OMAHA, Nebraska -- Mississippi State's 8-2 loss to Vanderbilt in Game 1 of the Men's College World Series means the Bulldogs are on the brink of elimination in the best-of-three set to determine the Division I national champion for 2021.
Even beyond the obvious cost of losing the first game of such a short series, the defeat on Monday night at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha hurt Mississippi State's chances. That's because Bulldogs starter Christian MacLeod lasted just 2/3 of an inning before a lack of control and Vandy's timely hitting made a hash of him and Mississippi State's pitching plans for Game 1.
The Bulldogs took a surprising early lead in the first inning by taking advantage of Vandy starter Jack Leiter's lone weakness: The longball. Freshman Kamren James did the damage with two out in the opening frame:
In the bottom half, however, MacLeod was unable to find the zone when he needed to. Of his 38 pitches, just 19 went for strikes. He walked two, hit another pair of Vandy batters, and allowed a single and double. It was the two-out double by Vandy's No. 8 hitter Isaiah Thomas that ended MacLeod's night. It did not, however, end his line.
Mississippi State manager Chris Lemonis summoned right-hander Chase Patrick from the bullpen, and soon thereafter he hung a full-count breaking ball to No. 9 hitter Jayson Gonzalez:
That three-run homer staked Leiter, perhaps the best pitcher in the country, to a 7-1 lead, and six of those runs were charged to MacLeod.
Mississippi State mounted threats toward the end of Leiter's night, but the Vandy defense came through. In the fifth, they turned a 5-4-3 double play, and in the sixth Thomas made the play of the game:
Thanks to MacLeod's brief but torturous outing, Lemonis was forced to summon a conga line of relievers and cover 7 1/3 innings. That's significant given the run-up to the finals. Vanderbilt made the finals after the NCAA ruled their decisive game against NC State a "no contest" because of a COVID cluster within the Wolfpack roster. That meant Vandy didn't play on Saturday, and as a result were able to line up Leiter for Game 1 of the finals. Mississippi State, meantime, eked out a hotly fought 4-3 win over Texas on Saturday night to secure their spot. In doing so, however, they burned ace Will Bednar, who struck out 15 Longhorns earlier in the CWS. Now Bednar very likely won't be able to pitch until a Game 3, and that's if the Bulldogs get there.
That's all key because Vanderbilt manager Tim Corbin can turn to co-ace Kumar Rocker in Game 2 or -- much more likely -- save him for a potential Game 3 in order to counter Bednar. Framed another way, since Friday Vanderbilt has logged four relief appearances while Mississippi State has registered 12, including five in Game 1. If Game 2 comes down to bullpen performance, then Vanderbilt's corps is not only better and deeper, it's also more rested. That matters, especially in late June.
Mississippi State is in search of its first national championship in any team sport, and it's now unlikely they'll achieve it via the 2021 College World Series. If you assume Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are evenly matched, then basic probability will tell you that the Bulldogs have just a 25 percent chance of winning two in a row from the Commodores, which is what they're now tasked with doing. Considering the realities on the ground after Game 1, that percentage probably needs to be nudged downward. That's painful for a Mississippi State team that's now made the College World Series 12 times -- including a loss to UCLA in the 2013 finals -- without yet winning it all. Only Florida State has made more trips to Omaha without capturing a national championship.
Vanderbilt, meantime, is perhaps nine innings away from repeating as national champions and hoisting the plaque for the third time in school history.