OMAHA, Neb. – You’re Vanderbilt, and Omaha has turned loud and ominous. So what now?
You had the chance to clinch the College World Series, but Mississippi State’s offense broke loose like one of those afternoon Nebraska thunderstorms and the game turned into a sink of dirty dishes for your side. It ended 13-2 Tuesday night, the most lopsided CWS defeat in school history, and could have been even worse. The pitching numbers were gruesome: 10 walks, four wild pitches, two hit batters, 14 hits. It took 139 Vanderbilt pitches just to get through five innings. If the Bulldogs hadn’t left 14 runners on base, goodness knows what the final margin could have been.
Your offense has stalled. You scored seven runs in the first inning in Game 1 of the Finals and everybody had reason to be plenty happy, but in the 16 innings since, you’ve had six hits and struck out 16 times. Your defense has suddenly turned into a sieve. Three more errors Tuesday, which makes 10 for the CWS. And that’s not counting the time the ball somehow got wedged in the shortstop’s glove.
“We didn't do much of anything real well at all,” coach Tim Corbin was saying afterward. It was so easy for Mississippi State Tuesday night, coach Chris Lemonis barely had to touch his bullpen, leaving important arms fresh for any task ahead.
MORE: Complete coverage of the 2021 CWS finals
To make matters worse, nearly every parking lot in downtown Omaha is filled with Mississippi license plates and from the stands comes a steady, thunderous roar. The Bulldog faithful sense historical magic from their team, and half the state apparently wants to be here to see it. “Our fans are the best in the country. And that's just a hundred percent fact,” Mississippi State pitcher Preston Johnson said.
You’re Vanderbilt. You have a lot to forget in 24 hours.
“Just gotta have a short memory. I think we need to wash it out as fast as we can,” catcher CJ Rodriguez said.
“It's embarrassing to play a (13-2) game,” Corbin said. “It's not fun to play like that. But at the same time, it's a loss. They're not worth more than the other. So all you're left with is the next game, and everyone would sign up for that.”
You’re Vanderbilt, so what do you do now for the settle-it-all Game 3 Wednesday night?
Calling Kumar Rocker, one last time. The major league draft is waiting, and the rest of his life. But first, he has some unfinished business in Omaha.
In many ways, with his 14 wins, Rocker has been the face of college baseball in 2021, and represents the direct link for the Commodores from the last College World Series to this one. And who better to turn to at this urgent hour than a pitcher who is 3-0 in elimination games in his career, striking out 41 in 21 1/3 innings while allowing eight hits and two runs?
“He'll compete,” Corbin said. “Give him the ball, he'll compete.”
Lemonis expects so, too. “He's probably one of the best to ever play in college baseball,” he said. “I keep telling our guys it's going to be a tough road. We'll have to beat the best if we want to win a national championship.
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“One of the keys is to grind him out and make him throw his breaking stuff in the zone. So for us, (it’s) to have good at-bats, to be locked in, to make him work, which is what we do -- that's usually our goal anyway, no matter who is pitching.”
Rocker will have to stand against the rising Mississippi State tide, even if the Vanderbilt hitters struggle. And they might. The Bulldogs may well turn to Will Bednar, the freshman who has become one of the sensations of the past 10 days, with 22 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings. Lemonis said Tuesday night no decision had been made. Bednar pitched Saturday against Texas to keep Mississippi State’s chances alive, so this would be on three days’ rest. But between the stakes and the friendly noise, he’ll not want for adrenaline.
Rocker will be facing a team supremely confident in its resilience. Such as going from an 8-2 loss on Monday to a 13-2 romp on Tuesday. “We've had our back against the wall feels like all year long, and they just keep responding,” Lemonis said.
He will be trying to stop a team so relaxed, Johnson turned and waved to the home run ball he threw to Maxwell Romero Jr. in the ninth inning. No need to be stressed. It cut the lead to 13-2.
And he’ll be doing it in what will sound like a road game. The Mississippi State fans were so thick around the team bus leaving for the ballpark Tuesday, the driver chided Lemonis because he could hardly pull out through the masses. He said he was guessing Lemonis didn’t have this problem when he coached at The Citadel.
“It's one of those things that’s unique,” Lemonis said. “It's not everywhere. So playing great tonight and giving them a chance to see us do something special tomorrow will be a big moment.”
It is time at last to find out the end result will be a Vanderbilt repeat or a Mississippi State breakthrough, now that they have traded blowout wins and ugly losses. The average winning margin of the Finals after two games is 8.5. The Bulldogs are on the brink of giving their school its first national championship in any team sport.
One more night. And one certain pitcher in their way.
Might not have seemed like it Tuesday night, but the series is tied. That was only one game. “A loss is a loss is a loss,” Corbin said.
And a Rocker is a Rocker is a Rocker. You’re Vanderbilt, and at least that’s what you hope.