OMAHA, Neb. -- There are many ways to be aggressive in a baseball game. Hit and runs. Double steals. Anything to gain the edge in the momentum category.
Louisville and Vanderbilt used both Saturday night in their CWS opener, and for the Commodores they worked perfectly in a 5-3 victory. For the Cardinals, maybe it was just a little too much.
“Any momentum swing in this tournament is a big deal, runs are hard to come by,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “Creating movement is very big in this tournament.”The fourth inning was the perfect microcosm -- Vandy seemingly could do no wrong when it came to pushing the envelope. Louisville? Not so much, already trailing 3-0.
Louisville got two on with one out for Corey Ray in the top half of the frame. Vanderbilt starter Carson Fulmer struck out Ray swinging on a 2-2 pitch, and the runners took off. Karl Ellison nailed Nick Solak trying to take third to end the threat.
Fulmer may have been the reason why Louisville struggled at its own game of being aggressive. Corbin started him for a reason.
“We wanted to match up the skill set of our pitcher to the skill set of Louisville,” Corbin said. “We thought we could contain the running game well. We thought he could contain the bunt game, and Louisville does get right on top of the plate. So you're pitching into a very small window and we thought he could execute that, and he did.”
But back to the fourth inning. Dansby Swanson’s two-out single in the bottom of the frame gave Corbin the opportunity to get aggressive. Swanson took off on a steal, while Kyle Gibson’s throw sailed into center field, allowing Swanson to take off for third. Bryan Reynolds smashed his second triple of the season into the gap to score Swanson and give the Commodores a 4-0 lead.
“We were able to put some good swings on some good pitches,” Swanson said. “Just trying to remain in control of the counts and when he gave us a good pitch to hit, just be on it and try to keep the ball in the air because, as we talked about, the wind was a huge factor and just staying low with our flights and just trying to make some things happen.”
It wasn’t as if the Cardinals weren’t trying to do the same. In the sixth inning, again with Ray at the plate, he fouled off five pitches in a row with a 3-2 count and one out. Each time, Alex Chittenden was running. Ray walked on 11 pitches, but Grant Kay and Sutton Whiting flew out to end the inning.
There were two balks called in the game -- one on each team -- marking the 13th time in CWS history a game had at least two balks. Don’t think each team’s game plan didn’t have an effect on Fulmer and Louisville starter Kyle Funkhouser.
“Coach has been saying it all year, two-out walks will kill you and that was the definition of it [Saturday night],” Funkhouser said. “Just need to make some more pitches. It's hard to win at the College World Series with a bad start, and that's what that was [Saturday night].”
Even Vanderbilt’s insurance run in the seventh inning to make it a two-run game came when they pushed the right button. With Xavier Turner at the plate and runners on first and third, Corbin put Zander Wiel in motion from first on a hit-and-run. Turner swung through the pitch -- which was actually supposed to be a pitchout -- and the ball got away from Gibson behind the plate to score Vince Conde. Vandy led 5-3 and it was all they needed.
“We just felt like it was an opportunity to pitch out, and I don't know if [Gibson] just moving out and the hitter swinging maybe the bat went through his sight line and he just didn't catch the ball,” Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell said. “Watching it on replay, I'm sure Gibby will just fess up to it.”
Funkhouser never got in a rhythm for the Cards, something that hadn’t happened in quite a while. He had allowed just four earned runs in his past eight starts spanning 55.1 innings. Saturday’s second inning was just the second time all season that Funkhouser allowed three earned runs in an inning. He battled through six innings, allowing six hits and four runs while walking six and striking out five.
Vandy’s game plan certainly had something to do with it. All of it.