OMAHA, Neb. – After a weekend like none other at the College World Series, all anyone can hope is that the finals return some comforting familiarity to Omaha. Two teams left, one national championship trophy to win. That seems so blessedly . . . normal.
And yet in the time of COVID-19, total normalcy is asking a lot. The shadow of North Carolina State is undeniable as Vanderbilt and Mississippi State prepare for their best-of-three series.
This chance is a fairy tale for the famously passionate Mississippi State fans, who have waited so long for a national championship in anything. Especially from the baseball program, with its steady history of trips to Omaha. The connection between the Bulldogs and their supporters is powerful and real, and yet at this golden moment, the players have had to take measures to avoid the maroon army that has traveled 800 miles to stand by their side. Anti-virus strategy, all in the name of not meeting the same fate as North Carolina State.
“It's really hard for us because we have an unbelievable fan base,” coach Chris Lemonis was saying Sunday. “The last couple days, we haven't signed autographs or shaken hands. We're trying to be as protective as we can. The first couple nights we came to our lobby, (there were) thousands of people. It's the best part of winning a game out here. Last night we just kind of went around the back, so it's less contact. Unfortunately, it's the time that we're in and we're trying to be as smart as we can to give us the opportunity to compete on field.”
As the entire college baseball-speaking world knows by now, Vanderbilt didn’t have to throw a pitch or swing a bat Saturday to advance to the finals, when the Wolfpack were sent home after too many COVID positive tests. One team’s heartbreak was another team’s free pass. A never-seen-before situation in an unprecedented age.
The strangest thing has happened since. Vanderbilt is usually considered the little engine that is trying to go uphill against the meanies of the SEC in football and basketball. But North Carolina State had become the popular underdog story and the reigning champion Commodores are the big fish in Omaha. Did the weekend somehow make them the bad guys?
“We certainly sympathize with their team, their fan base too, understanding that we don't know the level of hurt that they are exposed to right now, but we certainly recognize it,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said of the Wolfpack. “None of us wish to be in this particular position.
“But we have no control over that, regardless of what anyone insinuates or what anyone says. We're just playing baseball. That's all we can do. We stay in our lane.”
Corbin and his team went to bed Friday night thinking they would be playing North Carolina State the next afternoon. He was awakened at 1:30 a.m. with a message about the Wolfpack’s removal from the field. He didn’t sleep the rest of the night, trying to process the events and figuring out how best to tell his players, who had already endured an odd situation, beating a massively undermanned North Carolina State lineup Friday. Already, the Commodores were being portrayed in same places as the bullies in the way of the bad-luck Wolfpack. That seemed rather over the top, but since when does social media have to make sense?
“With the understanding that they were going to play, and then not playing, I just wanted to get to them as quickly as possible,” Corbin said of his thoughts Saturday morning. “So we did. I'm sure it was a little bit confusing, but we used yesterday as a day to talk through it, and I told them that once we get to the ballpark today, we move forward. It's just like life. There's nothing you can do about it. Life circumstances happen. You deal with it; move forward.”
That means Monday, and Mississippi State. “They are like us,” Corbin said of the Bulldogs. Well, yes. And not just because they both call the SEC home.
They each have reason to feel it is their moment.
Vanderbilt has gotten this far with two walk-off victories. Mississippi State has won three games in Omaha, each by a single run. Each has had to wipe out four-run deficits, matching the biggest College World Series comebacks ever in TD Ameritrade Park. That gives teams a sense of karma. “Our guys have fought since the day we got here,” Lemonis said. “We haven't had an easy game yet. But they keep finding a way to persevere.”
Neither team has exactly slugged its way to this spot. Vanderbilt hit a meek .217 last week, Mississippi State even worse at .215. “That's because the pitching's so good out here,” Corbin said. Indeed, the two staffs have run up 106 strikeouts between them. Jack Leiter was whiffing 15 one night for the Commodores, Will Bednar 15 another for the Bulldogs. The last two teams standing have outscored their opponents by a grand total of 33-30.
Both teams were here in 2019. One of the teams Vanderbilt had to beat on its way to the championship was Mississippi State, 6-3. The winning pitcher was Kumar Rocker, the only Commodore on the field that day who is here now.
Leiter will likely be Vanderbilt’s starter in Monday night’s Game 1. Rocker worked Saturday night and won’t be ready again until Wednesday if there is a Game 3. Probably. Corbin wasn’t saying much about his pitching plans Sunday. Mississippi State will look to Christian MacLeod and hope things are better than last week, when he gave up four runs in 1.1 innings against Virginia. “This is a great opportunity to bounce back,” he said. “Means the world to me.”
So, with the championship now on the table and COVID still lurking in the background, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State go SEC eyeball to SEC eyeball. They met in Nashville in late April and the Commodores took two of three, but had to rally from 4-0 down in the third game to do it.
It could be a hard week. But then, there has been nothing cushy for either team since they showed up here.
Not for Vanderbilt, and its unfortunate route to the finals, over the shattered hopes of North Carolina State. “We met about it, and we put it past us,” first baseman Dominic Keegan said. “We worry about ourselves and what we can do.”
Nor for Mississippi State and its grind of one-run escapes.
“We knew coming to Omaha, this is not going to be easy,” outfielder Tanner Allen said. “But we know that we're supposed to be here.”
Two strong programs from the same conference, trying to keep the other from a title? Sounds like a rivalry. “What a rivalry is, I have no idea,” Corbin said. “But we enjoy playing good opponents and Mississippi State is more than a good opponent.”
Lemonis called it “an opportunity of a lifetime.”
The rest of the college baseball world can sit back and watch. The SEC will take it from here.