All you disappointed Mississippi State fans, could we have a word?
Yeah, we know. Talk about killing the mood . . .
You had turned Omaha into North Starkville, rolling into town like a maroon armada, eager to pour all the noise possible down upon the heads of the Vanderbilt Commodores. During the day Monday, a survey of downtown streets found you everywhere. Any brave Vanderbilt shirts walking around looked more outnumbered than tuna in a shark tank. Then you flooded into TD Ameritrade Park, waited an hour through a weather delay even though the rain never showed up, and were in full voice as the first pitch approached. You roared at the lineup introduction, chanted the names of Bulldog batters, and booed at the first sight of anything Vanderbilt on the scoreboard screen.
Then Game 1 of the College World Series Finals started. Sigh.
Kamren James homered in the top of the first to give your guys a 1-0 lead off Jack Leiter, and the clamor you raised as he rounded the bases was probably heard across the river in Iowa. The Commodores certainly noticed your thunder. “We've played on the road at a lot of tough stadiums, and I think throughout the year that's helped us a lot,” third baseman Jayson Gonzalez said. But this isn’t supposed to be a road game, this is supposed to be neutral. “Pretty awesome,” Leiter called all of you.
Ah, but that 1-0 lead turned out to be a mirage, didn’t it?
How to Defang a Crowd 101: Score seven times in the first inning. Seven. It took 49 Mississippi State pitches to finally get three Commodore outs. Forty-nine. By then, it was 7-1 and so quiet in the ballpark, it was as if all of you had suddenly turned into cutouts.
DON'T MISS A MOMENT: Final box score from Game 1 of the College World Series finals
You pretty much knew the score then. There was Leiter out there on the mound for Vanderbilt, with his 10 wins and 171 strikeouts and draft prospects that are higher than the First National Bank Tower, which is just down the street from the right field entrance and the tallest building in Nebraska. Unless he suddenly turned into a pumpkin, the night was probably already lost. The Vanderbilt side had to feel very comfortable, very quickly. “You score seven runs, you're going to be loose,” Commodores coach Tim Corbin said.
Final: 8-2. But there are some numbers you need to know, starting with this one: Four of the past five Game 1 losers ended up in a dogpile as national champions, so recent history is a friend. By the way, one of victims of that trend was Vanderbilt, against Virginia in 2015.
Also: The Mississippi State bullpen put the break on the Commodores lineup. Bulldog relievers retired 16 of 17 batters in one stretch, and gave up one run and two hits in the final seven innings. Sure, that falls under the category of closing the stable door after the horse is gone, but it showed the Vanderbilt offense is not unstoppable. In the end, the Commodores had only five hits all night, same as Mississippi State. Didn’t feel that even, did it? But there were upbeat words from the team.
From coach Chris Lemonis: “I'm not a big moral victory guy, but I did tell our kids I was proud of them afterwards because after the first inning, we locked in and played great baseball.”
From right fielder Tanner Allen: “I know we just took a haymaker, in the boxing world. But we just kept playing.”
Another thing: The fuel for the Vanderbilt explosion was Christian MacLeod’s mighty struggles with his command. Corbin said afterward the strategy was to make him MacLeod throw strikes. Four of the first five hitters reached base by either walking to getting hit with a pitch. That was lighting a match in a fireworks factory. Presumably, that won’t happen again.
“We gave them too many freebies there in the first,” Lemonis said. “I just told our team, man, you just can't give it to them. Make them earn it.”
Please don’t turn on poor MacLeod. Omaha has been a nightmare for him. He started two games, got six outs, and gave up 10 runs. “Trying to do too much in the moment, and it's just kind of gotten away from him,” Lemonis said. “It's probably more frustrating for him than anybody else. It's really hard when you fail on this stage.”
And then there’s this: Leiter threw 107 pitches Monday night. Mississippi State has likely seen the last of him.
So, there were some promising numbers. And most of the 24,052 fans were in maroon and they’ll be back, so if the Bulldogs ever do get the lead, the Commodores are going to think they’re playing in Dudy Noble Field back in Starkville. If they don’t already.
“We knew this was going to be difficult. And it will continue to be difficult,” Corbin said. “This place is filled with people that aren't wearing gold and black, and we're playing a very good team.”
But still. Vanderbilt leads 1-0. The bottom of the batting order did the first inning damage, between No. 9 hitter Gonzalez’ three-run homer and No. 6 hitter driving CJ Rodriguez’ two-run single. Gonzalez was the ninth man to come to the plate in the inning and said “the biggest thing for me was trying to keep the line going and continue that first inning.” He did a lot more than that.
By the way, James and Gonzalez pushed the home run total in this College World Series to 24, the most in the 10 years the event has been held at TD Ameritrade Park. Also, it was the first time in CWS Finals history that both teams scored in the first inning.
But odd thing is, in a game that ended 8-2, defense and pitching are what will get remembered most for the Commodores.
Right fielder Isaiah Thomas produced the catch (so far) of the College World Series when he raced over from what seemed another zip code to make a sliding catch in foul territory. The infield turned in a nifty double play to quickly squelch a Mississippi State threat. Vanderbilt didn’t make an error, after committing seven its first four games. By the way, the Bulldogs haven’t made one yet in Omaha. “I just felt like the defense that we had played in the other games, that wasn't representative of how we were,” Corbin said.
Leiter threw a solid six innings with three hits and eight strikeouts, and someone asked his opinion of his stuff. “Honestly, I wasn't too happy with it,” he said. “I mean the home run in the first . . . It was a fastball count and I gave him a fastball in a very hittable place and he's a great fastball hitter. And he did what great fastball hitters do with it.” The final out in his college career may have come on Scotty Dubrule’s grounder to the shortstop. Nick Maldonado took over and his three scoreless innings meant the Vanderbilt bullpen has given up two runs in 18 1/3 CWS innings.
So let’s face it, Bulldog faithful, the Commodores are in a good spot. But you’ve watched your guys come back all season. “If we want to win this thing, we have to compete,” Lemonis said. “We have to play tough. And we'll have to make them earn it. “
Good news for you Tuesday night: You’ll have the Vanderbilt crowd surrounded again. And the score will be 0-0.