OMAHA, Neb. — This is not just a charming little Cinderella story anymore. Not just the affable coach with his good luck charms and Jim Valvano’s old folder in the dugout. Not just the interesting roster gathered from hither and yon — a 13-state enterprise designed to shock the world, or at least Omaha, but carried Monday night by a true-red native son.
This is serious. This is real. After North Carolina State — carried by an implacable second-year freshman named Sam Highfill — outpitched Vanderbilt 1-0 Monday, this may be going where few could have ever imagined. The Wolfpack are the team nobody has beaten here yet, as they keep upending conventional wisdom.
BRACKET: See where the NC State sits in the CWS bracket
They started 1-8 in their own conference . . . then ended up in the NCAA tournament.
They had to go on the road for the regional . . . and won it.
They traveled to fervent Fayetteville for the super regional to face No. 1 Arkansas, lost the opener 21-2 . . . then swept the next two games.
They arrived here unseeded and unexpected . . . then promptly blew past Stanford 10-4.
And Monday night, they looked down the business end of vintage Jack Leiter and scored only one run. They struck out 15 times. They had only four hits . . . and somehow that was enough. A single fifth-inning fastball that Terrell Tatum sent into the right field stands seemed a lonely run at the time, but grew to be as tall as the corn silos outside of town. That run kept the Wolfpack fairy tale on course, and forced reigning national champion Vanderbilt into the long way around to a repeat.
“One pitch, one pitch,” Commodores’ coach Tim Corbin said afterward. “It sucks.”
Or as Leiter said, “I guess you could say that every pitch matters.”
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But then, something enchanted seems afoot with North Carolina State. In the past two weeks the Wolfpack have faced some of the most renowned arms in the nation — Arkansas’ Kevin Kopps, Stanford’s Brendan Beck, Leiter — and beaten them all. “We've slayed a lot of giants, and (are) trying to carry it forward,” Highfill said.
They now have June victories over the top-seeded team and the defending national champion, something never done before since the NCAA tournament went to seeding in 1999. Their 2-0 start carries historical promise; 25 of the past 30 national champions started 2-0 in Omaha.
“From the start that we had and where we've been, we're really on top of the world right now,” Tatum said.
How is this happening?
“I don’t know,” Highfill said. “We got it done.”
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Mystery. That’s one of the components of a good underdog story.
Also, a love of sentiment and superstition. Coach Elliott Avent has his lucky rock and files his papers in a red folder from Valvano that he has kept since the Wolfpack basketball coaching legend died nearly three decades ago. Valvano once led an upstart North Carolina State basketball team to a national title nobody saw coming, back in 1983.
Why not a baseball version? And why not now?
The Wolfpack have the pluck. A team doesn’t turn around a season from such an ugly start without that. Highfill can still remember Avent’s words when times were dark early in the season. He told his players they would go on a run, sooner or later.
“Sure enough,” Highfill said, “it’s happened.”
Avent said he hasn’t made speeches like that lately. Hasn’t had to. “They know what they want, and they know how hard it is to get and they know how committed they are to one another,” he said. “I don't think they let any moment become too big for them. So that's them that gets that done. That's not us.”
They have the confidence. Take Tatum’s fifth inning at-bat. He had seen some of Leiter’s best breaking balls and was 0-for-6 in CWS with four strikeouts. But he seized the moment. After a first strike slider, he sought to read Leiter’s mind. “I just had this feeling that it was going to be a fastball, and I didn't care where it was thrown, I was going for it,” he said. It landed more than 400 feet away.
Or take Highfill. He was not the All-American and soon-to-be high draft pick in Monday’s pitching matchup. His father wasn’t the former major leaguer in the stands who got camera time nearly every inning. He didn’t have the gaudy strikeout totals, or Leiter’s aura. All that did was motivate him.
“I knew I was going to have to be good tonight. That kid's really good and you'll see his name called in the, if not first five, 10 picks,” said Highfill, who gave up two hits in 7 1/3 innings, and never blinked. Then he let closer Evan Justice finish the job. Vanderbilt had not been shutout all season.
Highfill has now won five starts in a row. This from someone who bleeds North Carolina State red. His father went to the university. And his mother. And his grandfather. He used to attend Wolfpack games as a child, wishing he could be on the field. Now he is, for a team that is making true magic. “It’s everything I dreamed of as a kid,” he said.
Leiter was so dominant, the Vanderbilt defense never had one assist, a CWS first. “He got most of the outs himself. It is a team game, but he was on an island tonight,” Corbin said. “It's one of the best performances I've seen in the times that I've been to Omaha.” The fact it came in a loss only highlighted the measure of Highfill’s performance.
Between the teams there was terrific defense, no errors, 24 strikeouts — and only six hits. Five singles and the homer from Tatum, who was the only Wolfpack player to reach base in the first 19 at-bats. How to describe a night like that?
“If you're a pitching person, you like it. If you're an offensive person, you want to hit yourself over the head with a shovel,” Corbin said.
“I'm just at a loss for words, honestly,” Tatum said.
Lots of people may be soon, when it comes to North Carolina State.