- Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. She previously wrote for The Kansas City Star and The Omaha World-Herald.
OMAHA, Neb. — Jack Leiter didn’t want to think about whether it was his last game at Vanderbilt. In two weeks he’ll be one of the first names to be called in the MLB draft; in a few minutes, he’d be on the mound at the College World Series, pitching in front of what seemed like half of the state of Mississippi.
In situations like these, Leiter leans on the wisdom of his father. Al Leiter pitched 19 seasons in the majors, won three World Series, and was perched in a sea of maroon Monday night at TD Ameritrade Park.
“He pitched in a lot of big games,” Jack Leiter said. “And I think that advice has kind of helped along, because the main thing in any big game is not making it any bigger than it is and remembering that it’s the same game you’ve played since you were little, whether there’s 10 people watching or 24,000 like tonight.”
Leiter pushed Vanderbilt within one game of their second straight national championship, striking out eight in an 8-2 win over Mississippi State in Game 1 of the CWS finals. The Commodores piled on seven runs in the bottom of the first inning, immediately taking the uber-partisan crowd out of the game.
The contest was delayed for an hour Monday night due to a storm that never arrived. But the Commodores’ bats did, in a sense. Vanderbilt, which had been averaging just four runs a game in Omaha, nearly doubled that output by the second inning. But it came on just three hits.
Mississippi State lefty Christian MacLeod walked two of his first three batters, then hit Tate Kolwyck with a pitch. The glancing blow to Kolwyck’s foot was so slight that it was reviewed by the umpires, but when MacLeod hit another batter on his next pitch, there was no ambiguity. The errant pitch to Parker Noland’s shoulder scored Vanderbilt’s first run, then CJ Rodriguez singled and, after a pop out, Isaiah Thomas doubled to put the Commodores up 4-1.
MacLeod exited, after just 2/3 of an inning, and became the first pitcher to fail to make it out of the first inning in the CWS finals. Chase Patrick took the mound, and gave up a three-run homer to nine-hole hitter Jayson Gonzalez. The crowd sat in stunned silence. It was 7-1.
Just six days earlier, MacLeod lasted only 1.2 innings against Virginia. On a Sunday call with the media, MacLeod said he’d been working on his fastball command and was feeling good and ready to go. Bulldogs coach Chris Lemonis said MacLeod was trying to do too much.
Right-fielder Tanner Allen said the Bulldogs weren’t about to point fingers at anyone.
“We pick each other up,” Allen said. “As a teammate, watching him the way he worked in the offseason and the fall and the spring training, you can’t do nothing but just slap him on the butt and pick him up and encourage him, because he’ll get the ball again. The sun’s going to come up again for him.
“I know he’s probably catching a lot of flak on social media right now, but it’s 99.9% of those people have never played in a national championship game and never pitched in front of even maybe 500 people. So he’s a great player. He’ll be back for us.”
Leiter, who threw 123 pitches a week ago in a 1-0 loss to NC State, went six innings Monday, scattering three hits and two runs. He touched 96 mph and threw 107 pitches.
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin was asked what he said to Leiter in what will probably be his last game.
“Good game,” Corbin said, then went on to his next question.
Lemonis thought the Bulldogs got some good swings in on Leiter, the national strikeout leader who is projected by ESPN to go No. 4 in the July 11 MLB Draft. But the first inning was too much to overcome.
“He’s good,” Lemonis said. “I mean, that guy’s going to be in the top five picks in the country for a reason. He’ll be in the big leagues here soon. But I thought we were fine. I thought it would be a 3-2 game, we’d have to win it late against him. We just didn’t get that opportunity.”
If the Bulldogs could take any solace out of Monday, it’s that their bullpen was stellar, allowing just two hits the rest of the way. As they prepared for Tuesday, they had something else to look forward to: They won’t have to face Leiter.
“Jack certainly set the tone tonight,” Corbin said. “He pitched very well. It was tough pitching, too. That team does not give in. They fight you on every pitch. They make it very difficult.”
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