RALEIGH, N.C.—Vanderbilt surged into the NCAA tournament as one of the nation’s hottest teams and showed no signs of slowing down in its opening game as the No.2 seed in the Raleigh Regional, taking down third-seeded UNC Wilmington 8-2.
The Commodores aren’t a team that sits back and waits for the three-run homer, having hit just 26 long balls as a team in 59 games entering the regional, but they thrive on putting relentless pressure on opposing defenses, terming it their “motion offense,” to borrow from basketball jargon. They famously pulled off a triple-steal and stole seven bags in an SEC tournament game against Florida, and they one-upped that total on Friday, stealing eight bases against Wilmington.
“It’s like driving a car as fast as you can through green lights, red lights, yellow lights,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “Sometimes you look good. Sometimes you crash.”
The Commodores looked awfully good on Friday. Their hitters consistently grinded out quality at-bats against UNC Wilmington righthander Tyler McSwain, and when they got on base, they pushed the pace.
Vanderbilt’s fourth-inning rally, in which it scored four runs to break open a 2-0 game, encapsulated its day perfectly. DH Riley Reynolds led off with a double, but that was the Dores' only hit of the inning. They didn’t need any more. Vandy’s hitters drew three walks in the inning and stole five bases. Included in that was a double-steal—child’s play compared to the triple-steal last week—but the coup de grace was Tony Kemp’s steal of home on a pickoff throw to first for Vandy’s fourth run of the inning.
The Seahawks had just changed pitchers, bringing in lefty Kelly Secrest, with Kemp on third base and Anthony Gomez on first. Kemp and Corbin, who coaches third base, saw the opportunity to make something happen once more, and the way the Commodores have been playing, they weren’t going to pass on it.
“We (Kemp and Corbin) talked about it when they made the pitching change,” Corbin said. “We talked about the lefthander. Gomez is very savvy at first base. So, what he was trying to do was draw the throw. In drawing the throw, we needed a high enough leg-lift (from Secrest).”
It took until Secrest’s fourth throw to first before Kemp saw what he needed, but he didn’t hesitate when he did, dashing home and beating the throw from first baseman Hunter Ridge.
The Commodores added two more runs in the sixth on a two-run single by Gomez, their top RBI producer who had three on the day, but they already had more than enough with T.J. Pecoraro on the mound.
Just as Vanderbilt’s season has been a comeback story, so too has Pecoraro's. The sophomore missed out on Vanderbilt’s run to the College World Series last year, as he was instead bound for the operating room and Tommy John surgery last June. He was back on the mound just 10 months later and assumed the Friday starter’s role in mid-April.
Pecoraro was in full control against a Wilmington team with a dangerous offense, sporting a .302 collective average entering regional play. Pecoraro kept the Seahawks off balance all afternoon, relying primarily on his 87-89 mph fastball, bumping 91 occasionally, along with an effective changeup to ring up a season-high eight strikeouts while not handing out any walks.
“I just tried to get out there and throw as many strikes as I could,” Pecoraro said. “I have a solid defense behind me and I knew that if I let (Wilmington) hit it, they would make the plays. I had my changeup working so I got a lot of swings and misses and it just all worked out.”
Pecoraro felt he didn’t have his best curveball going, but he still limited the Seahawks to two runs on six hits over 7 2/3 innings, only slipping up when he yielded a two-run homer to Thomas Pope in the seventh. Prior to that, he’d had a stretch in which he retired nine straight hitters and 13 of 14.
It wasn’t that long ago that Vanderbilt was just 17-22, having had to fight back from its miserable 1-7 start, but now the Commodores are sitting in the winners’ bracket in a regional. It’s been an amazing ride, and one they have no intention of slowing down. They’ll await the winner of Friday night’s contest between host North Carolina State and No. 4 seed Sacred Heart, while UNCW gets the loser Saturday afternoon.
“It’s one more step for us,” Vanderbilt right fielder Mike Yastrzemski, who had two hits of his own, said. “Continuing to play well, this is going to be a big step for us. So as long we do that, we’re going to keep our confidence and keep having fun.”