The road to the national title just got a lot longer for Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs ran into a buzzsaw Wednesday in the form of a red-hot Vanderbilt club and their splendid freshman pitcher Kumar Rocker. The final result: a 6-3 loss and a trip to the loser’s bracket for the first time this postseason.
“(Today) was a tough one to swallow,” Bulldog centerfielder Jake Mangum said. “But it is what it is, and we’ve got to go home tonight and turn the page quick. We’ve got a really good team tomorrow that we’ve got to play against, and it’s going to be another great college baseball game in Omaha.”
Now, the Bulldogs (52-14) have their work cut out for them — they must beat Louisville in a win-or-go-home game scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, then beat this same Vanderbilt team twice in a row to reach the championship series.
The pitching situation is precarious for State. Bulldog skipper Chris Lemonis still has freshman sensation J.T. Ginn to pitch against the Cardinals (50-17), who eliminated Auburn with a 5-3 win Wednesday.
Ginn, the 2018 first-round draft pick who famously passed up more than $3 million to play for State, has been a steady hand in his freshman year. The Brandon, product is 8-4 in 16 starts with a 3.36 ERA with 103 strikeouts and just 18 walks.
Bulldog catcher Dustin Skelton said the growth he and his teammates have seen from Ginn over the course of the season has inspired confidence from his teammates headed into the biggest start of his career.
“He’s learned not to take pitches off,” Skelton said. “As a young guy, we all go through it. When you take pitches off at this level, and against good opponents, they’ll punish you. You just gotta be locked in every single pitch and every single moment, and he’s done a good job with that.”
Beyond Ginn, the options for starter become much thinner. Bulldog skipper Chris Lemonis said following Wednesday’s loss that staff ace Ethan Small, who started the Bulldogs’ 5-4 win over Auburn Sunday, will be unavailable until Saturday at the earliest.
That leaves Eric Cerantola (3-0, 4.30 ERA in just 14 ⅓ innings of work) and Brandon Smith (3-0, 3.93 in 36 ⅔ innings) as possible starters for Friday, should the Bulldogs get there.
Keegan James, who has started eight games, is likely unavailable after throwing 55 pitches in 3 ⅔ innings of work Wednesday. The other four relievers who pitched against the Commodores — Trysten Barlow, Riley Self, Colby White and Cerantola — combined to throw just 24 pitches and should be ready for use.
The Bulldogs kept the Commodores (56-11) at bay for most of Wednesday. Plumlee (7-5) held the potent Vandy lineup to one run in the first four innings (a solo homer by Stephen Scott in the second) before he ran into problems in the fifth.
The trouble started when Plumlee beaned Austin Martin with one out, then gave up an RBI double to J.J. Bleday that stretched the Vanderbilt lead to 2-0. Lemonis lifted Plumlee for Barlow, who promptly gave up a single to Ethan Paul and walked Philip Clark on four pitches to load the bases.
Riley Self took over for Barlow and nearly got the Bulldogs out of the jam. He fooled Vandy hitter Pat DeMarco on a breaking ball, which he hit weakly on the ground to first base. But instead of throwing home and getting the lead runner, Allen threw to second base trying to start a double play. Shortstop Jordan Westburg stepped on the bag and started to throw to first, but no Bulldog defender was there to cover the base.
“That’s tough,” Lemonis said. “...when you’re in the moment, Tanner thought he had that double play. He’s played great first base for us all year. We always say that ball can take you either way. I just think it was kind of a squib, so I think that’s the piece that got him a little bit.”
That left runners on the corners for Vanderbilt with two outs, and they capitalized. The next batter was Scott, who launched his second home run of the game, drove in three more runs and put Vanderbilt ahead 6-0.
The Bulldogs didn’t go quietly. Elijah MacNamee singled and came around to score on Rowdey Jordan’s RBI single in the sixth, and State picked up two more runs in the seventh on Marshall Gilbert’s solo homer and an RBI double from Allen.
Vanderbilt starter Kumar Rocker (11-5) didn’t match his complete-game, no-hit, 19-strikeout performance from the Commodores’ Super Regional win over Duke, but he was still sharp. He went six innings, gave up five hits and struck out six Bulldogs. Vandy closer Tyler Brown retired six out of the seven batters he faced to end the game.
The Bulldogs have pounded out 21 hits in their first two games at Omaha, but they are 7-for-29 with runners in scoring position (including going 2-for-11 Wednesday).
“It’s frustrating because you feel like the hits are there and you don’t have anything to show for it,” Jordan said. “You just have to keep plugging away, putting together good at-bats and know that the timely hits will come.”