OMAHA, Neb. – Nemesis. Everyone has one at some point in life.
For Vanderbilt in 2011, it’s Florida.
The Gators defeated the Commodores for the fifth time in six tries Friday afternoon in Omaha to send Vandy packing for Nashville and the Gators into the CWS Championship Series (Monday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN).
It’s not as if Tim Corbin’s club is an easy out. Seven starters in the lineup sported an average above .300 entering Friday’s game. They had the third-lowest team ERA in the nation. Vanderbilt lost only six games since May 7. Five of those losses coming to Florida.
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There’s no rhyme or reason as to why the Gators had the upper hand in those contests. In the six games this season, the teams each scored 27 runs.
On paper, they are very evenly matched.
“They’ve got a great club, and I don’t know what it is,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “We’ve just been able to score one more run or two more runs than Vanderbilt this year. And I agree with Tim, with his statement the other day. I do think both teams were evenly matched. I think their lineup is outstanding. I think our lineup is outstanding. I think they have great starting pitching. I like our starting pitching. I think they have an outstanding bullpen. I like our bullpen.
“It’s just a shame somebody had to lose.”
It was the most successful season in Vanderbilt baseball history. Its first trip to the College World Series ended in a third-place finish. Both losses at TD Ameritrade Park were to SEC East rival Florida. That’s not something that is going to be easily forgotten by Corbin and his team.
“Right now I want to take my phone and computer and dump it in the Tennessee River and just spend some time with these guys, because this is the toughest moment a coach, coaches, players can go through,” Corbin said. “It’s when you grind out days and hours together. And this particular team will be like no other we’ve had at the university, in my opinion, in terms of their selfless behavior and the way they exhibited themselves in the classroom and on the field. It’s just tough to sum up and look at them right now and explain all of that.”
Another tight game Friday didn’t help things, either. An early lead went by the wayside with ace Sonny Gray on the mound. Gray threw 132 pitches in seven-plus innings of work while allowing 12 hits, walking five, while allowing six runs.
But the Commodores didn’t quit – just as they didn’t in any of the games against the Gators this year. Vanderbilt loaded the bases in both the seventh and eighth innings after falling behind 4-1. They tied the game with a bases-loaded walk in the seventh and a hit-by-pitch with the sacks full in the eighth.
The big hit never came.
“That’s what you want to do, you want to put runners on base, you want to try and score them,” Vanderbilt’s Jason Esposito said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t. And it’s part of the game. You need to score runs to win and we didn’t.”
Florida, did though. Loading the bases themselves in the bottom of the eighth on two miscues on Florida bunts, Gators slugger Preston Tucker took a pitch the other way for a long RBI-single that put them in the lead for good.
While no one can really pinpoint the reason for so much success against Vanderbilt, Tucker, a junior, had a lot to do with it. He went 3-for-9 with a home run and five RBI in the two CWS games between the two teams, and drove in seven runs in the six games this season.
Tucker, a 16th round draft pick of the Colorado Rockies, has 20 RBI in Florida’s nine NCAA Tournament games. Something that his counterpart, Vanderbilt first baseman Aaron Westlake, couldn’t replicate upon arriving in Omaha.
Westlake finished 3-for-15 at the College World Series, which included a 2-for-5 performance Friday and a first-inning home run. The fact he never really got going at the plate didn’t help things.
“We battled back,” Westlake said. “And they were just able to put a couple of runs up in the last part of the eighth. And even in the top of the ninth, we still battled. We’re never going to give up. And losing, it sucks, but you’re not going to feel good right now.”
If there’s one thing we do know, it’s that the SEC may be more fun to keep an eye on than normal next season. Circle the dates when Vandy heads to Gainesville, especially. Corbin and his team won’t quickly forget which team handed them five of their 12 losses in 2011.