Vanderbilt Reaches CWS Finals With Comeback Win

Image credit: Vanderbilt's JJ Bleday celebrates on Opening Day (Courtesy of Brent Carden/Vanderbilt)

OMAHA — They say if you come at the king, you’d best not miss, and while Louisville took a good shot at tournament favorite Vanderbilt on Friday night, it left the door cracked open just wide enough for the Commodores to burst through and come away with a 3-2 win that pushes Vanderbilt to the championship series of the College World Series.

Or perhaps a boxing metaphor about how you need to land a knockout blow on the champ would be more apt, because for much of the evening the game felt like two heavyweight fighters feeling each other out, dancing around the ring, trying to avoid making the big mistake rather than dishing out haymakers.

Both starting pitchers, Louisville righthander Luke Smith and Vanderbilt righthander Mason Hickman, were on their game, and the only run in the first six innings came in the third, when the Commodores pushed one across on a Julian Infante double-play ball.   

But not all quality starts are the same, and even as Louisville continued to trail 1-0, you could feel momentum shifting in its direction.

Hickman was keeping runners off the bases and runs off the scoreboard, but the Cardinals were able to work counts and elevate his pitch count, even without the luxury of traffic on the bases. It became clear that while there was no guarantee that it would score off Hickman, the Louisville lineup was going to get a shot at the Vanderbilt bullpen.

On the other hand, Smith was dealing and looked capable of finishing the game off on his own.

After allowing that run in the third, he faced the minimum in four of the next five innings, and in three of the next five innings, he struck out two batters in the frame.

“Luke Smith certainly pitched extremely well,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “He frustrated us. He was landing a lot of pitches. He was landing his offspeed pitches and secondary pitches, and we couldn’t get anything going.”

He only seemed to get better when Louisville finally got its shot at the Vanderbilt bullpen and mounted a rally eerily reminiscent of the one that led it to victory Thursday against Mississippi State. The Cardinals scored two runs in the seventh off of lefthander Jake Eder, one on a throwing error by Vanderbilt catcher Ty Duvall and another on a Lucas Dunn single.

Immediately after his team put him in line for the win, Smith enjoyed his most electrifying inning of the night in the eighth. After striking out Harrison Ray and getting Duvall to ground out to second base, Smith struck out Infante, giving him 10 punchouts for the game.

As Infante headed back to the dugout, there was some jawing between Smith and the Vanderbilt first baseman.

Smith is a competitive pitcher who wears his heart on his sleeve, and in that moment, running on the adrenaline that comes with playing in a high-stakes, airtight game such as this one, emotions boiled over.

“That was just the adrenaline,” Smith said. “Vanderbilt is a great team, and I love that part of baseball. When they got their big hit in the ninth, they celebrate. That’s how it goes. When I strike somebody out, I celebrate, and that’s just the way it is.”

But whether it served as fuel for Vanderbilt or it was something that just happened to coincide with the Louisville righthander running out of gas, the Commodores came back out for the ninth and mounted the rally Smith alluded to.

With one out, JJ Bleday, after striking out twice against Smith earlier in the game, drew a walk. Ethan Paul followed that up with a double into the right field corner, scoring Bleday and tying the game, 2-2.

That was it for Smith, who was lifted for righthander Michael McAvene, but Vanderbilt wasn’t done. DH Philip Clarke blooped a single into right, moving Paul to third and setting up Pat DeMarco to deliver the biggest hit of the night, a double into left field, bringing home the go-ahead run.

For DeMarco, the minor dustup with Smith was just part of the game, and the team’s focus was inward rather than on anything else going on.

“I think that’s just competition. He was pitching a great game, and he was keeping us-off balance, and he was feeling confident,” DeMarco said. “You know, in the middle of competition, you can’t really say that he’s being unsportsmanlike or anything like that. We try not to give energy to the other team. We know how that works. So we just tried to re-center ourselves, come back and focus the energy on us, and we came out on the right side.”

Individual offensive performances, such as the two-homer games for Austin Martin and Stephen Scott against Louisville and Mississippi State, respectively, and a late comeback in Friday’s game, have provided headlines, but the way the Commodores have pitched in Omaha has as much to do with getting to the championship series as anything else.

On Friday, it was Hickman who shined. He threw six shutout innings with just two hits and two walks allowed. But in the previous game, Kumar Rocker allowed just five hits and one run over six innings to a powerful Mississippi State lineup, and to begin the week in Omaha, Drake Fellows threw seven innings against Louisville, allowing seven hits and one run.

Over three starts, that’s a combined two runs allowed in 19 innings of work, or put another way, that comes out to a 0.95 ERA for Vanderbilt starters in the College World Series.

“They’ve followed each other very well,” Corbin said of his starting pitchers. “Drake certainly in the first game against Louisville. He was coming off a couple starts that weren’t Drake-like, but I thought he centered himself very well and pitched extremely well. And Kumar, I thought that outing was outstanding, just to come into that environment for the first time. And tonight, Mason did everything that he could just to keep us in the game, and he did. He left with a zero on the scoreboard, so he gave us a chance to win. And he’s been very consistent, too. That’s the word I would use with all of them.”

In fact, consistent is probably a good word to use to describe Vanderbilt as a whole this season.

It began the season ranked No. 1 in the country. It never fell lower than sixth in the rankings. It has gotten contributions up and down the roster, even as the stage got continually bigger down the stretch.

And now, going into next week’s championship series against Michigan, the Commodores are two wins away from seeing that consistency pay off with the program’s second national title.

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