OMAHA—Most teams that start a first-round pick on the mound in the College World Series are going to sink or swim with him. If he struggles, well, his team is probably going to lose.
Vanderbilt has a rare luxury. Its first-rounder didn’t have good command Monday—so the Commodores went to the bullpen in the fourth inning and brought in another first-round-caliber arm. And Walker Buehler did not sink. Buehler looked like Michael Phelps, beating his opponents by about six body lengths in the 200-meter freestyle.
Buehler, a sophomore righthander who entered the CWS as Vandy’s nominal No. 3 starter, threw 5 1/3 innings of no-hit, scoreless relief of Tyler Beede to lead the Commodores to a 6-4 win against UC Irvine, as Vanderbilt improved to 2-0 at the CWS and advanced to the bracket final on Friday. He struck out seven and walked two, throwing 90 pitches to carry his team from the fourth inning to the finish line.
|Game At A Glance|
|Turning Point: The Commodores trailed 4-2 in the bottom of the fourth inning, when Tyler Beede hit his third batter of the game to put runners on first and second. Walker Buehler entered the game and escaped the jam, the first of eight straight batters he retired to deflate UC Irvine’s momentum.
“I don’t think it’s to anyone’s surprise: I think the game turned around when Walker came in,” Vandy coach Tim Corbin said. “There was a momentum change, and he pounded the strike zone from the minute he got in there until the minute the game finished.”
The Hero: Obviously, Buehler was the story of the game. He held the Anteaters hitless for 5 1/3 innings, allowing just two hits while striking out seven.
You Might Have Missed: Vanderbilt second baseman Dansby Swanson hit his 26th and 27th doubles of the season to tie the school’s single-season record (set by Warner Jones in 2004) and the national lead. He also stole one of Vandy’s five bases. During the NCAA tournament, the Commodores have 20 stolen bases, and their opponents have none.
“I think the luxury is that we can go into the bullpen a little bit quicker and it never feels like any of these kids—like we take a step back, whether it’s Walker or (Adam) Ravenelle or whether it’s (Hayden) Stone or Jared Miller or Brian Miller,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “We have some arms that haven’t pitched yet. I think just coming into this thing, we just told the kids, as far as roles were concerned, it was up for grabs. We were just going to do what we had to do from a skill set standpoint to match up against the skill set of the team in order to put ourselves in an advantageous situation.
“But I think of them all the same. We don’t label them as 1s, 2s and 3s. They’re all pretty damn good.”
Beede, the No. 14 overall pick by the Giants this year, was dominating in a regionals start against Xavier but has struggled in his last two outings. He worked a 1-2-3 first inning Monday, then his command deserted him, as he started spraying his fastball all over the place and even missing spots with his changeup, which is usually his most reliable pitch. After Vandy took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first, Irvine surged ahead with four runs in the second, a rally that started with a hit batsman and included two wild pitches.
He walked two more and hit another in the fourth, forcing Corbin to reluctantly take him out of the game with two men on and two out. It’s clear that Corbin loves Beede and deeply wants him to succeed, and the coach had a long meeting on the mound with Beede before signaling to the bullpen.
“As I told them when I walked out there, it’s the last thing I want to do as a coach, to take him out there, but we needed to change the pace of the game at that point,” Corbin said. “And you might let a guy like that go a little bit longer, but it was a point in the game where we were losing by two, wanted to keep the game right there.”
Buehler ended the threat with a pop-up, the first of eight straight batters he retired. His fastball sat comfortably at 92-96, and he had success elevating the pitch and getting the Anteaters to chase it, then changing their eye level with his vicious 79-83 power breaking ball.
“I think sometimes some balls get up on me unintentionally and sometimes you do it intentionally,” Buehler said. “I don’t think any of those were intentional, to be honest with you. But in this park, you can get away with a ball up in the air because it plays gigantic. So I think you kind of have less fear of spraying a ball up because you don’t feel like you’re going to get hurt as much as you may at a smaller park.”
UCLA, of course, executed that approach masterfully during its run to the national championship last year, as Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig frequently pitched at the top of the hitting zone and induced loads of harmless fly outs. But the Anteaters hit just two balls to the outfield against Buehler—Chris Rabago’s pop fly to right in UCI’s first at-bat against Buehler, and Rabago’s game-ending fly ball to center in the ninth.
And with Buehler in firm control, the Commodores regained the momentum, and regained the lead with three runs in the fifth inning. The red-hot Dansby Swanson sparked that rally with a leadoff double into the left-field corner (he also smashed a double off the wall in the sixth, narrowly missing the first home run of the 2014 CWS).
When the Commodores tacked on another run in the seventh on a double by Rhett Wiseman to extend their lead to 6-4, their victory felt inevitable. Irvine was simply overmatched against Buehler.
“This game was surprisingly a close score, because I promise you, it felt like a root canal,” UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said. “We got out-everythinged. Particularly once Buehler came into the game, he pitched like a first-rounder waiting to happen. If Taylor Sparks is not going to be using me as his agent, I’m going to be Buehler’s agent.
“I think Vanderbilt was very impressive up and down their lineup. They executed. And I think the score just wasn’t indicative of the difference between the two teams tonight.”
The biggest difference was that second premium arm running out of the Vanderbilt bullpen.