OMAHA, Neb. -- Some of the best starting pitchers in the nation are playing in Omaha this week, but in the College World Series opener between Vanderbilt and North Carolina on Saturday afternoon, it was the Commodores’ bullpen that stole the show.

Vanderbilt ace Sonny Gray – a first-round MLB Draft pick by the Oakland A’s – was off of his game in the contest, leaving the game after just 4.2 innings.  It was Gray’s shortest outing since opening day on Feb. 18, and his most walks (five) in an outing this season.  Gray got himself into some trouble in the fifth inning, loading the bases after giving up a base hit and two walks with the top of the North Carolina batting order coming to the plate. 

Commodores’ head coach Tim Corbin motioned to send the left-hander in from the bullpen, and redshirt sophomore Corey Williams more than answered the call.

Williams, who has dreamt of pitching in the CWS since attending the event as a 12-year-old, struck out leadoff hitter Chaz Frank, ending the Tar Heels’ scoring threat -- a definite turning point in the game.  Earlier in the game, Frank had tripled and walked twice. 

“D.J. [Derek Johnson], our pitching coach, always harps on us about knowing what our plan is going to be in tough situations and what to use,” Williams said.  “I tried to get a first-pitch strike, so I threw a curve ball.  I threw another strike, and then I tried a two-seamer at his hands and he missed it.  I was fortunate with that.”

“The fifth inning was kind of the decider,” Corbin said.  “[North Carolina] had 20 guys reach base today, and the fact they only scored three runs means we were pitching out of jams.  Sonny did early, but Corey’s strikeout with the bases loaded was obviously big.”

The native of Huntsville, Ala., went on to earn the win in relief, tossing 2.2 shutout innings and striking out a career-best five batters.

“He did a good job locating his fastball and hitting the corners,” Frank said.  “Sonny was leaving it up and down in the zone where we could hit it.  Williams did a great job at working the corners.”

“I think [Williams] did a nice job keeping us off-balance with his off-speed pitches, and making us chase his off-speed stuff in the dirt … he made us get ourselves out,” North Carolina centerfielder Ben Bunting said. 

In the sixth inning, Williams walked a batter and hit a batter, but remained composed to work himself out of a two-out jam.  He retired the side in order in the seventh.

“Throughout the rest of the game, I just went out there and tried to challenge them and get them to make mistakes,” Williams said.  “I tried not to walk them or give them any freebies.”

Williams, who pitched 2.1 scoreless innings against Oregon State in the Super Regional, has fanned eight hitters over 5.0 shutout innings during the NCAA tournament.  He improved his season mark to 2-0 and lowered his ERA to 4.84 following the outing.

The chance to pitch in the NCAA postseason means even more to Williams after missing the opportunity last year due to a season-ending knee injury.  Williams was 1-0 with a 2.65 ERA in 12 appearances out of the bullpen last season before missing the remainder of the year after suffering a broken kneecap on a line drive against Florida on April 3, 2010.

“I’m glad to [be] pitching again,” Williams said.   “It is a dream come true … it’s unbelievable.  It’s an unbelievable time right now.”

Vanderbilt relievers Will Clinard and Kevin Ziomek continued to shut down the Tar Heels offensively, combining for 2.2 scoreless innings, allowing just one hit, and ending a ninth-inning rally.

“You can just go down the line in the bullpen,” Vanderbilt centerfielder Connor Harrell said.  “They do an amazing job every game.” 

Corbin reiterated how the strength of the Commodores’ bullpen will play a key role in the remainder of his team’s journey in Omaha.

“I think at this point, we don’t really have a closer per say, we’re just trying to finish the ball game,” Corbin said.  “The depth in our bullpen is so good that we can really utilize anyone.  It’s not so important who finishes the game, but finishing the game with us winning.”