By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE – JJ Bleday was 0-for-4 on the night when he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth against Mississippi State on Saturday. In that moment, the sophomore right-fielder seemed an unlikely hero for Vanderbilt, which sat tied 3-3 with the Bulldogs in Game 2 of the Nashville Super Regional.
But by the end of the night, Bleday had finished 1-for-5 –- and his one hit became a shot heard ‘round Music City.
“I’ve never, ever had that happen to me before,” Bleday said.
Just past midnight during Saturday’s Super Regional, the sophomore Bleday launched a walk-off, solo home run into center field, lifting Vanderbilt to a 4-3 win over Mississippi State at Hawkins Field. The outfielder’s heroics helped the Commodores stave off NCAA Tournament elimination and force a Super Regional Game 3 on Sunday (5 p.m. CT ESPN2).
Now Vanderbilt has a chance to do something that it’s never done before: advance to the College World Series after dropping the first game of a Super Regional.
“When it’s playoff baseball,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said, “no one wants to give in.”
In a repeat of Friday’s matchup, Vanderbilt found itself facing another early deficit on Saturday. A two-out single to center from Mississippi State’s Jake Mangum sent home Luke Alexander and Justin Foscue for a 2-0 lead over the Dores in the top of the second. After the Dores scored one in the third, a Jordan Westburg double to left-center plated Alexander for a 3-1 Bulldog lead in the top of the fourth.
After a Ty Duvall pinch-hit RBI single made it 3-2 in the bottom of the sixth, Bleday came up big on defense in the seventh. He caught the final out of the inning in foul territory along the right-field line to strand a Mississippi State runner on third.
But Vanderbilt’s bats finally made music in the eighth. Harrison Ray lined a drive into the left-center gap for a triple, coming home on an Ethan Paul base-hit to knot the game, 3-3.
A blank frame for Mississippi State in the top of the ninth set up another opportunity for the Commodores. Following a strikeout by Stephen Scott to lead off the bottom of the ninth, Bleday grabbed a bat. He knew all he needed was an opportunity.
“I’m going in 0-for-4 with that at-bat, having a lot of teammate saying to get this one,” Bleday said. “Coach [Mike] Baxter is saying to try not to do too much and just be yourself up there… I’m just looking for something over the plate, something I could put a good swing on.”
A fastball from Mississippi State reliever Zach Neff provided just the opportunity. Bleday’s bomb was Vanderbilt’s first walk-off home run since June 15, 2015, when Jeren Kendall’s dinger won the opening game of the ’15 College World Series against Cal State Fullerton.
“[Bleday] did something every young kid grows up thinking about doing,” Corbin said. “It was a big moment, a lot of energy there. I’ve been here 16 years, I’ve never seen the stadium like that. Credit Mississippi State, but our fans were outstanding.”
Despite his slow start Saturday, Bleday has largely been a difference-maker for the Commodores in their tournament run. He returned to the lineup on May 8 after missing 22 games this season with an oblique injury. In 38 games with Bleday in the lineup, Vanderbilt is 27-11. The Dores are 9-14 without the sophomore right-fielder in 2018.
Vanderbilt now must hope Saturday’s late-night fireworks carry over to Sunday. It faces a do-or-die Game 3 vs. Mississippi State at 5 p.m. CT on ESPN2 and will send freshman Mason Hickman to the mound. The Commodores are seeking their first trip to the College World Series since 2015, but they have lost nine consecutive three-game series to the Bulldogs when dropping the first game.
No matter what history says, Vanderbilt’s season could have ended on Saturday. Bleday and the Commodores made sure it didn’t. Now, with Sunday’s stakes clear, Bleday expects the Dores to make the most of another shot at glory.
“We’re a tough team,” Bleday said. “It’s not over until that last out. We figured that out early on. We’ve had some ups and downs, but we’ve been tough enough to stick it out.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.