OMAHA, Neb. — Looking back, no one thought much about it earlier in the week when the NC State coach mentioned how several members of his team had not been feeling well. This was Elliott Avent after the Wolfpack beat Vanderbilt last Monday:
“Coach Hart’s been sick for probably five or six days. J.T. Jarrett caught the bug a couple of days ago. This bug seems to be going around. I’ve got a little bit. This bug seems to be floating around, and I think right now it’s important for our players to get some rest.”
Maybe that was something entirely unconnected. Or was it a tipoff? There are seldom clear answers when it comes to COVID. You remember COVID. It’s still out there. It was there Friday in TD Ameritrade Park for a crazy, unprecedented afternoon at the College World Series, when both Vanderbilt and NC State had reasons to be proud. One won, the other lost, both persevered. In the age of the virus, that means something.
Here was another chapter for the pandemic chronicles. NC State was on the brink of its first-ever appearance in the championship round. One more win would do it. Suddenly, 14 players were gone to protocol, and the College World Series was looking at a lineup card the likes of which it had never seen before. The Wolfpack were faced with an unimaginable decision in June in Omaha: Play short-handed, or forfeit.
Four position starters from the previous win over Vanderbilt — including Nos. 2, 4 and 5 in the lineup — were gone. The four players who replaced them had 27 at-bats all-season, with a total of three hits. They were all jammed into the bottom of the order. Last Monday’s winning pitcher, Sam Highfill, was at first base. The first baseman, Austin Murr, was in left field. The left fielder, Jonny Butler, was in center. The third baseman, Vojtech Mensik, was at shortstop. Friday’s starting pitcher was freshman Garrett Payne, who had pitched only 8.2 innings in his college career, never won a game, and carried a 7.27 ERA. Whatever help he needed, only three pitchers were in the bullpen. There were only 13 players in all.
And they had to face Kumar Rocker, with his 13-3 record and 162 strikeouts and talent for keeping Vanderbilt alive.
Do you believe in miracles? Not Friday. Not quite. Or was it a miracle that NC State even played, let alone pushed Vanderbilt all game? That in the ninth the Wolfpack had the winning run at the plate, and in the end, would outhit the Commodores, Rocker and all?
Vanderbilt’s 3-1 win means the two teams will play again Saturday afternoon. At least they will if Avent has enough players. Depends on the next round of tests, presumably. He wasn’t much in the mood to answer anything like that after the game. He was confused, he was frustrated. COVID with its relentless questions has done that to a lot of people.
“I don't want to discuss anything that happened today because quite frankly I have no understanding of what happened today,” he said. “I have no idea what's going on. Zero.”
Here’s what everyone knew: Friday may have been a defeat, but will earn his team a page in Omaha lore. Remember the time NC State had to play a game with half its team missing?
“A great, gutty performance by a gutty team,” Avent said.
Actually, gutty for both teams, because this was a hard day to play baseball. The reports started to leak out as the morning progressed. There was an issue with NC State. A positive test. Firm information was scarce; it often is with COVID. The minutes went by, the game was delayed, the ballpark was in wait-and-see mode. More test results had to be studied to check if there had been any spread, and a decision made about who was in and who was out.
Rocker was the Vanderbilt bullpen, warming up.
“Then I had to stop because they had to take some time to get their stuff together. Went back in the locker room. And then I came back out, got back into pitching mode, and then went to play.”
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin was trying to get his team prepared to fight for its life in an elimination game.
“The NCAA said that there was something up from a health standpoint. So they weren't specific about it. So not until deeper into the delay, and then we knew. But it just became a situation we had to deal with like a rain delay. It was North Carolina State's situation. It wasn't Vanderbilt's. We just had to be patient and kind of wait it out.
“The nature of the game and mystery of the game and what was happening, I'm sure, the kids were wondering what's going on. And holding them in the locker room, it's just an odd situation. It's one of many in the last 15 months, for God's sake. There’s nothing you can do about it. Once we got on the field, we just had to play baseball.”
Over in the unfortunate NC State clubhouse, the day had reached a crossroads.
“First, they kept us out of our locker room,” Avent said. “And some of the players had to go into a holding room. And then they delayed infield/outfield.
“There's a lot of confusion. (The players) didn't know what was going on. I didn't know what was going on so I couldn't really tell them. But when I found out we had the option to play with 13 guys or forfeit, then obviously when you have guys that are committed to your program, as our guys are, I don't think you do things from the top. I just told the team what we were dealing with. Two options are forfeit, or play with 13 guys. And my vote was to play. `Let me know what you want to do.’ Took about probably six seconds. That's who they are. We found a way to make it work.”
One thing he had to do was get the unsuspecting Payne ready to start. Payne would end up going five innings with two hits and three runs, two unearned.
“He gets told probably at about 1 or maybe later, maybe it's like 1:30 that he's got the ball at 2:07 to throw against the defending national champs,” Avent said. “You couldn't be more proud of him and his effort.”
CWS CONTINUES: Keep up with the schedule at the College World Series
Avent also had to tell Highfill he was in the lineup at first base. Never mind it’d been a year since he last had a bat in his hands in a game. “He was excited. He's just a baseball player,” Avent said. “Baseball players do things in baseball games.”
What Highfill did was get three hits, including two of the five Rocker allowed. The baseball gods must have been having a grand time with all of this. “I looked at it as more of an opportunity than a problem that we had half our team,” he said. “I wanted to be a guy who stepped up.”
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt had to readjust its strategy and its mental approach. Suddenly, the world and the opponent were very strange.
“It's almost going back to playing sandlot,” Corbin said. “We didn't know who was going to pitch until five minutes before the game, so there's really nothing you can do about it. You knew he was right-handed. You knew that once we got the information, we started to give the information to the kids real quick.
“That's a very dangerous situation . . . because the other team is playing with nothing to lose. And with some incredible arms that are plenty good enough to beat anyone. I'm pretty sure North Carolina State gives scholarships as well and all those kids are on scholarship. They can play.”
Rocker struck out 11 in six innings and allowed one run. "It's something I could have done without, but whatever was in front of me was what was in front of me," he said of all the late changes. The Commodores got the lead with two runs in the fourth but the day was never close to comfortable against a team that would not go away. Those bottom four Wolfpack hitters of so little experience were on base six times. “They were tough, they’re gritty, they've got some magic with them,” Corbin said.
Vanderbilt asked for trouble, stranding 13 runners. Then again, NC State left 12 on base. The two teams combined were 3-for-22 with runners in scoring position. It wasn’t the most impressive Commodores’ victory over a depleted opponent, but style points don’t mean much in June in Omaha.
“At this point I don't care what it looks like,” Corbin said. “It doesn't matter, we're still here. There's something to be said about grit. And we had to do that today too.”
As for the Wolfpack, they can only hope Saturday makes more sense than Friday did. “We've got to go back and regroup here and see what's going to happen,” Avent said.
Nobody knows for sure what will happen, of course. It’s 2021 and there is a pandemic. In case anyone forgot.