Helms' two-out, two-run pinch single the difference as Louisville beats Vanderbilt
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell leaves his office two hours after a practice or game, he often notices a light on in the batting cages.
And usually swinging away is seldom-used senior outfielder Matt Helms.
''This guy works,'' McDonnell said. ''I always tell these guys that the bus pulls up at everybody's stop. You've got to be ready to get on it. I had no doubt Matt was going to get on it.''
The extra practice paid dividends on Saturday as Helms delivered a two-out, two-run, pinch-hit single in the seventh inning to lift Louisville to a 5-3 victory against No. 2 overall seed Vanderbilt in a NCAA super regional opener.
In just his 41st at-bat of the season, Helms drove 1-2 pitch off Commodore closer Brian Miller down the third-base line to break a 2-2 tie. The left-handed hitter had driven in just three runs all season.
As he raced toward first base, Helms pointed to the crowd where his parents were sitting after making the nearly nine-hour drive from Oklahoma.
''It was huge,'' Helms said. ''Just a big relief, big excitement. You work so hard for something and you finally get a chance to prove to the team you can do something. But it was huge just having [his parents] there and enjoying that success for me.''
Helms' single was part of a three-run inning that rallied Louisville (50-12) to a win in the opener of the best-of-three series. The Cardinals, playing in their first super regional since 2009, need just one win to reach their second College World Series.
''It is great to get that first win where your back is not against the wall but you're still going to be aggressive to go get Game 2,'' Helms said.
Vanderbilt (54-11), playing in its third super regional in four years, had lost just once in 49 previous games when leading after six innings.
Left-handed ace Kevin Ziomek (11-3) was cruising through six innings, allowing just two hits and one run. He had retired 11 of 12 before entering the seventh. Then he ran into trouble.
''Our demise was that seventh inning,'' Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. ''We just couldn't get out of it.''
Trailing 2-1, Jeff Gardner led off with a single and moved to third on two groundouts. Ziomek then surrendered a two-out single through the left side to Zak Wasserman, who drove in Gardner for the second time in the game. Sutton Whiting followed with a single the opposite way and leadoff hitter Adam Engel walked to load the bases.
''They grinded through some at-bats,'' Ziomek said. ''I made a couple pitches but they put some good swings on the ball and they fell when they needed to.''
Corbin then pulled Ziomek in favor for Miller, Vanderbilt's single-season saves leader with 16. Corbin said freshman right-hander Carson Fulmer was unavailable after hurting his eye before the game when a stretching band snapped off his foot and hit him in the eye.
In came Helms for his first at-bat since May 23. The left-handed hitter was pinch-hitting for second baseman Zach Lucas, who took over for injured Nick Ratajczak in the fourth inning. Miller quickly threw two strikes. But on the fourth pitch, Helms poked a hit past Turner at third for the third opposite-field hit of the inning.
''I wasn't looking to strike out. I was looking to put a bat on the ball,'' Helms said. ''The turf was fast so I was looking to hit something hard. He put another one in there and I just went with it and took it the other way, which worked out.''
Louisville tacked on a run in the eighth on a sacrifice fly by Shane Crain.
Vanderbilt got a run back in the bottom half of the inning on a fielding error. But the Commodores stranded five runners in the last two innings.
After Chad Green scattered six hits and allowed two runs in five innings, the Cardinals turned to three relievers. Dace Kime (6-1), Cody Ege and Nick Burdi allowed just one hit and one unearned run in the final four innings. At one point, Louisville retired 12 of 13 Vanderbilt batters.
Burdi picked up his 16th save by inducing Conrad Gregor into a game-ending groundout to second with the bases loaded.
''Tough ball game for us,'' Corbin said. ''But we put ourselves in a position to win it at the end, the last couple of innings. We just didn't get the big hit.''
Freshman Xavier Turner had two hits and scored two runs for the Commodores. Six of Vanderbilt's seven hits came in the opening three innings.
Turner manufactured two early runs for Vanderbilt. The freshman singled stole second and advanced to third on an out in both the first and third innings. In the first, he scored on a two-out single by Gregor.
After Wasserman drove in Gardner with a sacrifice fly in the second, Turner put Vanderbilt back in front. In the third, Connor Harrell drove him in with a single to left field. Harrell was later thrown out at home plate to end the inning trying to score from second.
The Cardinals improved to 5-20 against Vanderbilt and snapped a five-game losing streak in the series. Louisville's most recent win came in a 2010 regional before Vanderbilt won the next two games to advance to a super regional.
''We knew we were in for a dogfight with Kevin on the mound,'' McDonnell said. ''Our guys just battled and fought hard. Fortunately, we put up a crooked number in the seventh.''