There were few of those in Monday’s winners' bracket contest between Vanderblt and North Carolina State as Jack Leiter and Sam Highfill fought back and forth in a textbook pitcher’s duel.
NC State, who had just four hits, won the contest by the lowest score possible, 1-0, as Vanderbilt was held to a mere two hits on the evening.
Offense was virtually nonexistent as seemingly every pitch was either a strike or hit straight to a fielder.
But it was far from a lackluster offensive performance that controlled the game. In fact, it was the complete opposite. The pitching from both teams was near-perfect, with a high-percentage of strikes, and an excellent command of a variety of pitchers.
That began with the starters, Leiter and Highfill, who were virtually unhittable from the beginning.
Of the first 10 Wolfpack hitters Leiter faced, nine of those opened the count with a strike. He tallied 15 strikeouts through eight innings on the hill with four hits, one walk, and one earned run.
NC State had no answer for his pitching for the vast majority of the contest, but as it turned out, that final stat listed was the difference.
With Leiter carrying a no-hitter into the fifth, designated hitter Terrell Tatum of NC State stepped to the plate for the first at-bat of the inning. Tatum swung hard on an 0-1 pitch to the inside of the plate, and the moment the ball connected with the bat, everyone in the ballpark, including Leiter, knew it was gone.
Tatum’s solo home run to right field put NC State in front 1-0, and the Wolfpack never looked back.
As good as Leiter was, Highfill was better. Through seven innings, the sophomore allowed just two hits, zero earned runs and two walks while striking out seven. He had fewer than half as many strikeouts as Leiter, but he got the job done.
“Getting the job done” is a phrase that has been associated with NC State for most of this postseason. The Wolfpack have not littered box scores with eye-popping statistics, or dominated opponents like some of their other Omaha counterparts. After all, it was NC State who was trounced by Arkansas 21-2 to open the Fayetteville Super Regional.
But just like they did at the Ruston Regional, taking down Alabama in the opener and then host Louisiana Tech twice to advance, the Wolfpack prevailed against national title favorite Arkansas, at the Razorbacks’ home stadium, a place where visitors were 6-29 entering the series.
Following the 21-2 loss, NC State came back for the next two games looking like a completely different ballclub. In consecutive one-run contests against the lethal Arkansas offense, the Wolfpack managed to tally victories by scores of 6-5 and 3-2.
The pitcher in game two of that super regional? Highfill. In many ways, it is thanks to Highfill that NC State even had a shot at a game three in the Super Regional round. And without a game three, well . . . NC State would never have gotten the chance to take down the heavily-favored Commodores on Monday night.
Highfill went 6.1 innings against Arkansas, keeping his hit count low, at two, with three earned runs. He battled, just like he did on Monday night, and gave his team a fighting chance to pull out the win. And he’s only a second-year freshman.
Upon arrival in Omaha, it was the same story for the Wolfpack. NC State got the job done in its College World Series opener against Stanford, making a statement in a 10-4 victory. Interestingly, even in the high-scoring affair, just one player, left fielder Johnny Butler, had three hits. But the other nine hits on the day came from six different players; a testament to the balanced nature of the Wolfpack lineup.
The offense did not click in the same way against Leiter and Vanderbilt, but NC State rose to the challenge. With such limited opportunities at the plate and flawless pitching on the mound, scoring opportunities were few and far between. The winner of the contest was that team that was able to take advantage of those scant windows of offensive hope.
Tatum's solo home run changed the outcome of the game, but NC State reliever Evan Justice deserves plenty of credit, considering he tossed the final 1.2 innings of the win. Justice allowed just one base runner on a walk and struck out two.
There was no strikeout sweeter for the junior, perhaps in his entire collegiate career, than the one that came on the game’s final pitch. With the crowd on its feet, a feeling of triumph in the air for NC State and desperation for Vanderbilt, Justice got the job done, striking out pinch hitter Tate Kolwyck looking on a 2-2 pitch over the heart of the plate.
Entering this College World Series, NC State had the second-most losses in the eight team field, with a 35-18 record. But regular season wins and losses don’t matter when you get to Omaha.
After the game, Wolfpack head coach Elliott Avent shared how challenging it is to win in Omaha. "Every win you get in Omaha is tough, nail-biting. [It's] not only eight of the best teams in the country, but it's the last eight teams in the country. And they're here for a reason: because they're playing their best baseball of the year."
Omaha is a test of a team’s ability to take advantage of the few opportunities granted to them while facing the nation’s best teams. NC State not only proved that they belong on Monday night, they also showed they can win the whole thing.
The Wolfpack will face the winner of Wednesday’s elimination game between Stanford and Vanderbilt on Friday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. CT.