Will Bednar Leads the Bulldogs to MSU’s First Title

On Wednesday, the Mississippi State Bulldogs defeated the Vanderbilt Commodores to win the 2021 College World Series, bringing home the school’s first title in any team sport in its 126-year history. According to ESPN, an estimated 1% of the entire population of Mississippi made their way to Omaha to cheer on the team in person. Also in attendance at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park were MSU alumni Dak Prescott and Rafael Palmeiro, the latter of whom was a member of the 1985 baseball team, which is widely considered one of the greatest college teams not to bring home the World Series title (Will Clark was also on the roster that year; the two were collectively referred to as “Thunder and Lightning”). Before the game started, it seemed likely to be a pitchers’ duel, with MSU’s Will Bednar facing off against Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker. But both aces were working on short rest – Bednar on three days, Rocker on four – and the college level is known for its unique anything-can-and-probably-will-happen brand of baseball, so even that prediction was flimsy at best.

Bednar came into the contest riding a wave of confidence stemming from his two previous games. While the draft-eligible sophomore hasn’t generated nearly the same amount of buzz that’s surrounded Rocker all season, once his team had reached Omaha, he wasted no time demonstrating why his name has come up as a potential late-first-round pick. In his first start of the tournament, the righty struck out 15 Texas batters, while walking only one and giving up just one hit in his six innings of work. He struck out seven more Longhorns in his second Omaha start, which ended with a Bulldogs walk-off. It’s not hard to imagine the impact of a hot team on a hot pitcher, coming into what is undoubtedly the most important start of his budding career.

Rocker’s 3-0 record and 0.84 ERA in College World Series elimination games prior to Wednesday was enough to consider him the favorite. But his starts leading up to the championship series had done significantly less to bolster his confidence. The first batter Rocker faced in Omaha this year, Arizona’s Donta Williams, reached on a fielding error. That was followed up by two doubles and two singles in the inning, before Rocker finally recorded the third out. He settled down somewhat over the next few innings, but his day ended in the fifth, when he issued a free ride via HBP, followed by a home run off the bat of Ryan Holgate. His stat line in his next game looks dominant – 11 strikeouts and one walk in six innings – but the context surrounding it is important. That game was against an NC State roster that had been whittled down to only 13 players, following a slew of positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing. The game should have been a blowout, but Vandy only beat the decimated Wolfpack by a score of 3-1, and the stories emerging from the game had more to do with how well NC State had managed to hold their own – in particular Sam Highfill, a pitcher who played first base that day, and went 3-for-4, after having only recorded one hit in his entire college career prior to the game – than the Commodores’ victory.

The next day, NC State was knocked out of the tournament – not by Vanderbilt, but by COVID, when it was determined that the virus’ impact on the roster was too significant for the NCAA to allow them to continue. But lest we give any undue credit to the NCAA, let’s remember that none of the fans in attendance were subject to any type of COVID screening before being crammed into the stadium, which was at full capacity (24,000) and did not require masks. That the players on the field were expected to maintain strict protocols while not being provided a bubble in which to safely exist — all in a world that is largely acting as though the pandemic is entirely over — is a tall order. That those same players who had just been barred from fulfilling their life-long dreams to compete on the field could conceivably attend that same event and pack themselves into the stadium to watch the remaining teams play feels like dark satire. Nevertheless, it meant that Vanderbilt advanced to the championship series without having to beat NC State a second time.

The Bulldogs and the Commodores split the first two games of the three-game championship series. Vanderbilt won on Monday, 8-2, behind their other ace, Jack Leiter, and MSU emerged triumphant in Tuesday’s game, 13-2. But seven of the eight runs that Vandy scored in Game 1 had come in the first inning of play. In the 17 innings since that frame, MSU had outscored the defending champions 14-3, and outhit them 18-6. Vanderbilt’s defense had been clunky as well, recording three errors in Game 2, compared to MSU’s flawless defensive performance.

The first inning of the deciding game of the Championship was rocky for both pitchers, but their ability to regain their respective composures proved an important distinction. Rocker allowed a leadoff single, then struck out Tanner Allen in the next at-bat on a very generous strike-three call.

That brought up third baseman Kamren James, who tapped a grounder back to Rocker. Rocker fielded the ball, spun around to throw out the lead runner at second, but threw it slightly behind second baseman Parker Noland as he ran over to cover the bag, sending the ball into center field, and setting up runners on first and third with only one out. That allowed the next batter, Luke Hancock, to notch an RBI on a sacrifice fly to score the first run of the game. Rocker got out of the inning with a strikeout in the next at-bat, but the damage had been done. In the bottom of the first, Bednar struck out Vandy’s leadoff hitter, but walked the next two, setting up a similarly dicey one-out scenario to the one Rocker had faced in the top of the frame. But Bednar was able to quickly shut down the inning, inducing a double play on a grounder to short, and shifting momentum significantly.

When Rocker returned to the mound, he was unable to settle into a groove. He walked the first two batters of the inning, both of whom would go on to score. He’d already been issued a delay warning in the first but continued to take plenty of time between pitches to compose himself, eventually leading to an automatic ball being awarded to the MSU’s Rowdey Jordan – a controversial call, considering that the batter was out of the box when it was made. Jordan went on to poke a well-placed, opposite-field RBI double down the left field line. Rocker eventually got out of the second and seemed to settle down in the third and fourth, with the only baserunner coming on an error. But in the fifth, he allowed two runs on four singles before being pulled from the game.

Bednar, on the other hand, was able to settle down after his rocky first inning. He walked the first batter he faced in the second but went on to retire the next 15 consecutive Vanderbilt hitters, demonstrating impressive precision with three distinct offerings, especially his slider, which he used to effectively miss bats, as well as induce groundballs on pitches on the margins of the zone.

He threw six no-hit innings before handing the game over to Landon Simms out of the bullpen, at which point the score was already 9-0. The combined no-no was broken up in the eighth on a single to right off the bat of Commodore shortstop Carter Young, but that would be Vanderbilt’s only hit of the game.

Bednar went on to be named CWS Most Outstanding Player to cap off his spectacular three games (18.1 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 6 BB, 26 K). No surprise there, considering the role he played in bringing home MSU’s first ever title. While it seems safe to assume he’ll never have to pay for a beer in Mississippi for the rest of his life (outside of Oxford, that is), it’s much more difficult to predict what this will mean for his future as a baseball player. For now though, it has undoubtedly given Bednar a boost in relevance less than two weeks before the draft. And as we all know, sometimes timing is everything.





Tess is a contributor at FanGraphs. When she's not watching college or professional baseball, she works as a sports video editor, creating highlight reels for high school athletes. She can be found on Twitter at @tesstass.

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Pirates Hurdles
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Pirates Hurdles

Dark satire, eh? Howabout young people refusing to get an incredibly effective vaccine for political reasons prolonging the US pandemic and costing them opportunities?

Mr. Patient
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Mr. Patient

Not sure why this is being downvoted, but to me, that’s the takeaway from the NC State story. It’s notable that Vanderbilt had to take no special precautions or tests after playing NC State because they had all been vaccinated. The NC State coach made a big show of saying that he didn’t want to ‘indoctrinate’ his players. And when pressed about vaccinations, he said he didn’t want to talk ‘politics’. They have no one to blame but themselves.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I’ve had a ton of conversations about NC State baseball lately and they all go like this. They made a huge show out of it supposedly being the players’ individual choice, but those individual choices absolutely doomed them as a group. It blew my mind that they didn’t all get vaccinated. Who wants to be the guy who let the team down? They absolutely let the team down. It’s quite the parable for a whole lot of other situations, both those that include public health and/or baseball and some far beyond it.