OMAHA, Neb. — Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis expected a tightly contested game when his Bulldogs squared off with No. 4 Vanderbilt in Monday’s Game 1 of the College World Series final.
With star Jack Leiter on the mound for the Commodores and Christian MacLeod pitching for the Bulldogs, Lemonis envisioned yet another close game in the late innings for MSU, one more critical contest going down to the wire.
“We thought it would be 2-1, 3-2, something like that as the game went on,” he said.
For eight innings Monday night, that was essentially what he got. But a seven-run first inning for Vanderbilt shook up Lemonis’ vision, blew the game open early and helped the Commodores (49-16) beat the Bulldogs (48-18) by a score of 8-2, leaving MSU reeling and — once again — one game away from elimination.
“We played great,” right fielder Tanner Allen said, “for eight innings.”
From the second through the ninth, Leiter and relief ace Nick Maldonado traded mostly zeros with a ragtag bunch of Mississippi State bullpen arms. The Bulldogs scratched across a run in the fourth; the Commodores answered in the seventh.
But by virtue of that disastrous opening frame, Mississippi State faces elimination for the third time this postseason. MacLeod, who got just two outs, gave up two hits, hit two batters and walked two more. When Chase Patrick came in and served up a three-run home run to Jayson Gonzalez, all six runners had come around to score.
It was the second consecutive abbreviated start for the left-hander after he went just 1.1 innings and allowed four runs Tuesday against Virginia. MacLeod’s ERA has risen to 5.23 on the season.
“I just think he’s trying to do too much,” Lemonis said. “Trying to do too much in the moment. And it’s just kind of gotten away from him. He’s been great all year for us — pitched in big stadiums, pitched in big moments. The last couple of weeks have been frustrating. And it’s probably more frustrating for him than anybody else, because knowing him and how hard he works, he wants to do well for the team. That’s what everybody’s wanting to do right now. It’s really hard when you fail on this stage.”
The Bulldogs’ lesser-used bullpen arms picked MacLeod up, combining to hold Vanderbilt to just two hits and one run the rest of the way. Cade Smith pitched two scoreless frames, as did Brandon Smith.
KC Hunt, pitching in his first game since the Southeastern Conference tournament on May 26, allowed just one run over two innings. Fellow freshman Jackson Fristoe made his first appearance since a poor start in the Starkville Regional, tossing a scoreless eighth.
“The bullpen did a great job,” Allen said. “They gave us a chance to come back.”
But the Bulldogs’ offense couldn’t muster any more late-game magic against Vanderbilt’s two strong pitchers. Kamren James touched Leiter for a no-doubt home run to left in the top of the first, but the right-hander retired the next seven batters before Allen led off the fourth with a double.
Logan Tanner brought in Allen with a single down the third-base line, but it was the last of the offense the Bulldogs managed against Leiter. The likely top-five draft pick struck out eight over six innings, paying Mississippi State back for his loss to the Bulldogs on April 24 in Nashville.
“When you give Jack Leiter seven runs in the first, a great pitcher — which he is — just took it and ran with it,” Lemonis said.
Maldonado took over where his starter left off, retiring the Bulldogs in order in the seventh and eighth. He allowed two baserunners in the ninth but struck out Brayland Skinner and Kellum Clark to seal the win.
If there’s any silver lining for Mississippi State, though, its version of Maldonado — Landon Sims, who has been even more dominant — is available out of the bullpen Tuesday. Preston Johnson and Stone Simmons didn’t pitch Monday either, and Lemonis pointed out none of the relievers used in Game 1 pitched enough to keep them out of commission the rest of the series.
Lemonis didn’t name a starter for Tuesday’s game, but lefty Houston Harding is the likely choice. Harding gave up three runs in 4.2 innings of work Friday against No. 2 Texas and will be on short rest, but his services might just be needed.
With a full bullpen, the Itawamba Community College transfer on the mound Tuesday and Will Bednar possibly back Wednesday on three days’ rest as well, the Bulldogs hope they’ll have the pitching to handle Vanderbilt’s offense.
But the series — and the national title along with it — should hinge on Mississippi State’s bats, which will need to step up for the Bulldogs to win two straight games and claim their first crown.
“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. We didn’t do that at times tonight, but we’re going to do that the rest of the week.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.