NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — JJ Bleday picked the right time to find his home run swing, belting a walk-off home run just over the center field wall as Vanderbilt rallied for a 4-3 victory over Mississippi State on Saturday night to force a decisive third game Sunday in the Nashville super regional.
Bleday, who had gone 0 for 4 prior to his decisive home run, took a 2-0 fastball from Zach Neff (3-3) just past the reach of a leaping Jake Mangum for his fourth homer of the season, one that extended the Commodores’ season. It was Bleday’s first home run since March 4, as he missed more than a month of the season due to an oblique injury. He returned to the Commodores’ lineup on May 8.
“I was 0 for 4 before that at-bat. I had a lot of teammates just saying, ‘Hey, get this one,'” Bleday said. “I was just looking for something over the plate that I could put a good swing on.”
The home run marked the second consecutive night that the best-of-three series has ended with a walk-off homer. Mississippi State’s Elijah MacNamee hit a two-run walk-off shot for the Bulldogs in the opening game of the series Friday night.
Bleday’s blast made a winner of reliever Chandler Day (2-1), the fourth Commodore pitcher of the night.
The Commodores (35-26) scored one run in each of the final two innings. In the eighth, Harrison Ray laced a one-out triple and scored the tying run on Ethan Paul’s bloop single to center field.
Ray, whose hit helped spark the Commodores, said he was initially thinking double, but realized he could stretch the hit into a triple once he made his turn at first base.
“Out of the box, I was thinking two, but when I rounded first and saw where Mangum was, I was thinking, ‘I’m going to third,'” Ray said.
Mississippi State (36-27) took an early lead, plating two runs in the top of the second when Justin Foscue led off with a walk and Luke Alexander reached on a single before Mangum delivered a two-out, two-RBI single.
The Commodores answered with a run in the bottom of the third. Austin Martin hit a one-out double down the left field line and scored on Stephen Scott’s single up the middle. Connor Kaiser doubled to put runners at second and third with two outs, but Mississippi State pitcher Konnor Pilkington struck out Philip Clarke to end the threat.
The Bulldogs got that run right back in the top of the fourth as Alexander opened the inning with an infield single, took second on a wild pitch by Patrick Raby, then scores on Jordan Westburg’s double to left-center.
Vanderbilt missed several scoring opportunities throughout the game. In the bottom of the fifth, Julian Infante, trying to take an extra base on a hit by Martin, was thrown out at third by Mangum from center field. The Commodores still had runners on first and third with one out in the inning, but failed to score as Pilkington retired Bleday on a popup and struck out Kaiser.
Pinch hitter Ty Duvall singled in Pat DeMarco to pull Vanderbilt within one run in the sixth inning. However, the Commodores left the bases loaded when Neff struck out Scott to end the inning.
“It was difficult for us from the standpoint that we had some base runners on early, but we couldn’t push them across,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “It felt like we were pushing uphill a little bit.”
Corbin credited the work of reliever Jackson Gillis, who pitched three scoreless innings in relief of Raby with helping to keep Vanderbilt in the game until the offense could come through.
Mississippi State interim coach Gary Henderson met with the umpiring crew at the end of the top of the seventh inning, and the crew reviewed a third-out foul-fly catch by Bleday off the bat of the Bulldogs’ Hunter Stovall. The play was initially ruled a catch as Bleday was near the wall in foul territory.
After about three minutes of review, Bleday’s catch stood. The big result was that it made the seventh-inning stretch just a bit longer than normal.
Vanderbilt is 0-4 all-time in Super Regional Series when losing the first game of the best-of-three affair. The Commodores lost the opener Friday night in disappointing fashion on MacNamee’s home run. That came after the Commodores had tied the game with two outs in the top in the ninth when DeMarco tripled and scored on a throwing error.
GETTING IN THE WAY
Three different times Vanderbilt pitchers deflected balls hit back up the middle right to shortstop Connor Kaiser. It happened with MacNamee’s grounder in the first inning, with Rowdey Jordan’s ground ball in the fourth and with Dustin Skelton’s ground ball in the eight. Each time, Kaiser made the play to first base and each time it was the third out of the inning.
Vanderbilt will start freshman right-hander Mason Hickman (8-2) in Sunday’s decisive game three. Jacob Billingsley (5-3), a senior right-hander, will start for Mississippi State.
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