COVID-19 scare leaves Wolfpack with 13 players for CWS game; Vanderbilt wins, 3-1

College Sports

North Carolina State personnel chat in the dugout during a delay due to COVID-19 safety protocols before their baseball game against Vanderbilt in the College World Series Friday, June 25, 2021, at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz)

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OMAHA, Neb. (AP/WNCN) — North Carolina State was missing four starting position players and had only 13 available for its College World Series game against Vanderbilt on Friday because of a COVID-19 issue on the team.

The Wolfpack lost 3-1 in a game delayed an hour after the NCAA said it needed time to complete “health and safety protocols.” NC State said “several players” had entered the COVID-19 protocol.

Coach Elliott Avent said he found out there was a problem 45 minutes to an hour before the game. He told ESPN during an in-game interview that players not with the team were getting tested Friday afternoon and, if the results were negative, would have a chance to play in the rematch Saturday.

The Wolfpack opened the game with nine position players and four pitchers available. Freshman pitcher Garrett Payne, who had six appearances this season, made his first start.

Sam Highfill, the starting pitcher in NC State’s 1-0 win over Vanderbilt on Monday, was the first baseman Friday and among four players at the bottom of the batting order who had a combined 27 at-bats and eight starts.

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The regulars in the lineup were Austin Murr, who moved from first to left field; Jonny Butler, who moved from left to center; Luca Tresh at his usual catcher spot; Devonte Brown in his usual spot in right field; and Vojtech Mensik, who moved from third base to shortstop.

Carson Falksken played second in place of J.T. Jarrett, Eddie Eisert was designated hitter instead of Terrell Tatum, and DeAngelo Giles moved into Vojtech’s spot at third.

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Avent told ESPN before the game that he gave his available players the choice of forfeiting the Friday game with the hope of having some players back on Saturday. The 13 players told him they wanted to play.

Avent also said he would pull his team off the field during the game and forfeit if he believed his players were risking injury. Avent was scheduled to speak at a news conference following the game.

Avent told reporters Monday that an illness was running through the team but made no mention of it possibly being COVID-19. He said associate head coach Chris Hart had been sick for five or six days and that Jarrett and pitcher Cameron Cotter weren’t feeling well.

The pandemic heavily disrupted college sports over the past year and three teams dropped out of an NCAA championship event because of COVID-19: The VCU men’s basketball team, the Michigan men’s ice hockey team and the Rice women’s volleyball team.

Kumar Rocker struck out 11 in six innings for Vanderbilt. The Commodores (48-16) forced a second Bracket 1 final Saturday with N.C. State (37-19), with the winner going to the best-of-three finals starting Monday.

Facing Rocker (14-3) isn’t easy for any team, especially one with a patchwork lineup and whose four batters at the bottom of the order had combined for 27 at-bats.

Rocker is a projected top-10 pick in the Major League Baseball draft next month and was the CWS Most Outstanding Player in 2019. There was no CWS last year because of the pandemic.

Matched against Rocker was freshman Garrett Payne (0-1), who had thrown a total of 8 1/3 innings in six relief appearances and was called on to fill in for scheduled starter Matt Willadsen.

The Wolfpack were competitive to the end against the No. 4 national seed. The game ended when Luke Murphy, who earned his ninth save, got Devonte Brown to ground out with two runners on base.

NC State had eight hits to Vandy’s six, and the bottom of the order went 4 for 14. Sam Highfill, the starting pitcher in a 1-0 win over Vandy on Monday, was error-free as the fill-in first baseman and went 3 for 4.

Down two runs, NC State had the bases loaded in the seventh with their leading home run hitter, Luca Tresh, at bat with two outs. He popped out.

They left two runners on base three other innings and stranded a total of 12.

The Commodores’s offense has been slow to get started in Omaha, and they were hitless against Payne until they scored twice in the fourth. CJ Rodriguez singled in Dominic Keegan and he came home on a bases-loaded wild pitch.

Payne left to applause from fans and the handful of players and staff in his dugout after he issued a walk to start the sixth. He limited Vandy to two hits in an 87-pitch outing that was his longest of the season.

Dalton Feeney relieved and gave up Parker Noland’s RBI single but worked out of trouble in the seventh when Vandy had runners at the corners.

The Wolfpack’s run came in the fifth on three singles and a sacrifice fly.

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