Thrill of Victory

The three games that saved Vandy's season (for now)

Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin has done some amazing things since taking over in the 2003 season. Where the program once endured a 23-season NCAA Tournament drought between 1981 and 2003, Corbin took the Commodores back in 2004 and has had VU in the field every season since except ’05.

Last year, Corbin took VU to a remarkable 54-12 mark and its first College World Series. Big things were expected this season again, but there was just one – well, 12 – problem(s). That’s the number of players Vandy lost to the Major League Baseball Draft, one of the highest totals for any program in history.So perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised when Vandy started this season 1-7.

That was only part of the problem: the remaining schedule was brutal. VU still had to play 30 games in the Southeastern Conference – the premier league in college baseball – plus four games between perpetual Top 25 squads Louisville and San Diego to boot.

Yet a couple months later, the Commodores stand 25-24 with a fighting shot at the NCAA Tournament. If VU is able to pull it off, the following three moments may have been the biggest reason it happens:

Conrad Gregor’s ninth-inning single vs. Georgia
After the 1-7 start, things got worse, as a Friday night loss to Georgia on March 23 dropped VU to 7-15 on the year. A 16th loss seemed inevitable when UGA led 4-2 in the ninth with ace closer Blake Dietrich on the hill.

Still, the Commodores managed to tie the game thanks to a one-out sacrifice fly by Spencer Navin and a two-out, bases-loaded walk to Mike Yastrzemski. That brought Gregor to the plate, and when he ripped a single to right field, the comeback was complete.

The next day, the Commodores came from behind to beat Georgia 5-3 thanks to a four-run rally in the eighth inning. VU was still 9-15, but that weekend kept another shovel of dirt from being tossed on its grave.

Huge eighth and ninth innings help Vandy past Alabama on April 22
On the eve of Friday, April 20, Vandy fans looked at the schedule and saw what they’d hoped for so long: a break in the schedule. After running the gauntlet against some of America’s top teams nearly every weekend, VU finally had a road series against 16-24 Alabama. The Crimson Tide, though, beat Vandy 6-4 on Friday, then erased a ninth-inning deficit with a walk-off homer to win on Saturday.

On Sunday, the Commodores trailed Alabama 7-2 heading into the eighth. With top-ranked Kentucky coming to Nashville the next weekend, the Fat Lady had begun to sing on the season.

But instead, Chris Harvey’s bases-loaded double in the eighth brought Vandy within a run, and Tony Kemp’s double tied the game heading to the bottom of the inning. In the ninth, Connor Harrell and Vince Conde both singled to put the ‘Dores up 9-7, and then held on in the bottom of the frame to run their record to 18-22.

Yastrzemski, Tony Kemp’s late-inning hits vs. LSU
The stay of execution in Tuscaloosa was a huge momentum builder. The Commodores next beat MTSU on the road, came home next weekend to take two of three from top-ranked Kentucky, won two of three at Tennessee, then beat Louisville in Nashville last Tuesday to get to .500 for the first time all year.

That set up a road trip to No. 4 LSU this past weekend. The Tigers have won six national titles in no small part due to their home park of Alex Box Stadium, where few teams get out alive.

After splitting the first two games, VU led 2-0 early, but the Tigers rallied to go up 4-3 in the eighth. LSU hadn’t lost a game all season where it led in the ninth because of closer Nick Goody and his microscopic 0.71 ERA… and guess who was now on the hill?

But Yastztremski, leading off the ninth, launched a fly ball over the wall to deep right, as Commodore fans watching from TV leapt to their feet. One problem: the ball was foul. Unfazed, Yastrzemski smacked the next pitch about 50 feet to the left of that one. This one was fair, and Vandy tied the game.

The next inning, a two-out single by Kemp scored the winning run, and when the Tigers went 1-2-3 in the ninth, Vandy was over .500 the first team all season.

Much work to be done
The Commodores have this week’s series vs. Ole Miss, then at least two games in Hoover, Ala., site of the conference Tournament, starting next week. The magic number in terms of wins for Vandy may be three: that’s how many the Commodores need to stay above .500, which is a prerequisite for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament field.
The question is, would three get Vandy in? In VU’s corner are a few things: it’s No. 38 RPI (it’s a computer ranking that the NCAA uses to determine who gets in its tournament), a schedule that ranks in the top five in its strength, and a hot finish: Vandy has won nine of its last 12 games.

Also, any wins that Vandy gets from here would make the resume more impressive. Ole Miss will be an NCAA Tournament team, as likely will be any potential opponent in Hoover.

For inspiration, Vandy can look to Georgia, which had the toughest schedule in America last year, won enough in Hoover to get a game over .500, then had its name called on Selection Monday.

Whatever happens, the Commodores have already done the improbable: after that horrible start, they’ve managed to make it interesting.