A three-run sixth inning put Vanderbilt ahead to stay in the inaugural College World Series game at T.D. Ameritrade Stadium in Omaha, Neb., on Saturday afternoon in front of 22,745 fans. The Commodores went on to defeat North Carolina 7-3.
Vanderbilt starter Sonny Gray wasn’t able get out of the fifth inning though. He struggled with his command, walking five guys in 4.2 innings. He threw 99 pitches in his shortest outing since his 2011 debut against San Diego on Feb.18. Gray had pitched at least 6.0 innings in his last 10 starts prior to Saturday’s game.
But his bullpen picked him up – especially Corey Williams, who pitched 2.2 innings and didn’t give up any runs on two hits and a walk. He ended up with the win. Will Clinard tossed 1.1 innings of scoreless ball, which set the stage for Kevin Ziomek to close the game out.
“Obviously a big victory for us,” said Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin. “Sometimes you never know how you’re going to react out there for the first time. But I thought the kids were very comfortable during BP today. When we started the game, Sonny [Gray] grinded through it.”
He continued, “But obviously we got very good relief pitching from Corey [Williams] and Will Clinard and Kevin [Ziomek] finishing up. And some big, big two-out hits today were the story. Guy on my right with a big home run, and that’s what we needed, because that’s a pesky ballclub; they keep coming. So we’re fortunate.”
The guy on Coach Corbin’s right was Vanderbilt centerfielder Connor Harrell. He hit a sixth-inning home run and it was the first round tripper in the CWS at TD Ameritrade Park and his first homer of the NCAA Tournament. Harrell’s last homer came in the SEC Tournament against Arkansas on May 28.
North Carolina starter Patrick Johnson said he hung a 3-1 slider to Harrell, thinking he wouldn’t swing at a breaking pitching.
“We knew [he] had a pretty good arm,” Harrell said, “we knew it was going to take a lot to move him out. He was sort of living off the plate, throwing breaking balls. Breaking ball was pretty good, but he was able to leave it up for a second and I got under it, extended, and got it in the jet stream.”
The home run gave Vanderbilt a 5-3 lead and they didn’t look back, but North Carolina had their chances. The Tar Heels stranded 16 base runners. Vanderbilt pitchers gave up 11 hits, walking seven and hitting two batters.
“It’s how well you play from the first pitch to the last and getting big two-out hits,” said Tar Heels coach Mike Fox. And they got them and we didn’t. And that was pretty much, I think, the tale of the game.”
The Tar Heels scored single runs in the first and second innings on RBI singles by third baseman Colin Moran and right fielder Seth Baldwin. They scored their final run in the fourth inning when Moran was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded.
The Commodores scored their first run in the top of the first inning on a sacrifice fly to center field by first baseman Aaron Westlake. They scored again in the third inning on a sacrifice fly to center field by catcher Curt Casali. Down 3-2 going into the sixth inning, they tied the game when designated hitter Conrad Gregor doubled to left center, driving in right fielder Mike Yastrzemski. Harrell followed Gregor’s double with the two-run home run, giving Vanderbilt a 5-3 lead. They added two more runs in the eighth.
Tony Kemp, Vanderbilt’s left fielder, had a big game, going 3-for-4 with an RBI. It was his fifth 3-hit game and 24th multi-hit game of the season.
Vanderbilt now has 16 come-from-behind wins this season, including a pair of wins in the NCAA Tournament. They are 42-3 this season when allowing three runs or less to an opponent and 33-1 when scoring seven or more runs.
North Carolina will play again on Monday afternoon. One more loss will put them out of the CWS. Coach Fox addressed his team’s ability to bounce back.
“We’ll regroup and we’ll go workout somewhere tomorrow and let the guys rest a little bit and most important let them do their fathers [day] tomorrow,” Coach Fox said. “I think that’s extremely important. Dad’s always make you feel good, no matter what. So I’ll make sure they get around their dads and this one will be over with and we’ll see what happens Monday.”