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|GAME AT A
Point: Vanderbilt wasted no time getting to UNC starter Greg Holt, as the first batter of the game—the irrepressible Tony Kemp—tripled and scored. But Connor Harrell broke the game open with a three-run homer in the second, his second of the CWS.
OMAHA—If your only exposure to college baseball every year is the College World Series, then Vanderbilt’s 5-1 win against North Carolina on Wednesday must seem like a major upset.
North Carolina, after all, has become an Omaha mainstay, having made five CWS trips in six years. Vanderbilt is in Omaha for the first time in program history. UNC is the No. 3 national seed; Vandy is the No. 6 seed.
But those surface details are misleading. In reality, the favorite eliminated the upstart Wednesday. The Commodores have been ranked in the top five of the Baseball America Top 25 for all but one week this season; UNC began the season unranked and headed to the NCAA tournament ranked 13th.
“The Tar Heels had one heck of a season,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “As far as the game is concerned, we just got beaten by a better club, and tonight it’s as simple as that. Vanderbilt’s got a terrific team. They pitched well, and obviously getting down early put us in a tough spot—put us in a hole.”
Just like when these two teams met in Saturday’s CWS opener, dynamic freshman outfielder Tony Kemp led off the Vanderbilt first with a hit and then scored. This time, Kemp tripled to center field and scored on Anthony Gomez’s sacrifice fly, setting the tone for a Vandy offense that hit UNC starter Greg Hole hard.
And just like the last meeting between these two teams, Connor Harrell went deep to cap a big inning. On Saturday, he blasted a two-run homer over the left-field bullpen to put Vandy ahead for good. On Wednesday, he smacked a three-run shot to left-center in the second inning, giving the Commodores a commanding 4-0 lead.
“Well, the wind was a factor tonight,” said Harrell, who has hit one-third of the six long balls through the first nine games of this CWS. “But I just tried to get my hands extended, get that ball in the jet stream and get it into the seats. Obviously having that wind helps, but the ballpark’s big, so getting the ball in the air was important tonight for us.”
And keeping the ball on the ground was important for Vandy starter Taylor Hill. He used his heavy low-90s sinker to record eight groundball outs in seven innings of one-run ball. He also struck out four and allowed just four flyouts to fair ground in the outfield. He also gave up a pair of doubles to UNC catcher Jacob Stallings—half of the four hits the Tar Heels mustered in the game.
In UNC’s best chance to get back into the game, with the bases loaded, two outs and one run already across in the fifth inning, it came down to a battle between Cape Cod League teammates—Hill vs. Stallings. This time, Hill came out on top, striking out Stallings on a fastball over the outer half.
“I obviously wanted to get ahead,” said Hill, who had allowed both Stallings doubles with two strikes, then got him down 0-2 again in the critical fifth. “And (Vandy catcher) Curt (Casali) was moving them in and out, and Curt called the away fastball. I was just going to give it everything I had. And if he hit it, he hit it. But thank goodness he didn’t.”
“He was just able to make the big pitches in big situations,” Stallings said of Hill. “Taylor is a guy I played with in Chatham, and he’s a sinker-slider guy. Like I said, in those big situations he kind of elevated his game a little bit.”
The Vandy coaches showed a lot of faith in Hill by choosing to walk lefthanded-hitting All-American Colin Moran with first base open in the fifth, setting up the bases-loaded showdown against the red-hot Stallings. Vandy coach Tim Corbin said he considered going to lefthander Kevin Ziomek to face Moran, but instead he stuck with his senior righthander, and Hill rewarded him by escaping the jam, then breezing through two more hitless frames to help save the bullpen for the looming showdown against Florida.
“I think he made us keep him up, really,” Corbin said. “He made some nice pitches, and I felt and (pitching coach Derek Johnson) felt that when he got to Jacob, it was his ballgame, and he was going to find a way to get himself out of it. He deserved that. He’s been the owner of some tough luck during the course of the year, but he’s pitched so well to get us to this point right here. He deserved the opportunity to win that ballgame.”
One of the major differences between Vanderbilt and North Carolina is the Commodores have three veteran starters with loads of experience that they trust in big games. UNC, on the other hand, has had some trouble with its No. 3 starter spot, prompting Fox and pitching coach Scott Forbes to start Holt, who had pitched 58 innings but made just one start all season. The move didn’t work out, as Holt allowed five earned runs on four hits in 2 2/3 innings, but Holt and the Tar Heels have nothing to feel bad about. They were one of the season’s biggest and brightest surprises—and they were eliminated by a juggernaut.
“I give a lot of credit to Vanderbilt—they’ve had a terrific season,” Fox said. “Obviously at the end of the year you hear the same stuff from coaches about their team and their players. I don’t think anybody expected us to be here, to end our season here or to even be here at the start of the season. So that’s such a great credit to our players and how committed they were just to make it this far. It’s obviously very difficult to win the national championship. We gave it all we had, but I’m proud that we were able to end our season in Omaha in the College World Series.”