The Vanderbilt Commodores never quite caught up to Mississippi State in a marathon Game 1 that lasted more than four hours on Friday night.
Defensive miscues were the defining feature of the night. In the bottom of the second inning, Mississippi State got the scoring started. After Hunter Stovall led off the inning by reaching first base on a third-strike wild pitch, a single and a walk loaded the bases with one out. Drake Fellows thought he had coaxed a double-play ball — only for Ethan Paul to throw the relay to first into the dugout to give the Bulldogs a 2-0 lead.
Not to be outdone, Harrison Ray led off the third by reaching on an error, then advanced to third when State pitcher Ethan Small attempted a pickoff with no one covering second base. Ray scored on a Stephen Scott single; Scott would later score by sliding under a tag on a throw home on a fielder’s choice.
A five-run third inning by Mississippi State, though, gave the Bulldogs a 7-2 lead and the rout seemed to be on. Corbin left starter Drake Fellows in, though, and he got through the fourth inning cleanly.
And then the weirdness started again. In the top of the 5th, a Scott walk and JJ Bleday single led to Mississippi State coach Gary Henderson pulling Small. Connor Kaiser walked to load the bases with no outs — and then, two runs scored on a wild pitch, followed by a throwing error on an attempt to put out Scott at the plate. Philip Clarke walked -- and Kaiser came in to score on a passed ball. And then Pat DeMarco snuck a homer over the left field fence to tie the game at 7.
Fellows allowed a couple of hits in the bottom of the 5th, but Zach King came on in relief and worked out of the jam. Things settled down for a few innings before Jake Mangum’s RBI single in the bottom of the 8th made it 8-7, Mississippi State. State closer Riley Self retired the first two batters in the 9th to put Vanderbilt down to its final out.
Then Pat DeMarco hit a long fly ball off the wall in left field — and was thinking triple from the jump. And the relay throw got away from the third baseman, allowing DeMarco to come in to score. It was 8-8. It looked like we might be here for a while.
Only, we wouldn’t. With one out in the bottom of the 9th, Mississippi State’s Elijah MacNamee connected on his second homer of the night to deflate the crowd and send Mississippi State out of the Hawk with a 10-8 win and a 1-0 lead in the series.
The two coaches’ bullpen management couldn’t have been more different
Tim Corbin allowed Drake Fellows to throw 87 pitches and let him pitch two innings after giving up seven runs. And after that, Corbin let King finish out the game, throwing 72 pitches over four innings.
In the opposite dugout, Mississippi State’s Gary Henderson pulled starter Ethan Small at the first sign of trouble (granted, he’d also thrown 98 pitches), and relievers J.P. France and Cole Gordon threw 39 and 38 pitches, respectively.
The two strategies suggest that both teams have looked at their rosters and come to the same conclusion: a war of attrition favors Vanderbilt. Once Vanderbilt fell behind 7-2, Corbin seemed more than happy to concede the game — of course he’d like to win, but Corbin was more interested in preserving as much of his bullpen as possible, because getting to Game 3 became more important than winning Game 1. On the flipside, Henderson also knows that Mississippi State probably needs to win both Friday and Saturday, because with Vanderbilt having easily the deeper bullpen of the two his team can’t afford to drop either game.
It seems likely that either Vanderbilt will win this series 2-1, or Mississippi State will win 2-0. That makes Saturday’s game, which will start at 8:30 PM CT, extremely important for both teams.