The Wolfpack beat SEC pitcher of the year Kevin Kopps of Arkansas to win their regional, beat the Pac-12 pitcher of the year Brendan Beck of Stanford in their College World Series opener, and Monday night they beat projected top-five draft pick Jack Leiter.
Terrell Tatum’s fifth-inning home run spoiled a dominant performance by the national strikeout leader and now NC State is in control of its CWS bracket after its 1-0 win over Vanderbilt.
“We’ve slayed a lot of giants,” said Sam Highfill, who dueled with Leiter most of the unseasonably cool evening at TD Ameritrade Park.
The Wolfpack (37-18) have knocked out the No. 1 national seed in Arkansas and now have beaten the reigning national champion in Vanderbilt in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve won 33 of 42 since starting 4-9 overall and 1-8 in ACC play.
“For the last two, three months we haven’t said much at all to these guys because they know what they want and they know how hard it is to get and they know how committed they are to one another,” coach Elliott Avent said. “I don’t think they let any moment become too big for them.”
Leiter went eight innings and struck out 15, the same number of Ks by Mississippi State’s Will Bodnar against Texas on Sunday in what was the most by a pitcher in a nine-inning CWS game in 25 years.
“He attacked, he threw strikes, commanded the ball — he just did everything he could to put his team in position to win,” Vandy coach Tim Corbin said. “Highfill was good. You’ve got to give him credit. We never got the ball on the barrel.”
Highfill (9-2) limited the No. 4 national seed Commodores (46-16) to two hits through 7 1/3 innings, striking out seven and letting one of the nation’s best defenses take care of the rest with six flyouts and nine groundouts.
“It was pretty obvious Jack Leiter was really good tonight,” Avent said, “and he’ll be one of the top few picks in the Major League Baseball draft. He was really on and we weren’t going to get anything. For Sam to keep this Vanderbilt offense at bay to give us a chance, it was unbelievable what he did tonight.”
NC State went three-up, three-down the first four innings against Leiter. In the fifth, Tatum turned on an 0-1 fastball that rode a light north wind into the last row of the right-field bleachers for the Wolfpack’s first hit.
“It’s a good fastball-hitting lineup, and you saw that in the fifth,” said Leiter (10-4). “You’ve got to tip your cap to the other pitcher when they throw a two-hit shutout. That’s pretty impressive stuff.”
Tatum said he saw mostly breaking balls while striking out on four pitches in his first at-bat. He said he thought he was due for a fastball, and he got one he could handle after getting a first-pitch slider in the fifth.
“I didn’t care where it was,” he said, “I was going for it.”
Vanderbilt had three base runners, none advancing past first, until CJ Rodriguez walked leading off the eighth and moved up and over on a sacrifice and groundout. Rodriguez was left at third when closer Evan Justice froze Enrique Bradfield with a third-strike breaking ball.
Justice, who earned his 13th save, walked Carter Young to start the ninth but got Dominic Keegan to ground into a double play. The game ended when Justice caught pinch hitter Tate Kolwyck looking at strike three.
The combined two hits against Highfill and Justice were the fewest in a CWS game since Oregon State’s Kevin Abel threw a two-hitter against Arkansas in the national championship-clinching win over Arkansas in 2018. It was the second shutout in six CWS games, with Virginia having beaten Tennessee 6-0 on Sunday.
Vanderbilt lost for the first time in seven national tournament games and was shut out for the first time since losing 7-0 to Texas A&M in March 2019.
NC State, off until Friday, needs one more win to reach the best-of-three finals for the first time.
“Every win you get is important,” Avent said, “but it’s still a long way to go.”
Vanderbilt: Plays an elimination game against Stanford on Wednesday.
NC State: Plays Friday against the Vanderbilt-Stanford winner.