OMAHA—An inch here, and inch there—that's all that separated Texas and Vanderbilt on Saturday night.
For 10 innings and four-plus hours they traded blows. It wasn't a work of art—walks and hit batsmen loomed large, as they have repeatedly in this College World Series. But it featured some standout defense, some stellar pitching, and some memorable 10th-inning drama.
If C.J Hinojosa's drive to the right-center-field gap in the top of the 10th inning had traveled another couple of inches, Texas would have had the go-ahead run at second or third with no outs. Instead, Rhett Wiseman somehow tracked it down and made a game-saving catch on the warning track.
If Hinojosa's throw to first in the bottom of the 10th had arrived at first base a split-second earlier on Tyler Campbell's dribbler to shortstop, the game would have marched on. Instead, Campbell beat the throw, and Wiseman scored the winning run from third base, lifting Vanderbilt to a 4-3 win and propelling the Commodores to the CWS Finals for the first time in program history. They will face Virginia in a best-of-three series that starts Monday night.
|Game At A Glance|
|Turning Point: With the score tied 2-2, Texas was threatening to break the game open in the fifth, with the bases loaded and one out. Vanderbilt called upon Hayden Stone to relieve Carson Fulmer, and Stone got Ben Johnson to hit into a 5-4-3 double play that shifted the tide.
The Hero: Stone and Rhett Wiseman will have to share this one. Wiseman tied the game at 3-3 with an RBI double off the right-field wall in the fifth, then saved the game with an incredible sprinting catch on the right-center warning track in the 10th, then sparked the game-winning rally with a two-out single with the bases empty in the bottom of the 10th. But there wouldn't have been a 10th inning without Stone, who struck out eight and allowed just a run on three hits over 5 2/3 innings of dominating relief.
"The story of the game for us was that turnaround in pitching," Vandy coach Tim Corbin said. "Hayden Stone certainly picked up Carson Fulmer in such a big way."
You Might Have Missed: Texas did not get a good start from Parker French, either—he lasted just two innings thanks to poor control—but the Longhorns' bullpen did what it could to give the team a chance to win. Freshman Morgan Cooper limited Vandy to two runs (one earned) over 4 2/3 innings of relief, and Travis Duke followed with 1 2/3 innings of scoreless relief.
"(Cooper) put us in position to win the game," Texas coach Augie Garrido said. "That's what he did. He pitched real strong innings, and that's not out of character for him—he's done that all year long, and that isn't a cliche either. He's been nails all year long."
"The separation in the last inning, C.J's ball gets caught, prevents the run," Texas coach Augie Garrido said. "They hit a ball, don't square it up, and they beat it out at first with the bases loaded and that's the difference. So it's hard to explain, man. It's a cruel game."
The difference was razor-thin, but Vanderbilt created that difference with its excellence in moments of truth. Texas closer John Curtiss retired the first two batters of the Vanderbilt 10th quietly, and then Wiseman singled to center field to spark an improbable rally. Curtiss walked Ro Coleman and hit Karl Ellison to load the bases, putting the winning run at third base. Conversely, Vanderbilt reliever Hayden Stone minimized free bases over his 5 2/3 innings of brilliant relief, walking just one and allowing just three hits. He did not allow Texas to get into position to win the game by an inch.
Then, with the bases loaded in the 10th, Campbell put the ball in play against Curtiss and hustled down the line.
"I'm not going to sit here and tell you I think we deserved to win that game, but there were several happenings on the field where I thought a couple of inches here or there were difference makers for us," Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. " . . . Being able to just stay aggressive and chop the ball down down and run a hard 90—and again, separated by a couple of inches. But I'm just proud of the kids' resolve, because when we lost last night, the ability to come back as they have so many times during the course of this season and put themselves in this position, a very nice thing."
That's the key—ultimately, the Commodores put themselves in position to win. They deserve the credit.
Campbell, who was swarmed by his teammates beyond first base after the winning run crossed the plate, was a reserve all season long before being pressed into duty Friday when Xavier Turner was ruled ineligible for the remainder of the CWS for violating an NCAA rule. He made just his second start of the year Friday and contributed two hits. Then he delivered perhaps the biggest hit in Vanderbilt history Saturday night.
"That's what these moments are about, when kids get a chance that have been practicing all year but just haven't been in games and then all of a sudden their number's called," Corbin said. "It takes a great deal of patience and then when you get in there, it takes a great deal of controlled emotions. And Tyler's been able to do that. And everyone is so happy for this kid. I mean, they wanted him to play and just see him succeed. The team is beyond happy."
Campbell was also involved in a key moment earlier in the game on the defensive end. With the score tied 2-2 in the fifth inning, Texas loaded the bases with one out against Carson Fulmer, who walked three straight batters. Vanderbilt brought Stone into the game in that critical spot, and speedster Ben Johnson hit his first pitch to Campbell at third base for an inning-ending 5-4-3 double play.
"That pitch to Johnson, I'm thinking about that one because it was a good pitch, but you're talking about a guy who gets down the line very, very well," Corbin said. "So for that double play just to be turned from Tyler to Dansby (Swanson) to Zander (Wiel), it was a huge play in the baseball game. Pitch, play and finish."
After Vandy took the lead again bottom of the fifth on Wiseman's RBI rocket double off the right-field wall, the Longhorns answered with a run in the sixth against Stone. But the freshman righthander stranded a runner at second base with back-to-back strikeouts. Stone retired 14 of the next 16 Texas hitters from that point until the end of the game, using his unhittable 84-87 slider to rack up seven of his eight strikeouts in the stretch.
It wasn't the first time this postseason that Stone has saved Vanderbilt's bacon after one of its marquee starters scuffled. He also threw six brilliant innings in relief of Walker Buehler to lead Vandy to a win against Stanford in the decisive game of the Nashville Super Regional.
"He has the right temperament," Corbin said of Stone. "He has the right heartbeat. You put him on the mound and bases are loaded and I say, 'Here you go again, Hayden.' He said, 'Yep, let's go.' I don't mean to make it sound simple, but he's got a very good temperament for that part of the game, and he believes in himself and all the pitches that he throws."
And when Stone tried to sneak a fastball past Hinojosa in the 10th, Wiseman had his back. That catch will go down as one of the great plays in Vanderbilt history.
"We talked about (Hinojosa's) ability to drive the ball in the gaps, particularly the right-center-field gap. And Rhett was playing standard," Corbin said. "He wasn't playing shallow, but he had to run and take off and make a catch over his shoulder. I mean, it was a huge play at the time. And just an emotional, tough catch. This is just a great play."
History will forget about the five combined errors in the game and the 11 walks. It will remember Wiseman's catch, Campbell's hustle and Stone's slider. Greatness was required to beat a very worthy Texas team. And great teams create their own greatness, one inch at a time.