NC State wins pitchers’ duel to advance in CWS

The Wolfpack continued its run by knocking off another powerhouse with a 1-0 win over Vanderbilt

North Carolina State's Terrell Tatum, right center, celebrates with teammates after hitting a solo home run in the fifth inning against Vanderbilt during a baseball game in the College World Series, Monday, June 21, 2021, at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz)

OMAHA, Neb. — For four innings, it looked like NC State would need to make sure their jerseys were tucked in and hats were on straight, because they were going to be the supporting players in Jack Leiter’s College World Series highlight video.

Vanderbilt’s Leiter, the son of a former major leaguer, one of the top pitchers in college baseball this year and a likely early pick in the MLB Draft, was utterly dominant, retiring the first 12 Wolfpack batters, nine by strikeout.

Entering the fifth inning, State had swung at 24 of Leiter’s pitches and managed to hit two of them in fair territory — a dribbler up the first baseline and a fly ball to center field.

It appeared to be Leiter’s night, but the future big leaguer learned a valuable lesson.

“Every pitch matters,” he said after NC State pulled out a 1-0 win over Leiter and the defending national champion Commodores. The Wolfpack moved to 2-0 in the College World Series. They’ll play Friday afternoon as the Pack moved to within two games of college baseball’s championship series.

State’s Terrell Tatum led off the fifth with a home run deep into the right field stands at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Stadium. It was Leiter’s only mistake of the evening, as he finished with a complete game four-hitter and a school-record 15 strikeouts.

Locked in a pitchers’ duel with NC State starter Sam Highfill, Leiter had little margin for error, and Tatum’s blast was the only scoring of the night.

“I made one mistake,” Leiter said. “I knew he was a good fastball hitter, especially fastballs in. CJ (Rodriguez, Vanderbilt’s catcher) set up outside, but it was middle-in, and he hit it a long way.”

After striking out on off-speed pitches in his first at-bat, Tatum thought Leiter might try to get a fastball past him.

“I realized I hadn’t seen many fastballs at all,” he said. “I had a feeling it was going to be a fastball, and I didn’t care where it was thrown. I was going for it. … I completely sold out for it to be a fastball.”

That left it to Highfill, who, while not making a case to be the top overall draft pick, outpitched Leiter where it mattered — on the scoreboard.

“I knew I was going to have to be very good tonight,” Highfill said.

He was that and more, going a career-high 7 1/3 innings and allowing just two hits while striking out seven. Highfill retired the leadoff batter in six innings and didn’t allow a runner to reach second until the seventh.

“That was the most impressive thing Sam’s done to this point,” Tatum said of the pitching performance. “I’m at a loss for words at this point.”

“You have to give him credit,” said Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin. “He pitched a hell of a game. He had his fastball, two different breaking balls, a change-up. He dropped down, and when we did get on base, he made it difficult with his (pickoff) move.”

“Pretty impressive stuff,” Leiter said of his opponent.

“That was a great college baseball game,” NC State coach Elliott Avent said. “Two teams playing their hearts out, good defense and two pitchers that were commanding the strike zone.”

The Wolfpack’s storybook season continues for at least a few more days. After a rough start to conference play, the Pack rallied to make the tournament, then upset the nation’s top team, Arkansas, in the super regional. Now State has added the team that won it all in 2019, the last time the College World Series was played, to its list of victims.

As the Wolfpack showed Monday night, the margin for error is slim.

“You can say we’re just a couple wins away, but there’s still a long way to go,” Avent said.