Highfill Shines In NC State Shutout Of Vanderbilt
OMAHA - On a day when eyes around college baseball were fixed on Jack Leiter in what may end up being the last start he makes for Vanderbilt, Sam Highfill, Evan Justice and North Carolina State on Monday outshined the star righthander in a 1-0 win.
That’s not to say that Leiter wasn’t worth marveling at throughout the game. Despite not having quite his usual velocity, he struck out nine batters in his first four innings and finished the day with 15 strikeouts in a complete-game, eight-inning effort.
Highfill was just better at keeping Vanderbilt off the board, and that wasn’t lost on the Wolfpack righthander.
“I knew I was going to have to be good tonight," Highfill said. "That kid's really good and you'll see his name called in the first, if not first five, 10 picks, he might be the first pitcher taken this year. I knew I was going to have to go out and be good.”
He gave up all of two hits, a two-out single to Dominic Keegan in the first inning and a two-out single to Javier Vaz in the fifth. He also walked two batters, and only when C.J. Rodriguez moved to third on a sac bunt after drawing a leadoff walk in the seventh did a Commodores runner reach second base. His final line saw him throw a career-high 7.1 innings, giving up two hits and two walks with seven strikeouts.
Highfill is in a fantastic stretch of starts right now at the right time of year. He gave up four hits and one run in 6.1 innings against Georgia Tech at the ACC Tournament, threw 5.1 shutout innings against Louisiana Tech in the regional and gave up two hits and four runs (three earned) in 6.1 innings against Arkansas in the Fayetteville Super Regional.
“I feel good right now,” Highfill said. “And last couple of starts I have felt good. Stages keep getting bigger and bigger. And to be able to pitch in this park tonight was an unreal feeling.”
With what we’ve seen lately, it’s hard not to dream on what Sam Highfill can become for NC State next season, whether he’s paired with Reid Johnston in the rotation again next season as co-aces or if he takes hold of the Friday starter spot.
Sitting 2-0 in the College World Series, NC State has bigger fish to fry right now than worrying about how next season’s rotation shakes out, but Highfill looks the part of the next in a long line of starting pitchers the program has developed into workhorses.
He doesn’t have Leiter stuff, at least not now. There aren’t 95 mph fastballs getting blown past hitters with regularity, and he’s yet to have a double-digit strikeout performance this season, but don’t confuse that with him not having quality stuff.
He features a fastball that sits in the low 90s, and that offering can jump up and touch the mid 90s when he needs it. He also has a varied repertoire that includes a changeup, an over-the-top curveball and a frisbee slider that he pulls out just often enough to put hitters away.
And if he can do what he did tonight against Vanderbilt in this type of moment, on a foundation of what he’s been for the Wolfpack all season, there’s very little limit on what he can accomplish moving forward.
“He's been really, really consistent all year,” coach Elliott Avent said. “And if you talk about the last four starts, obviously everything's amped up a little bit from when you get in the ACC Tournament to regionals to supers to here. And he just keeps getting better and commanding his stuff.”
Offensively, the way the Wolfpack got it done was reminiscent of its super regional-clinching win over Arkansas. It didn’t have much going against Jack Leiter, just as it didn’t have much going against Arkansas’ Kevin Kopps two weekends ago.
And in the same way that Jose Torres’ eighth-inning blast changed the game with one swing in Fayetteville, Terrell Tatum did so in the fifth, sitting and turning on a Leiter fastball and sending it all the way up the bleachers in right-center field.
It was a celebratory moment for a player who has come into his own this season. A part-time player each of the previous three seasons, Tatum earned a full-time role in 2021 and has run with it.
“If you talk about the growth of Terrell Tatum through the years at NC State, just so proud -- his strength, he's put on a lot of strength this year,” Avent said. “He's worked very hard. He's carried around a jug of water all year, not just here but all year, and he's really committed himself with how he eats, his work ethic, and his added strength. And he's turning into a complete baseball player.”
One run is tough to make hold up against any team that has made it this far in the season, much less against a talented lineup like Vanderbilt’s, but it’s a little bit easier when you have Evan Justice throwing as well as he has been lately.
He threw 1.2 scoreless innings to close out the 1-0 win Monday, giving him 9.1 shutout innings in his last four outings, two against Arkansas and two in the CWS against Stanford and Vanderbilt.
From 1-8 to begin ACC play to one win away from the championship series of the College World Series, the Wolfpack are on quite the ride right now. It’s a group that clearly believes it belongs, and that’s a powerful thing this time of year.
“We have a lot of it,” Highfill said of his team’s confidence. “We've beaten, in the last five or six weeks, we beat the ACC pitcher of the year; the SEC pitcher of the year, Kevin Kopps; we beat Jack Leiter tonight; we beat Brendan Beck on, whatever, two days ago. And we've got a lot of confidence. We've slayed a lot of giants and trying to carry it forward.”