Bullpen Answers The Call For Vanderbilt In College World Series Win

Image credit: Vanderbilt righthander Luke Murphy (Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt)

OMAHA – Saturday’s nightcap at the College World Series between Vanderbilt and Arizona was billed as Kumar Rocker vs. the nation’s best offense. In the end, however, it was the Commodores bullpen that shone brightest.

Rocker threw 5.2 innings – at times looking dominant and at times outdone by the Wildcats’ potent lineup – before coach Tim Corbin made the call to the bullpen. Arizona had just taken a 5-3 lead on Ryan Holgate’s two-run home run, which came on Rocker’s 100th pitch of the night. Vanderbilt would ask its bullpen to keep the game close and give its lineup time to turn the tide.

The Commodores’ relievers did just that. Righthanders Nick Maldonado, Luke Murphy and Chris McElvain combined to hold the Wildcats to one run in 6.1 innings. It was the latest impressive showing for the Vanderbilt bullpen, which has been a key to its success all season long.

With their relievers getting the job done, the Commodores offense went to work as well. They scored three runs in the seventh to push ahead, 6-5, and after Arizona tied the game to force extra innings, they finally walked off in the 12th inning when Jayson Gonzalez knocked a single through the middle of the drawn-in infield for a 7-6 victory.

So much attention this year has (rightly) been focused on Vanderbilt’s 1-2 punch in the rotation of Rocker and Jack Leiter. The pair were both named first-team All-Americans, becoming the first rotation-mates to earn that honor since 2003. But the Commodores’ 1-2 punch in the bullpen of Maldonado (1-2, 2.42, 8 SV) and Murphy (3-1, 2.75, 8 SV) has also been crucial to their success.

Maldonado has made 26 appearances and Murphy has made 24. Both are often asked to throw multiple innings and have provided plenty of security at the back of games for the Commodores. Murphy mostly attacks hitters with a powerful fastball that sits around 95 mph, but can push 99. Maldonado doesn’t have as much velocity on his fastball, which sits around 91 mph, but liberally mixes in a hard slider that is especially tough on hitters. Together, they make an excellent combination – one of the best relief duos in the country.

Saturday, that pair was again needed and again delivered. McElvain also stepped up in a big spot in the 12th inning, holding Arizona scoreless even after giving up a leadoff double to Donta’ Williams.

“Maldonado did a nice job of being able to contain them,” Corbin said. “Murph certainly was good and McElvain after the lead-off double just containing the runner there.”

As good as the Arizona offense is – and it proved it again Saturday, hitting Rocker as hard as any team this season – it couldn’t get much going against the Vanderbilt bullpen. The Wildcats managed just four hits and a walk in 6.1 innings and had multiple baserunners just once in that stretch.

The first and best strategy when facing Vanderbilt is to try to run up the pitch count on Rocker and Leiter to knock the out of the game. But Saturday serves as a reminder that is no assurance of success, not when Maldonado and Murphy are waiting in the wings.

To beat Vanderbilt in the College World Series, a team is not only going to have to beat the vaunted duo at the front of the Commodores’ rotation, but also the duo at the back of the bullpen. Arizona and its high-powered offense came close but couldn’t quite seal the deal.

Now, Vanderbilt moves forward in the winner’s bracket to on Monday face North Carolina State. What the Commodores will be able to expect from their top relievers remains to be seen. Maldonado on Saturday threw 48 pitches and Murphy threw 47. Both have seen that kind of workload this season and both have worked multiple times in a weekend. But neither has typically been asked for multiple innings twice in a weekend.

Corbin said Saturday’s win was “expensive” in terms of pitching. Winning the first game and advancing in the winner’s bracket was certainly worth it, but it may put the Commodores in a tighter spot Monday.

“We’ve got other guys, but those guys — between Murph and Maldonado, those are key pieces,” Corbin said. “But that’s okay. We’ll go to another arm and try to get some recovery with Maldonado and Murph. And thank goodness the way the tournament is spaced out a little bit it gives you a day.”

The good news for Vanderbilt is that it will have Leiter starting Monday and with a victory it will be off until Friday. All those off days will likely make it easier to come back to Maldonado and Murphy at least for a few outs against NC State.

In a year of outstanding relievers around the SEC – five of the six reliever spots on the All-America teams went to pitchers from the conference – Maldonado and Murphy more than held their own. Now, on college baseball’s biggest stage, they delivered a crucial game to keep Vanderbilt moving toward the national championship.

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