CWS Game One: Vanderbilt 7, UNC 3

See also: Box Score

Turning Point: You could point to any number of wasted UNC opportunities over the first five innings, including Corey Williams’ strikeout of Chaz Frank with the bases loaded in the fifth. But the game really turned on Connor Harrell’s massive two-run homer over the left-field bullpen in the sixth inning, putting Vandy ahead for good.

The Hero: Tony Kemp ignited the Vandy offense from the team’s first at-bat, laying down a bunt single and then scoring Vandy’s first run. He was on base four times and made a critical diving catch with the bases loaded in the fourth. “He was a catalyst today,” coach Tim Corbin said. “He got on base four different times. I liked his mentality to start the game off. Because in a situation like that, putting a bunt down, putting the pressure on them right away was a key moment. It kind of broke the ice for us, and get him over to third base and then score.”

You Might Have Missed: UNC standout freshman Colin Moran got off to a great start in his CWS debut, going 3-for-4 with two RBIs. But the man hitting behind him—cleanup hitter Jesse Wierzbicki—went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts and a double play, failing to advance any of the baserunners aboard during his at-bats. And the man in front of Moran—first-round pick Levi Michael—went 0-for-4, continuing a 4-for-26 slump. “
It’s not helping us, that’s for sure,” Fox said of Michael’s struggles. “And we might make a change here next game, I may have to get him out of the 2-hole, drop him down a little bit. That’s really the only thing you can do this late, maybe switch things up a little bit.”

OMAHA—North Carolina had All-American Sonny Gray on the ropes but couldn’t land a knockout blow. And Vanderbilt’s rope-a-dope gambit worked like a charm.

The Commodores withstood UNC’s 10-hit, seven-walk attack, as the Tar Heels left a season-high 16 men on base. That helped Vandy hang around long enough to surge ahead with three runs in the sixth inning en route to a 7-3 win in the inaugural College World Series game at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha.

When you get a chance early in a game to put away a team as complete as Vanderbilt, you’ve simply got to take advantage, and UNC could not. The Tar Heels had eight hits and five walks against Gray, but they managed just three runs against him through four innings, as he came up with five timely strikeouts and a double play in the third. UNC loaded the bases to chase Gray in the fifth, but reliever Corey Williams struck out Chaz Frank to end the threat.

“They had 20 guys reach base today. The fact they only scored three runs, we were fortunate,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “We pitched out of jams. And Sonny did early. But Corey’s strikeout, obviously, with the bases loaded was big. But we have been a team that has been able to get ourselves through the middle of a game and then put games away in the seventh, eighth and ninth inning with some runs. We’ve played a lot of close ballgames up until the seventh and eighth inning and then we’ve separated ourselves. That was kind of the story today. But the pitching at the end was crucial. We were able to stop them.”

The Commodores made UNC ace Patrick Johnson work hard as well, and they finally broke through in the sixth, when Conrad Gregor doubled home the tying run and Connor Harrell followed with a mammoth go-ahead two-run homer over the left-field bullpen. The ‘Dores never looked back, as Williams worked 2 2/3 scoreless frames, and Will Clinard and Kevin Ziomek kept the Tar Heels off the board the rest of the way.

“I felt like the home run deflated us a little bit, maybe more than I expected,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “We still had plenty of game to play. Maybe I misinterpreted our team a little bit. Vanderbilt’s bullpen, you’ve got to give them credit—they’re as good as advertised. Everybody knows the pitching they have. Coming out of the bullpen, they’re going to match you with some arms—91, 92, 93. We have some lefties, they threw a lefty (Williams) at us. They made some quality pitches; that was the story of the game.”

Again, the Commodores are just so complete. Knocking an opponent’s starter out of the game early is usually a winning formula, but Vandy negates the reward by rolling out quality arm after quality arm.

“I think at this point we don’t really have a closer per se, we’re just looking to finish the ballgame,” Corbin said. “We feel like the depth in our bullpen is so good that we can really go with anyone. It’s not important who finishes the game, just that we finish the game.”

UNC’s bullpen is plenty deep, too, but Vanderbilt kept the pressure on the Tar Heels and extended the lead with two runs in the eighth inning. Naturally, freshman outfielder Tony Kemp was in the middle of that rally, driving home the first run with his third single of the game. Kemp was on base four times, scored a run, stole a base, and made a huge diving catch with the bases loaded in the fourth to help curtail what could have been a big inning for UNC.

“He battled me each time he was up there,” Johnson said of Kemp. “He saw a lot of pitches. He’s so fast. He’s a great leadoff hitter.”

“He’s a pest,” Fox added. “He’s an absolute pest. I mean, I’d like to have him.” He paused, then looked down to Frank, his own leadoff man. “No offense, Chaz. I’d hit you in the 2-hole. He’s a good player—he’s what you want up there.”

Fox showed a sense of humor repeatedly in the postgame press conference. He sets the tone for his club, and his tone was loose—a good sign for UNC’s chances to make a run through the losers’ bracket.

“It’s a four-team double elimination tournament, so it’s like a regional,” Fox said. “If you lose that first one, you’re like, ‘Oh, boy, gotta get on with this thing, we’ve got to win.’ I don’t look at how many you have to win, you just have to win the next one. By my take it’s either going to be Texas or Florida. So that’s not going to help me sleep good tonight, either.”

It was a quip—which is good—but it was also an acknowledgment that UNC’s road ahead is daunting. And the Tar Heels need to take advantage of opportunities more than they did Saturday if they are to extend their season beyond Monday.