HOOVER, Ala.—One thing the three beasts of the SEC East have in common is that they each have deep, versatile, talented bullpens—three of the nation's best bullpens, in fact. Vanderbilt carried a 45-9 record into Thursday, and its bullpen is a big part of its success, but during its two series losses against Florida and South Carolina, it lost the battle of bullpens.
In a rematch against the Gamecocks on Thursday, Vandy won that battle convincingly, and won the game, 7-2, to stay out of the loser's bracket in the Southeastern Conference tournament.
Vandy's bullpen melted down during South Carolina's four-run seventh back on April 17. Florida beat Vandy closer Navery Moore twice two weeks ago, and in the Sunday game it got to Moore in the 12th after tying the game against lefthander Corey Williams in the eighth. In Vanderbilt's next game, Georgia broke a 4-4 tie with a run in the seventh against righty Will Clinard.
But on Thursday, Williams, Clinard and Moore all made big pitches in big spots, while South Carolina's bullpen struggled in Vanderbilt's four-run ninth, turning a 3-2 game into a 7-2 affair.
"We went into this thinking that that was something we were going to have to rectify," Vandy pitching coach Derek Johnson said of his bullpen's recent struggles. "Guys kind of go through ebbs and flows, they go through good periods and down times or whatever, and that's probably what the last couple of weeks have been. So it's really just trying to get guys back on track and put in work outside of the game, which they've done a good job of. I've got really good faith in my bullpen—I think our bullpen is good. And I think it's just a matter of kind of getting those guys back on track and in the flow of things, getting on a high note as opposed to not pitching as well."
Williams replaced ace Sonny Gray with one out and nobody on in the seventh, and the Gamecocks loaded the bases against him, but he escaped the jam unscathed after getting Scott Wingo to ground into a fielder's choice. Clinard took over in the eighth and got two outs but left with men on first and second, and Moore got Evan Marzilli to fly out to center to end the threat.
"We just pitched well in the clutch situations," Corbin said. "Corey was able to get out of a jam in the seventh, and Navery was able to get out of a jam in the eighth. We were a tick away from maybe losing that lead on a base hit. But they just didn't give in. That was kind of a growing moment for Corey Williams, because he's been trying to get through those periods, and he did tonight."
Moore came back out for the ninth and got two quick outs, then issued a walk before getting Wingo to pop up for the final out.
With Navery it gives him a nice look against a lefthander late in a game that if he's just fastball-slider, that's a ball that potentially they can get back on. Moore improved to 4-2, 1.26 with 10 saves, 25 strikeouts and 12 walks in 29 innings on the year. The numbers are great, and so is the stuff—he sits in the low 90s and can run his fastball into the mid-90s when he needs it, and he has developed a fading, sinking 80-81 mph changeup to go with his hard slider.
"With Navery it gives him a nice look against a lefthander late in a game that if he's just fastball-slider, that's a ball that potentially they can get back on," Johnson said. "More than anything else right now, we're just trying to get the angle on his ball back. I think he got a little flat. When you're flatter, obviously, it's easier to see, easier to hit. And so the last few days we've just really been talking about trying to create an angle when he throws, and I thought that was there a little bit better tonight than it was the last couple of outings. As I told him, as a closer, you kind of live and die by the sword. Sometimes you go out there and you're going to fail, and you've got to have a short memory and get back on it. He's a good kid that way. That's something he's able to do—he takes a good approach, he has a good disposition with it, and he's able to get through it."
Vanderbilt might be the nation's most complete team, and the only lingering question was how its bullpen would respond to its recent adversity. So far, so good.
"I think there were some things in this game that helped them," Johnson said. "I'm not going to sit here and say they're completely on track, but they pitched well enough and got out of some tough spots."
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