Off The Bat: Lessons From Two Top-10, In-State Rivalry Showdowns
A pair of in-state rivalries pitting top-10 teams against each other highlighted this weekend’s slate of games. Mississippi and Mississippi State faced off in Starkville, while Vanderbilt and Tennessee met in Knoxville.
Both series delivered on their promise, producing outstanding pitching performances, big hits, electric atmospheres and Sunday rubber games.
In the end, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt came away with series wins. In both cases, it was the continuation of dominance in the rivalry. The Bulldogs have not lost a series against the Rebels since 2015 and have won 16 of their last 19 meetings. The Commodores have not lost a series to the Volunteers since 2016.
Even though the series held true to recent form, there still was a lot to learn from the weekend. Here are some of the biggest takeaways.
Mississippi State and Vanderbilt got important series wins, but all four teams remain well-positioned to host regionals. Tennessee (4), Vanderbilt (6) and Mississippi State (10) all rank in the top 10 in RPI and Ole Miss doesn’t fall too far behind the group, at No. 14. The Rebels (26-10, 9-6) have now lost three straight series, however, leaving them with little margin for error the rest of the way.
Vanderbilt (28-6, 11-4) now firmly controls the SEC East. It holds a one-game lead on South Carolina and Tennessee, which it has already played, and a two-game edge on Florida, which it will face in two weeks. The Commodores don’t have an easy schedule by any means—they this weekend host Mississippi State—but it will be hard to catch them for the division title.
Mississippi State (27-8, 10-5), meanwhile, now holds sole possession of second place in the SEC West. It is sandwiched between Arkansas and Ole Miss, with a one-game cushion on either side. Those three teams have all already played and the way they are ordered in the standings—Arkansas, Mississippi State and Ole Miss—matches what the eye test would say.
Winning Sunday was an important step for Vanderbilt. The Commodores rolled through the first seven weeks of the season without having to play a rubber game thanks in part to co-aces Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter winning their first seven starts.
The closest Vanderbilt came to a rubber game in the season’s first half came in week 2, when it split the first two games of a four-game series with Georgia State going into a Sunday doubleheader with Rocker and Leiter on the mound. The Commodores won those two games by a combined score of 29-8.
But in each of the last two weeks, Vanderbilt has found itself in a winner-take-all game 3. Against Georgia last week, it didn’t go well for the Commodores. Stymied by righthander Jonathan Cannon, they lost, 9-1.
Sunday at Tennessee, however, Vanderbilt rose to the challenge after an 8-4 loss the day before. The Commodores fell behind, 2-1, in the first inning before pulling away with nine runs in the middle innings, en route to a 10-4 victory.
In the third and the fourth innings, Enrique Bradfield and Carter Young, Vanderbilt’s leadoff and two-hole hitters, engineered two-out rallies. Bradfield showed off his elite speed, stealing four bases and scoring from second on a pop out to short. Young homered, his ninth of the season, and both scored three runs on the day.
Just as importantly, the Commodores got a strong effort out of the pen from righthander Chris McElvain. Righthander Patrick Reilly started and threw three innings before McElvain took over and went four innings, giving the Commodores needed length.
While Vanderbilt has the best 1-2 punch in the country with Rocker (8-1, 1.64) and Leiter (7-0, 0.98), it doesn’t have as much depth as it often has in the past, including its 2019 national championship team. That’s been true all season, but injuries have taken an additional toll. If McElvain (2-0, 3.54) and Nick Maldonado (1-1, 0.90), who threw 1.2 scoreless innings to finish the game, can build off their outings Sunday, it would be significant for the Commodores.
In the second half of the SEC season and beyond, Vanderbilt is sure to find itself needing to win more game 3s. The experience it got Sunday, in front of a tough crowd of 2,450, will be valuable.
“We’re still learning a lot about our team,” coach Tim Corbin said. “We’re very inexperienced but they’ve got some grit with them.”
Mississippi State’s stars delivered. The Bulldogs this weekend leaned on their best players and they didn’t let them down. In both wins—a 5-2 victory Friday and Sunday’s 7-5 win—their top three hitters of Rowdey Jordan, Tanner Allen and Kamren James were at the heart of the offense. Righthander Landon Sims closed out both games, part of an impressive overall effort from the bullpen, which combined to hold Ole Miss to seven runs (six earned) in 16.1 innings.
That the Bulldogs relievers needed to work so much is indicative of a subpar weekend from the rotation, however. Lefthander Christian Macleod was solid Friday night, holding Ole Miss to two runs in five innings. But righthander Will Bednar had his worst start of the season Saturday, giving up six runs in three innings, and righthander Jackson Fristoe on Sunday didn’t have his best control and was lifted after 2.2 innings.
Mississippi State also was overmatched by lefthander Doug Nikhazy, who threw a one-hit shutout in a 9-0 victory Saturday.
But anytime the Bulldogs were backed into a tight spot, their stars responded. Allen, a fourth-year junior who is the most accomplished player on the roster, supplied the go-ahead runs Sunday with a three-run triple in the sixth inning. James drove in four runs Friday and Jordan collected four hits Sunday. Sims, who has a case as the best reliever in the nation, worked twice in a weekend for the first time all season. He threw two innings Friday and then came back to pitch the ninth Sunday.
Those performances were key to helping Mississippi State maintain its dominance in the rivalry.
“It means a lot to our guys—I’m not saying it doesn't mean a lot to their guys,” coach Chris Lemonis said. “There is a lot of pride in this game. If you look at our roster there are so many kids from Mississippi. It's a big deal here.”
Mississippi State’s control of the rivalry dates to Jake Mangum’s arrival in Starkville. The all-time SEC hits leader went 14-2 over four years against Ole Miss and he on Sunday reminded Allen that losing a series to the Rebels was unacceptable.
“I talk to Jake pretty regularly,” Allen said. “He texted me (Sunday) morning and said, ‘We don’t lose to that team up there.’ I said, ‘I know, we’re going to bring it today.’ ”
Ole Miss is a pitcher or two short of being really dangerous. The Rebels have lost three straight series—at Florida, home to Arkansas and at Mississippi State, going 3-6 in that stretch. They’ve been in every game and the average margin of those six losses is less than three runs per game.
Ole Miss’ top arms—righthanders Gunnar Hoglund (3-2, 2.73) and Drew McDaniel (4-0, 2.97), lefthander Doug Nikhazy (4-1, 1.86) and closer Taylor Broadway (3-0, 2.78, 8 SV) stack up with anyone in the country. To reach their full potential, however, the Rebels need to establish another pitcher.
Against Mississippi State, Hoglund and Nikhazy covered all but one inning of the first two games. That meant Ole Miss had a fully rested bullpen Sunday and McDaniel handed it a lead in the sixth, after holding the Bulldogs to two runs over 5.1 innings. But Ole Miss couldn’t get that lead to Broadway, ultimately turning to him six batters later with the game tied at 4 and the bases loaded. He gave up a bases-clearing triple to Tanner Allen that proved to be the difference in the game before getting the final seven outs.
“We couldn’t get off the field,” coach Mike Bianco said. “Had to use three pitchers to get two outs. It’s unfortunate. Offensively, we probably did enough, especially the way Drew pitched. We just couldn’t get to Broadway. Hopeful to get to the seventh inning and couldn’t. Had to go to him early. It’s just a shame.”
If Ole Miss can stick to its script and ride its starters, it’s difficult to beat on any given weekend. But unless they can build a better bridge to Broadway, the Rebels will be walking a tightrope the rest of the season.
Even in a series loss, Tennessee took an important step. As the Volunteers look to build back to a prominent place in college baseball, every new experience is an important one. In 2019, they returned to regionals for the first time since 2005. In 2020, they built on that momentum with an impressive start. Now, in 2021, Tennessee is seeing what it means to be an SEC contender and play highly anticipated, top-10 series.
Coach Tony Vitello said the experience was “insanely valuable” for the Volunteers (29-8, 10-5).
“I literally can’t put it into words,” he said. “You have to grind through some things and get to a regional for the first time in a while and have some guys see that and be a part of a weekend that’s hyped up by (the media) and incredibly intense throughout the weekend. You need to navigate your way through it.”
Part of the intensity of the weekend was that there were loud crowds all weekend long in Nelson Stadium, creating a real home field advantage. Those crowds were brought out in part by the rivalry, but also because the Volunteers have built excitement for the program. As Tennessee tries to get back to the College World Series for the first time since 2005, having that kind of support is significant as well.
Tennessee will likely get another crack at playing at home in a big, hyped conference weekend next month when No. 1 Arkansas visits May 14-16. It won’t carry the same weight as an in-state rivalry, but if the Volunteers take care of business over the next three weeks, it is sure to have the attention of fans in Knoxville and college baseball overall.
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Eight for Omaha
Arizona, Arkansas, Louisville, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Texas, Vanderbilt
I’m not making any changes to the field this week, though not for lack of internal debate. Arizona gave up 37 runs on the weekend against Washington State and that definitely is reason for pause. Tennessee should feel no shame in losing a series to Vanderbilt, but it is important that the Volunteers learn from the experience.
East Carolina looks even better to me today despite not playing this week due to Covid-19 issues with its scheduled opponent, Houston. Several College World Series contenders are a little short on the mound, which doesn’t seem to be a problem for ECU. And, because I remain convinced the Pac-12’s depth is going to produce at least one Omaha team, I took a long look at Stanford, fresh off a series win at Arizona State, and Oregon, which continues to look solid. But, at least for one more week, I’m sticking with the same eight teams.
Elliott Carney, Wofford, and Alek Jacob, Gonzaga: Carney and Jacob this weekend both threw no-hitters. Jacob’s came Friday in a 10-0 victory against Pepperdine. He struck out 12 batters and walked two. Carney threw his Saturday in a 5-0 victory in the nightcap of a doubleheader against UNC Greensboro. He struck out seven batters and walked three. It was the first no-hitter in Wofford’s history as a Division I program (since 1995).
Georgetown: The Hoyas (3-5) won a four-game series against St. John’s, clinching it with a 6-4 victory Sunday. Georgetown only began its season two weeks ago after a protracted effort to get approval to play this spring. The Hoyas, who were picked last in the preseason coaches’ poll, did not have fall ball and practiced together just nine times before opening the season.
La Salle: The Explorers swept a four-game series against Massachusetts to improve to 20-11, 6-2. Just seven months after learning the program will be eliminated following the season, they have reached 20 wins faster than all but one team in program history and are off to their best start in conference play since 2010. La Salle, which has never won more than 31 games in a season, is on pace for 33 wins.
Gabe Matthews, 1B, Oregon: Matthews on Friday became Oregon’s all-time hits leader, as he recorded his 212th career hit in his 206th career game. The previous record was held by J.J. Altobeli, who recorded 211 hits in 232 games from 2010-13. Matthews went 8-for-12 with five runs on the weekend and is hitting .339/.438/.598 this season.
Jake Mulholland, LHP, Oregon State: Mulholland on Saturday became Oregon State’s all-time saves leader. With a perfect ninth inning in a 2-1 victory against California, he recorded his 38th career save, breaking a record held by Kevin Gunderson since 2006. Mulholland didn’t rest on his laurels, picking up another save Sunday in a 5-3 victory. He is 1-1, 0.52 with nine saves on the season.
Two top-10, inter-division SEC showdowns highlight the weekend. No. 1 Arkansas travels to No. 9 South Carolina for what will be its fourth weekend playing top-10 opposition—all of which have come away from Baum-Walker Stadium. No. 2 Mississippi State visits No. 3 Vanderbilt for what is sure to be a heavyweight series. The Commodores are coming off a series win at Tennessee and lead the SEC East, while the Bulldogs are in second place in the SEC West after a series win against Mississippi. Both series have weighty implications on both the SEC standings and the race for top-eight seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
ACC contenders clash when No. 17 Pittsburgh travels to No. 4 Louisville. The Panthers (20-11, 14-10) are hitting the road for the first time in a month for a challenging series against the Cardinals (22-11, 14-6). At stake are not just places in the ACC standings, but also a chance for both teams to improve their positioning to host NCAA regionals. Pitt is coming off back-to-back series wins against Miami and North Carolina, but Louisville hasn’t lost a home series since 2019.
No. 25 Old Dominion and Charlotte begin a pivotal two-week stretch. The Monarchs (27-7, 13-3) and 49ers (25-10, 14-2) have established themselves as the co-favorites in Conference USA’s East Division and are challengers to host regionals. ODU this week edged Charlotte for a spot in the Top 25. Now, they will stop circling each other and begin to settle the debate about who is better on the field. They meet this weekend for a four-game series in Charlotte before the series moves to ODU the following weekend.