All of the strikeouts from ace pitcher Jack Leiter couldn’t save Vanderbilt against NC State on Monday.
Neither could the incessant whistling from the Commodores’ notoriously irritating superfans.
Terrell Tatum hit a solo home run in the fifth inning and Sam Highfill threw seven-plus scoreless innings to lead the Wolfpack to a 1-0 win in the College World Series on Monday.
NC State (37-18) is one win away from reaching the final best-of-3 series in Omaha, Neb. and playing for the first national title in program history and the school’s first since the men’s basketball team won it all in 1983.
Vandy (46-16) won the CWS the last time it was played in 2019. Leiter and pitcher Kumar Rocker made the Commodores, the No. 4 overall seed, the favorites to win again in Omaha. Even if it means having to listen to Jeff Pack and Preacher Franklin, the “Vandy Whistlers” who make high-pitched piercing noises throughout each game.
But this NC State team has had a knack for defying the odds. The Wolfpack knocked out the No. 1 overall seed, SEC champion Arkansas, in the Super Regional round.
On Saturday, the Wolfpack hammered Stanford 10-4 to advance in the winners’ bracket, where it will stay until Friday when it will get a rematch with either Stanford or Vanderbilt. The Cardinal, who beat Arizona 14-5 in the losers’ bracket on Monday, and the Commodores will meet in an elimination game on Wednesday.
NC State improved to 7-1 in the NCAA tournament and won a second game in the CWS for the first time in three trips in program history. All of this for a team that started the season with a 1-8 record in conference play.
The Wolfpack has come a long way since March.
“I go back to when we were 1-8 in the ACC and coach came into the locker room and said we’re going to go on a run,” Highfill said. “Sure enough, it has happened. These guys are unbelievable.”
Leiter (10-4), a projected top-10 pick in the upcoming MLB draft and the NCAA leader in strikeouts, went into the game as the star pitcher but Highfill stole the show. NC State has won 10 straight games started by Highfill (9-2), a second-year freshman from Apex.
“I had a lot of help behind me,” Highfill said, noting the defensive standout play of third baseman Vojtech Mensik and rightfielder Devonte Brown.
Highfill allowed only two hits through 7.1 innings. Reliever Evan Justice, who closed out Saturday’s win over Stanford, came in for the final five outs.
A double-play in the ninth, after Justice walked the leadoff batter, was also key for the Wolfpack.
Leiter struck out 15 in a complete-game effort. He had a no-hitter through the first four innings until Tatum led off the fifth with a rocket shot to right field. NC State could only get three more hits but it wouldn’t need any more runs.
NC State needs one win to move into the final series. Either Stanford or Vanderbilt will have to beat the Wolfpack twice to advance to the best-of-3 finale, which is scheduled to start on Monday.