OMAHA, NE — The NC State baseball team took down the Vanderbilt Commodores 1-0 in a nail-biting pitcher’s duel Monday, June 21. Freshman right-handed pitcher Sam Highfill (7.1 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 7 K) came out on top against Vanderbilt right-hander Jack Leiter, arguably the best pitcher in the nation.
“We have a lot of [confidence],” Highfill said. “We've beaten, in the last five or six weeks, we beat the ACC pitcher of the year; the SEC pitcher of the year, Kevin Kopps; we beat Jack Leiter tonight; we beat Brendan Beck on, whatever, two days ago. And we've got a lot of confidence. We've slayed a lot of giants and we’re trying to carry it forward.”
The showdown between Highfill and Leiter got off to an exciting start, as the Commodores’ leadoff man and arguably the fastest player in the nation, center fielder Enrique Bradfield Jr., laid an almost perfect bunt down the third base line. Sophomore third baseman Vojtech Mensik (1-3) made an even better play, making the bare-handed throw to first for the game’s first out.
NC State's Vojtech Mensik puts on a fielding clinic to get one of college baseball's fastest and kickoff this game! pic.twitter.com/97sAgmx5EY— Farm To Fame (@FarmToFame_) June 21, 2021
“When he bunted that ball with one strike,” said head coach Elliott Avent. “I'm not screaming, but I'm just thinking, ‘Let it go foul, let it go foul,’ because I thought it was right on the line and no way he could make that play. But, boy, howdy, did he make an unbelievable play.”
Highfill and Leiter would trade blows well into the evening, but it was Leiter that held the edge for all of the first half of the game. The Commodores’ ace tossed a perfect game through four innings with nine strikeouts to boot. Highfill put on a show of his own during that span, allowing only one hit and one walk while striking out four.
“I knew I was going to have to be good tonight,” Highfill said. “[Leiter’s] really good and you'll see his name called in the first, if not first five, 10 picks, he might be the first pitcher taken this year. I knew I was going to have to go out and be good.”
The two right-handers were in a 0-0 deadlock heading into the bottom of the fifth, but it was Leiter that cracked first. Junior designated hitter Terrell Tatum (1-2, RBI, HR, BB) broke up Leiter’s perfect game with authority, sending the 0-1 pitch well into the right field stands to give the Pack a 1-0 lead.
TATER TATUM❗️ pic.twitter.com/WXdct7tLKj— #Pack9 ⚾️ (@NCStateBaseball) June 22, 2021
“My first at-bat, he started me off with an off-speed pitch then continued the trend, threw another one,” Tatum said. “And the second at-bat when I hit the home run, it was off-speed pitch that was a strike. And I completely sold out for the next pitch to be a fastball. And it just happened to be a fastball in and I put a good swing on it.”
Highfill maintained his form through the seventh inning, but he seemed to reach his limit in the eighth, walking the leadoff batter. After Vanderbilt pulled off a sacrifice bunt to advance the runner to second base, junior left-handed pitcher Evan Justice (1.2 IP, BB, 2 K) entered the game in relief for the Pack.
In the bottom of the seventh, the Pack had a chance to add to its lead, but failed to score with the bases loaded. Sophomore center fielder Tyler McDonough (1-4) got it started with a leadoff single, and after junior left fielder Jonny Butler (0-3, 2 K) flew out to right, Leiter gave up a walk and an infield single to load up the bases. Leiter quickly collected himself though, gaining two more strikeouts to end the inning and to bring his strikeout total to 14.
Justice was unfazed by this missed opportunity for insurance runs though, as he forced a groundout to second to advance the Vanderbilt runner to third base before getting a crucial strike-three call for the third out, stranding that tying run in the eighth.
The Pack missed another opportunity to extend its lead in the eighth. Mensik hit a leadoff single, and two quick outs later, advanced to third on a passed ball. McDonough was unable to cash in the scoring chance though, flying out to center field to send the game to the ninth.
It was in the ninth that Justice secured the win. After allowing a leadoff walk, the southpaw induced a 4-6-3 double play that put the Pack one out away from victory. Justice, with ice in his veins, struck out the last batter looking to win it for the Wolfpack.
On Friday, June 25, NC State will face the winner of Wednesday’s game between Vanderbilt and the Stanford Cardinal. Friday’s game airs on ESPN2 at 1 p.m CT, 2 p.m ET.