OMAHA, Neb. -- There’s changing a game with one swing, and then there’ what Zander Wiel did on Tuesday night.
His home run off of TCU southpaw Alex Young into the bullpen beyond the left-field fence defined the game in one swing. The seventh-inning blast broke up Young’s no-hit bid and Vanderbilt went on to win 1-0, the second game in as many nights by that score at the 2015 College World Series.The game was a pitcher’s duel in every sense of the term. A night after Virginia’s Brandon Waddell and Florida’s A.J. Puk battled to a 1-0 Cavaliers win, Vanderbilt lefty Philip Pfeifer and Young went back and forth, matching punch for punch as zeroes continued to build up on the scoreboard.
“It felt like a championship-style game in every way,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “I think once we got through the third or fourth, you felt like one run could possibly make the difference. And that's the way it shaped up.”
As Young took his no-hitter into the seventh, he had a career-high 12 strikeouts. Vanderbilt hitters were swinging at a lot of sliders in the dirt, making several of the punch-outs require a throw to first. While both teams made a point to say that the pitch Wiel got a hold of wasn’t a “bad pitch,” it caught enough of the strike zone for Wiel to send it over the fence.
“He threw me a changeup and it had been higher than the rest of the ones he had thrown,” Wiel said. “It still wasn't a terrible pitch. But it was hittable. And I just put a good swing on it.”
TCU head coach Jim Schlossnagle had a similar take.
“I think it ran into his bat path,” Schlossnagle said. "Not to take anything away from him, he's the one who hit it out of the park. But it wasn't an elevated pitch. Alex makes that pitch a thousand times out of a thousand and usually it goes our way.”
The home run was surrounded by three strikeouts in the game for Wiel, who was not alone in struggles at the plate game-long. The two teams combined a total of just eight hits. While Wiel won’t be happy about the strikeouts, the fact remains, that he was the one player on either team who was able to make a difference in the scoreline.
“You never think that a sole home run is going to do it but the way that our pitching staff threw today, it was incredible,” Wiel said.
With the win, defending champion Vanderbilt heads to a Friday game, which, if they win, will send them back into the CWS Finals. It’s familiar territory for many of the Commodores, and Wiel spoke after the game to how that comfort level helped him in a situation like Tuesday’s low-scoring game.
One Vanderbilt player that didn’t have the benefit of playing on the field at TD Ameritrade Park a year ago was starting pitcher Pfeifer. After Corbin dismissed him from the team a year ago, he drove himself to Omaha and had to watch the Commodores’ games from the stands. A year later, standing on the mound in this position on Tuesday was far removed from that.“I was just trying to soak in every minute of it that I could while I was out there on the mound,” Pfeifer said. “I've been looking forward for this moment for a long time and playing it over and over in my head and I feel like taking advantage of today's game was kind of what kept me at peace. I had seen that game before. So it was just enacting what had been playing in my head.”
Pfeifer finished his outing with four hits allowed and seven strikeouts in seven innings. He was able to throw his curveball for strikes and keep the TCU hitters off-balance.
“I'm just happy he's here,” Corbin said of Pfeifer and his return to the team. “I'm just happy he's a part of the team. The fact that he's able to pitch and then pitch well, it probably is more than my expectations, to be honest with you. … He contained himself so well. And it really felt like he was enjoying it more than any other person out there at the time.”
Kyle Wright came in to relieve Pfeifer and pitched a strong two innings, striking out four while allowing one hit. Trey Teakell pitched the final inning and a third for TCU and retired all four batters he faced, but Wiel’s damage was already done.
It was that kind of night in Omaha, where two pitchers were going to have to be beaten, because they wouldn’t beat themselves. The kind of night one swing can make or break a season. TCU’s season isn’t done yet -- the Horned Frogs are set for a rematch with LSU on Thursday. But Vanderbilt is the one that’s a win away from the championship series, and they have Zander Wiel and Philip Pfeifer to thank for that.