RALEIGH, N.C.—The words "Vanderbilt" and "comeback" just seem to go hand-in-hand these days, and the Commodores are fast becoming the story of the 2012 college baseball season. But the 'Dores outdid themselves in Saturday night's winners' bracket game at the Raleigh Regional, rallying from deficits of 6-1 and 8-3 in the late innings against host North Carolina State before Tony Kemp's walk-off single brought home the winning run for a 9-8 final.
One of the funny things about baseball is how the course of a game can change on what seems like an innocent play when it occurs. Saturday night, that play was a third-strike wild pitch that extended the bottom of the eighth inning with Vanderbilt trailing 8-4 at the time.
The Wolfpack had summoned lefthanded reliever D.J. Thomas to face lefty-hitting Mike Yastrzemski with a man on second and two outs. With an 0-2 count, Thomas got Yastrzemski to chase a breaking pitch that bounced at the front of the plate. But the bounce came from so far in front of catcher Danny Canela that it hit high on his chest protector and took a hard carom, which he couldn't track down in time to throw out Yastrzemski. Instead of the Wolfpack going back to the dugout with an 8-4 lead and three outs to go, the inning continued.
The Commodores' next three hitters all reached, cutting the deficit to 8-6 in the process, before a wild pitch and subsequent Canela throwing error on the same play allowed two runs to score and tie the game. That set the stage for Kemp, the smallest player on the field, to land the knockout blow in the ninth.
"At 8-3, that was a moment right there where we had a decision to make, whether we were just going to let the game go or come back," Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. "I really can't say enough about the group that finished this game off. They're a gutty team. They've shown the ability to do that. The last six weeks have been a special six weeks for me as a head coach."
The Commodores' stunning comeback stole the spotlight from what was expected to be the night's biggest storyline: their hot lineup going against Wolfpack freshman sensation Carlos Rodon. Rodon didn't disappoint, holding his low-to-mid-90s velocity deep into the night, but the Commodores pressured him early and often.
"We knew that we just couldn't let him stand in the windup and deliver fastballs and sliders," Corbin said. "So, we had to do something to keep him out of rhythm. We felt that the best thing to do was put guys in motion and lay the ball down when it was appropriate."
The Commodores didn't run as wild as they did in Friday's win against UNC Wilmington, when they stole seven bases, but they did steal three against Rodon, including a double steal in the fifth inning. They also executed a successful squeeze play for the second straight day, which netted them their first run of the night in the second.
Rodon was pitching under duress for most of the night. The Commodores put runners in scoring position against him in five of his seven innings on the mound, though he was able to fight back more times than not, limiting them to three runs on five hits in 6 2/3 innings of work, striking out six. But the Commodores also drew five walks, taxing Rodon as he ran up a pitch count of 126 before being relieved.
"That's a big arm right there," Corbin said. "We were able to get him out in the seventh and that was a good thing for us. I think when you have such a powerful kid like him, from an offensive standpoint, it's almost like a relief (to see him taken out)."
On the other side, Vanderbilt starter Sam Selman was in control in the early going. N.C. State didn't hit a ball out of the infield until the fourth, while Selman's fastball reached as high as 94 mph and sat around 89-91 mph for most of the night. But Selman started struggling with his command as the game went on, and the Wolfpack chased him in the sixth, when it scored three times to take a 4-1 lead.
Now, the Wolfpack faces about the stiffest test of its resolve imaginable, as it has to find a way to regroup before Sunday afternoon's elimination game against a dangerous UNC Wilmington squad before it can get another shot at Vanderbilt. While the Wolfpack still has the advantage of playing at home, it now has to win three straight games to win the regional—and do it without being able to turn to Rodon.
After the game, both teams stressed the need to move forward and not dwell on Saturday's events. For the Wolfpack, that means remembering it still has life. For Vandy, that means remembering it hasn't won the regional yet.
"To get through this tonight—we need some rest, we need to recover a little bit," Corbin said. "We won a very emotional game against Florida in the SEC tournament and we weren't able to recover quick, and I'll remind the guys about that, too. Not to say we were flat, but we just didn't come out and play as well as we could against Mississippi State (in the SEC championship game, a 3-0 loss).
"This was a game. We won it. Now, let's move on."