way? You should read this profile and this pitching breakdown feature, both written and/or reported on by a really handsome ESPN senior writer.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
How they got here: 48-17 record; No. 7 national seed; won Starkville Regional and Super Regional, defeating Samford, VCU, Campbell and No. 10 Notre Dame; Won CWS Game 4 over No. 2 Texas 2-1; won Game 8 over Virginia 6-5; lost Game 12 to Texas 8-5; won Game 14 over Texas 4-3
CWS history: 12th CWS appearance and third straight; best finish: 2013 runner-up
The Big Headline: The Dogs hope to finally remove their name from the list that always comes up during a “Hey, who is the best program to never win the College World Series?” debate. Since the CWS started in 1947 only 13 teams have made a dozen or more appearances. Only three of those — Florida State (23), Clemson (12) and Mississippi State (12) — have yet to win it all. State, the team that has brought us the likes of Hunter Renfroe, Jonathan Papelbon and the duo of Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro — aka “Thunder & Lighting” — is making its third straight trip to Omaha. Something has to give, right?
What you need to know about their pitching: The Dogs’ staff even managed to outgun the much-ballyhooed arms of Texas, which was lauded (and rightfully so) as the best group headed to Omaha. Instead, it’s State that is still playing. All the Dogs have done over the past week and a half is set a single-game, nine-inning strikeout record (21 K’s vs. Texas in Game 2), set the NCAA single-season record for strikeouts by a single pitching staff and also lock down the NCAA record for most strikeouts per nine innings. What we’re saying is, they strike a lot of people out.
The Big Arm: The second half of that record-setting duo in Game 2 was closer Landon Sims, who relieved Will Bednar after the starter had piled up 15 K’s and then added six of his own. Sims has a 1.52 ERA on the season to go with 12 saves. He has made three appearances in the College World Series and walked away with two saves and a win.
What you need to know about their hitting: These dudes are powered by moxie, mullets and a penchant for last-minute drama. While the uber-deep pitching staff has piled up gaudy numbers, the hitters have saved their best work for the final inning, earning all three of their wins by one run. From the dramatic Game 8 comeback win over Virginia to Saturday night’s walk-off hit from shortstop/super-sub Tanner Leggett, the Bulldogs seem to always get the big hit when they need it.
The Big Bat: Pick a Tanner, any Tanner, from Tanner Leggett to catcher Logan Tanner. But the best is right fielder Tanner Allen, who is 5-for-17 with four RBIs in Omaha. Meanwhile, a non-Tanner, Rowdey Jordan, is 6-for-17.
What you need to know that has nothing to do with pitching or hitting: Head coach Chris Lemonis is hero to the people of Omaha, but not because he has coached Mississippi State to the College World Series twice. It’s because he was an infielder for one of the most beloved teams in CWS history, the 1990 Citadel Bulldogs who upset Miami in the NCAA tourney to reach Omaha and then upset Cal State-Fullerton via a 12th-inning home-plate slide that is still one of the most replayed College World Series moments. Even today, Omaha T-shirt vendors sell 1990 Citadel CWS swag.
MLB draft spotlight: According to McDaniel, Will Bednar’s impressive June performances have him moving on up into the first round, projected as the No. 24 pick to the Braves.
Reading material: For more on how Mississippi State keeps up its amazing K-making ways, read this story, where we chat with Bednar and pitching coach Scott Foxhall about the science of spin rates, and with catcher Logan Tanner about pitchers “just being weird, because they’re pitchers.”
So who’s going to win the whole thing? Here’s what our experts have to say:
Karl Ravech: Mississippi State; RP Landon Sims (MSU), Most Outstanding Player
Tom Hart: Mississippi State; OF Tanner Allen (MSU), MOP
Chris Burke: Mississippi State; RP Landon Sims (MSU), MOP
Kris Budden: Mississippi State; OF Tanner Allen (MSU), MOP
Mike Rooney: Vanderbilt, C CJ Rodriguez (Vandy), MOP
Ryan McGee: Mississippi State; RP Landon Sims (MSU), MOP
Eduardo Perez: Mississippi State; OF Tanner Allen (MSU), MOP
Clinton Yates: Vanderbilt; IF/OF Javier Vaz (Vandy), MOP
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