OMAHA, Neb. -- Vanderbilt scored the most runs in a half inning in the history of four-year-old TD Ameritrade Park and needed every one of them to take the upper hand in the championship series of the College World Series.
The Commodores plated nine runs in the third inning, but didn’t do much if anything in the other eight frames -- they mustered six hits all game long -- and dodged multiple Virginia threats to hang on for a 9-8 win Monday in Game 1 of the CWS Finals.
“Well, we’re fortunate to win that game, for sure,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “I don’t think you could have called a nine-run inning. But in order for us to win that game, we had to pass the baton from a pitching standpoint, and we did.”
“They kept coming back, but we still had the lead,” Vanderbilt second baseman Dansby Swanson said. “We still played with the lead, still confident, still comfortable.”
Virginia didn’t hang its head after the top of the third and began to chip away in the bottom half of the inning. The Cavaliers, who took a 2-0 lead against Vanderbilt starter Walker Buehler in the first, scored three runs after the first two batters had been retired on a hit by pitch and four consecutive singles. But Buehler got a groundout to strand two runners in scoring position, a tightrope Vanderbilt would have to successfully navigate throughout the game.
Virginia left nine runners on base, including two each in the third, fourth and fifth innings, and the tying run on third after getting within a run in the eighth.
“This one was more about the insertion of pitchers at the right time,” Corbin said. “This Virginia team is so well-rounded in terms of athletics -- put the ball in play, don’t strike out. It presents a lot of different challenges. I just thought for us to be successful, we really needed to execute our pitches a little bit better, and I thought we did.”
Jared Miller got the win for Vandy with two innings of relief. He allowed five hits and two runs after Buehler was charged with eight hits and five runs in three innings. Miller allowed the first two batters he faced to reach in the fourth, but got the middle of the Cavalier order out in succession.
Miller got the first two outs in the fifth before running into trouble. Four consecutive Cavaliers reached and two scored to trim the Vanderbilt lead to 9-7. Virginia’s top RBI man on the season, Mike Papi, made a bid to tie the game. Miller had struck out Papi the previous inning, but this time Papi made good contact. However, his drive to the right-center field gap landed in the glove of Commodore center fielder John Norwood on the warning track, and the Vanderbilt faithful let out a sigh of relief.
Left-handed freshman John Kilichowski, who had thrown 20 innings all season -- the fourth fewest on the Vanderbilt team -- gave the Commodores the biggest lift out of the pen. He came on and pitched two perfect innings before Virginia threatened against him in the eighth.
“Johnny, we’ve got a lot of confidence in him. He’s got a very good fastball and a breaking ball,” Corbin said. “We weren’t able to use him at the end of the year because he was a little dinged up. Now he’s healthy, and we feel like he’s a good stopper for us, and he certainly did that against a very good hitting team.”
But he ran into trouble eventually. Consecutive singles and a sacrifice bunt put runners on second and third with one out.
A nice scoop by first baseman Zander Weil on the sacrifice was the first of four solid defensive plays that got Vanderbilt out of the inning with only one run being scored. After the Papi sac bunt, Cavalier cleanup hitter Joe McCarthy lined a shot up the middle that deflected off Kilichowski and changed direction. Shortstop Vince Conde, his momentum carrying him up the middle, reached back to field the ball and threw to first, where Weil had to dive to make the catch, all the while keeping his foot on the base to record the out.
“Whenever the ball hits the ground, it’s almost like I take a sigh of relief no matter where it is in the infield because of how good these guys are at getting to balls that are not right at them,” Kilichowski said. “The one I kicked, the ball took a giant hop, and Vinny had to readjust himself to make that play. The ball had a weird top spin to it because that’s not natural off the cleat. The fact that he can make those plays is huge ... because we know we’re still in this and holding them down right now.”
The play cut the Vandy lead to 9-8 and put the tying run on third. Another hard shot up the middle, this time by Derek Fisher, was cut off by Conde, who was shading toward second base. His throw nipped a hard-running Fisher at first to preserve the lead and allow the Commodore fan base to breath once again.
“They make incredible plays,” Kilichowski said of the Vanderbilt defense. “Their range is unending, so when I go out there, it’s basically blow up the zone. … I know I have guys behind me that can do a lot of things. They’re very good at what they do. So it’s not very stressful when you know they can do that.”
There were no dramatics in the ninth as Adam Ravenelle got Virginia out in order for his second save of the CWS to move Vanderbilt within one victory of a national championship.
“It’s nice to be up 1-0, but that’s not where our mindset is right now,” Swanson said. “We’re just focused on still playing the game. You have to go out there, play, compete and just play the tournament like we always talk about. We’re not going up there thinking we’ve only go one more. Just go out there and try to play our best ball.”