Vanderbilt Staves Off Elimination At CWS With Wild Comeback
OMAHA—Vanderbilt on Wednesday for the first time this year had to stare down the potential end of its season. After a mostly charmed regular season and a perfect run through regionals and super regionals, the Commodores faced an elimination game Wednesday against Stanford.
The pressure of playing for your season is something you can’t simulate in a practice or teach in a classroom. Experiencing the intensity of the situation – especially in the College World Series, with 22,804 fans in the stands at TD Ameritrade Park – is the only way to know how you’ll react.
In the end, Vanderbilt stared elimination in the eye and didn’t blink.
The Commodores were down to their final strike Wednesday against Cardinal ace Brendan Beck when, with two outs in the ninth, Javier Vaz fell behind 1-2 in the count. He took three straight balls to draw a walk and keep the inning alive. Pinch hitter Spencer Jones followed with an infield single into the hole between second and third and Vaz got to third on an errant throw from shortstop Adam Crampton. Enrique Bradfield ripped a single to right to tie the game and send Jones to third base.
Then, on a 1-0 pitch, Beck threw a ball too high for catcher Kody Huff to corral and it went to the backstop. Jones raced home and the Commodores raced out of the dugout, setting off a wild celebration that left Jones shirtless at home plate. Vanderbilt had won, 6-5, and lived to fight another day – Friday in the bracket final against North Carolina State.
“So good for the kids,” coach Tim Corbin said. “They didn't back down. They've been tough. They've showed a lot of resiliency and played a lot of one-run games -- regional, super regional to tonight. So, nothing's been easy for the group.”
The Commodores certainly didn’t make anything easy Wednesday. They made three errors – all in the first four innings – and a few more miscues from fly balls falling in to getting picked off.
All of the mistakes put Vanderbilt in a 4-0 hole midway through the fourth and the Commodores were fortunate the deficit wasn’t worse. It likely would have been, had freshman righthander Christian Little not made some big pitches to get out of a couple jams.
Vanderbilt got back on track in the bottom half of the inning thanks to a two-run home run from Dominic Keegan that halved the deficit. It was the response the Commodores needed and got them back in the game.
“It was probably a tale of two games for us in terms of the first four innings were sloppy,” Corbin said. “I thought we were tentative. Didn't really handle the situation very well and they were putting it on us quick.
“We had to have some type of response. Dominic's home run certainly was a response to that.”
As Vanderbilt got its confidence back, it started playing more like the team we’ve been used to seeing throughout the season, as it has run off 46 wins and advanced to the CWS.
But first, it had to overcome its elimination game jitters. Corbin said initially the Commodores didn’t handle the situation well.
“I thought we were pressing,” he said. “We were anxious in some respects offensively. We were on our heels defensively. And it cost us.
“The first inning was indicative of how we were playing the first four innings. Ball's not taken care of. Fly balls not being caught. I just thought we were very tentative inside of the game.
“And, I mean, you look at the lineup, absolutely zero excuses, but you look at the lineup and none of those guys have been on the field before (in an elimination game). So, I'm sure for them, when you think about it and you're human and the elimination games are just different because you know that if things don't go your way, the season's over. And there's some emotional feelings that way. And I'm sure it can pull you down. And it's tough to get inside this environment and play with freedom.
“But towards the middle part of the game, I thought we did. I thought we kind of settled in. The verbiage was different in the dugout. And the actions on the field, there was more communication. I thought we were very quiet at the beginning and just very tentative.”
The Commodores will need to take those lessons forward. To advance to the CWS finals, Vanderbilt must beat NC State on back-to-back days. The Commodores will have righthander Kumar Rocker back on the mound Friday and his record in elimination games is remarkable – he is 2-0, 0.59 with 30 strikeouts, four walks and three hits allowed in 15.1 innings – but avoiding the miscues that plagued them early Wednesday will be imperative.
Their young players come out of Wednesday with an understanding of what it takes to win those kinds of games. Bradfield rebounded from getting picked off early to go 3-for-5 and notch the game-tying hit. Parker Noland bounced back from his error to collect two hits and drive in a run. Little, still just 17-years old, threw three solid innings and the bullpen again came through in the clutch.
A close brush with elimination, as the Commodores experienced Wednesday, should steel them for the games to come, as it works to fight through the loser’s bracket.
“We might not be the most talented team, but the thing that you can't deny the kids is they are tough,” Corbin said. “They're tough. And every time you challenge them, they come back. And I appreciate that. I appreciate they're fighters.”