Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, two traditional powers of college baseball who hail from the sport’s most dominant conference, advanced to the College World Series finals by different paths. The Bulldogs earned some dramatic wins enroute to the finals, while Vanderbilt moved on as the beneficiary of a disqualification.
Along with storylines surrounding redemption and the lingering pandemic, this week’s title series will also feature a pair of Pittsburgh natives. Bulldog right-hander and Mars High School alum Will Bednar and Pine-Richland graduate turned Commodore designated hitter Troy LaNeve, will square off for the national title beginning Monday night.
Vanderbilt advanced the best-of-three set vs. Mississippi State by default. This weekend NC State, the one team standing in between the Commodores and a second consecutive trip to the finals, lived out a fear that every player, coach and spectator has held ever since the wide world of sports made their comeback in the middle of a pandemic.
NC State had beaten Vanderbilt in a 1-0 nailbiter last Monday. After the Commodores eliminated Stanford with a 6-5 victory in the losers bracket, they met the Wolfpack for a second time on Friday, but NC State was at a severe handicap. After four players tested positive for Covid-19, the NCAA only allowed vaccinated Wolfpack players to take the field. With just nine position players and four pitchers available, NC State battled full-strength Vanderbilt admirably, before ultimately losing 3-1.
With both teams holding one loss in the double-elimination tournament, a third and decisive game was scheduled for the next day. But at 2:10 a.m. on Saturday morning, the NCAA announced that the game would be ruled a no contest, ending NC State’s season and placing Vanderbilt in the finals. Amid outrage surrounding the NCAA’s decision to eliminate NC State, Vanderbilt advances and LaNeve figures to be a major factor if his team is successful.
The former Pine-Richland High School star’s freshman season was cut short, but he stood out over the final month of the regular season during his sophomore campaign. From the beginning of the season through the end of April, he logged just 12 appearances. In May alone, he doubled that number, appearing in 24 games and batting .314 with a .363 on base percentage, four home runs and 13 RBIs.
From the Regional stage, through Super Regionals and into Omaha, LaNeve started every game, batting fourth as the Commodores’ designated hitter and recorded six hits, a homer and seven RBIs.
— Simon Gibbs (@SimonGibbs26) June 23, 2021
But it took time for LaNeve to reach this point. He had to be patient, according to Corbin. He had to wait his turn, ride the bench and even sit at home while the team traveled to road games during the early part of the season, but LaNeve has withstood that idle time to become a regular starter.
“He never went in a different direction,” Corbin said. “He never allowed not traveling on a couple initial trips move him in a direction of negativism. He just always stayed positive, stayed very consistent. He’s a mature kid. It took him a little bit of time, but I’m happy for him. … He’s earned that right to be on the field.”
LaNeve collected two hits and drove home Vanderbilt’s first run of the College World Series in their opening game vs. Arizona. But ever since he has scuffled. The Commodore clean-up hitter has failed to reach base in the following three games. He will try to regain the swing that earned him consistent at bats against the Bulldogs, who LaNeve has yet to face in his college career.
LaNeve and the Commodores have a tall task ahead of them in the form of a talented, experienced and highly motivated Mississippi State team. After three straight appearances and early exits in the College World Series, the Bulldogs are eager to make this the year that they cap their season by hoisting a trophy.
“We are exactly where we are meant to be right now,” senior outfielder Tanner Allen said. “And I feel like we are ready for it and we are going to embrace every moment because at the end of the day there’s nothing like ending your career or your season in Omaha.”
To get here, the Bulldogs needed to grind out wins. They are 3-1 in the College World Series, with all three victories coming by one run, the latest of which came over the Texas Longhorns. It ended with a walk-off single from substitute shortstop Tanner Leggett that sent Mississippi State into a state of ecstasy and on to the finals.
“It happened so fast,” head coach Chris Lemonis said postgame “You’re hugging your coaches and you’re just so proud and happy for your team. They work so hard. These kids, they sacrifice more than you can ever imagine to play at this level and to play on this stage, and to see them celebrate the way they did is awesome.”
Bednar has been the ace for this Mississippi State team in Omaha. The presumptive first-round pick come July’s MLB Draft has thrown 12 ⅓ innings, all against Texas, at TD Ameritrade Park and allowed just three runs on five hits and three walks while striking out 22.
His status for the coming championship set vs. Vanderbilt is up in the air. After throwing 205 pitches last week, Lemonis said he will need to talk with and evaluate Bednar before he throws more.
22 K's over 2 starts in Omaha 🔥
Tip of the 🧢 for Will Bednar as he turns it over to Landon Sims for @HailStateBB
— D1Baseball (@d1baseball) June 27, 2021
“I spoke to Will already,” Lemonis said on Sunday. “And … he’s so competitive, who knows what he says. But he’s got a long career after this, too. So we’re very sensitive to that, too. We’ve done a great job, I feel like, of taking care of him all year. He has not over-pitched all year. … So it’s not a situation where he’s been overused, but it will come down to some conversations between all of us, and as we move through this.”
Jack Leiter, one half of Vanderbilt’s outstanding starting pitching duo, is expected to take the mound in game one against Mississippi State’s Christain MacLeod. First pitch of the title-deciding bout is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday night and will be broadcast on ESPN2.