Sports

Will Vanderbilt repeat? Can Mississippi State win its first title? Why this Game 3 has all the high stakes

OMAHA, Neb. — Two years after a freshman phenom carried Vanderbilt to a national championship, the Commodores’ College World Series hopes will rest again on Kumar Rocker’s broad shoulders.

“He’ll compete,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said late Tuesday night after his team was throttled 13-2 by Mississippi State to force a winner-take-all Game 3 Wednesday night for the CWS title. “Give him the ball, [and] he’ll compete.”

Mississippi State’s blowout win came one night after Vanderbilt handily beat the Bulldogs 8-2, but Tuesday night’s game, played in front of 24,122 fans mostly wearing MSU maroon, felt like a seismic momentum shift. Suddenly, the Commodores, the defending national champs, seem like the underdogs.

The Bulldogs put the game away early, and rode strong performances from former junior college pitchers Preston Johnson and Houston Harding, allowing them to save bullpen ace Landon Sims.

Sims has accounted for two saves and one win in Omaha, allowing just one run in seven innings while striking out 11.

“I feel like in every win for the last month, he has been out there,” MSU coach Chris Lemonis said. “So for him to have the night off and to still get the victory was huge.”

The Bulldogs have been wildly successful in Omaha with the one-two punch of Sims and starter Will Bednar, who opened the CWS by striking out 15 in a win over Texas. Bednar threw 108 pitches that day, and tossed 97 more Saturday night in an elimination game against the Longhorns.

He would be working on just three days’ rest, but with the Bulldogs’ first national championship at stake — not just in baseball, but any team sport — how could he not start?

“We have no idea right now,” Lemonis said. “We’ll assess everything when we get back, look at our arms try to figure it out. Probably know something midday tomorrow.”

Vanderbilt turned to its star of the future, 17-year-old Christian Little, on the mound Tuesday night, and the freshman held up well for two innings. But the Commodores came unglued in the third when a grounder got stuck in shortstop Carter Young’s glove, and after four walks, a wild pitch and a single up the middle, Vanderbilt was down 5-1.

While Mississippi State’s bats came alive, pounding out 14 hits, Vanderbilt’s offense has yet to get going in Omaha. Even in the win Monday night, the Commodores managed just five hits. It’s been a bizarre CWS for Corbin’s team, which found out it advanced to the CWS finals in a late-night text Friday after its opponent, North Carolina State, was sent home because of positive COVID-19 tests.

Earlier that day, Rocker pitched against NC State in an elimination contest. The Wolfpack competed with just 13 bodies, and the 6-foot-5, 245-pound righty threw 111 pitches in six innings, striking out 11 while allowing five hits and one run.

Assuming he pitches Wednesday, Rocker, who’s expected to be a top MLB draft pick next month, would be working on four days’ rest.

Rocker mesmerized Omaha two years ago, striking out 17 batters, and winning two games with a 1.29 ERA. He was named the CWS Most Outstanding Player. He was a freshman.

Corbin has said that Rocker thrives in the competitive arena, and on Sunday, when Rocker talked to reporters via Zoom, he said he wanted to win another title for his class, who didn’t get a chance to repeat last year because of the COVID-suspended season.

“Those guys have waited two years to play in this spot,” Rocker said, “and those are my guys I’m excited for.”

And it’s also hard to not see the excitement brewing for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have made 11 trips to Omaha prior to this season, but have never come home with a championship. Thousands of supporters have traveled up Interstate 29 over the past week to lend a hand, or, at least, some voices.

“If that moment comes, we will be grateful,” said MSU second baseman Scotty Dubrule. “But we’re just going to go out and do our thing tomorrow.”

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Mississippi State pitcher Preston Johnson immediately knows he made a mistake as he waves goodbye to this home run off the bat of Vanderbilt’s Maxwell Romero Jr.

Just before midnight Tuesday, after another long day that was made longer because of rain, Lemonis said he felt like his team has been underdogs for most of the year. If the Bulldogs pull out the win tomorrow, and make history, they’ll do it with players like Johnson, who pitched five innings, longer than he’s gone any other time in an MSU uniform, who was cruising until he gave up a solo home run to Maxwell Romero Jr. in the ninth inning, who waved to the ball as it left the park, because he appreciated that Romero got him on a mistake.

Most of all, he appreciated the moment, in a game he could’ve never imagined. Johnson even has two words written on the inside of his hat, for those moments he thinks it’s beyond belief he’s here: “You Belong.”

“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “It was a dream come true.”

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