OMAHA, Neb. — Well, this should have gotten Vanderbilt ready for what’s ahead.
Friday night was tense, tight, and with enough emotion at the end to light up Omaha. Or as JJ Bleday said, sitting in his locker with a nice, big blood splotch on his pants from sliding across the plate with the game-tying run in the ninth inning, “No one ever said it was going to be easy to make it to the national championship.”
The Commodores will not lose. Not very often, anyway. Shut them down for hours, get a late lead on them, annoy them — and the pitcher from Louisville who nearly beat them Friday night certainly did that — they still find a way.
Their national seeding has always suggested they’re the team to beat at this College World Series — at No. 2, the highest in town. Their relentless winning spree gives the idea they can’t and won’t be stopped — 33 victories in 36 games. And now there is only team left from Michigan to prove it all wrong.
Maybe Friday night’s 3-2 escape against Louisville was just the thing to send Vanderbilt to the championship finals in the proper frame of mind. It was a very near thing, requiring two runs in the top of the ninth inning, and closer Tyler Brown getting two outs with the tying run at second in the bottom. Finally, someone had escorted obstinate Louisville from the building, after the Cardinals came within two outs of their sixth victory in an elimination game.
“Those are the games you want to play in, those are the games you’re going to play in at this time of the year,” said second baseman Harrison Ray, whose diving catch on a blooper was the last out. “Just being able to stay composed the whole way through that game and having each other’s backs, I think we’re a team that’s built for these type of games.”
Ethan Paul, who doubled in the get-even run in the ninth, thought so, too. “Anytime you can play a game like that it makes your team better. Those experiences don’t come often. When it’s high pressure situations you’ve got to execute and play good baseball.”
And Bleday: “To have a chip on your shoulder before you get in the actual (championship) series, it’s great.”
About that chip. Things got a little touchy Friday night. Louisville’s Luke Smith was a Vanderbilt vexation, and clearly enjoyed every one of his 10 strikeouts. By the end of the eighth inning, he had them down 2-1 on three hits, and the jawing between him and the Commodores — mostly Julian Infante after he was strikeout victim No. 10 — had reached the temperature where the umpires intervened.
Later, came perspective from both sides.
Infante: “I don’t know him. There’s nothing against him. I understand he’s competitive, and I get competitive, too. I wish him the best.”
Paul: “That’s competition. That can bring out a lot in 20-year-old men.”
Smith: “That was just the adrenaline. Vanderbilt is a great team and I respect — I love that part of baseball. When they got their big hit in the ninth, they celebrate; that’s how it goes. When I strike somebody out, I celebrate, and that’s just the way it is.”
The obvious question was whether the uproar lit a fire beneath the Commodores. Then again, they were down a run in the ninth inning in the College World Series. There wasn’t already a fire?
“I think it was just extra locked in,” Infante said. “We have each other’s backs. People say that, I think on our team it’s another level. It kind of just sparked us up and locked us in.”
So here was Louisville with the lead, Smith with three outs to get, and Vanderbilt trying to channel any anger into its bats, while keeping poise intact, since the situation was urgent. “We have so many older guys and so many mature guys, they don’t get freaked out by big moments like today,” Paul said later.
Bleday walked with one out, and Louisville coach Dan McDonnell decided to stay with Smith, who was nearing 120 pitches. Paul promptly doubled down the line. After a pitching change, Pat DeMarco doubled down the other line, and Vanderbilt had the runs needed to advance. Louisville had been 45-0 this season when lead in the ninth, but not anymore. So maybe the tension did serve a Commodore purpose.
“We try not to give energy to the other team. We know how that works,” DeMarco said. “So we just tried to recenter ourselves, come back and focus the energy on us, and we came out on the right side.”
Another test passed, for a Vanderbilt team with 57 victories — and only two more to get. “I knew at some point they would land a punch, and it was going to be a matter of how we responded,” said coach Tim Corbin.
What the Commodores will take into the finals against Michigan is confidence, momentum and a laundry list of glittering numbers. Such as:
- They have lost only three times since the weekend of the basketball Final Four.
- They are 11-1 against teams who made it to this College World Series.
- They had 13 players taken in the MLB draft.
- They went 3-15 last season against this collection of neighbors or conference colleagues: Belmont, Lipscomb, Florida, Auburn, Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech, South Carolina, Missouri . . . and Louisville. They’re 20-1 against them this season.
- They are 40-4 when scoring first.
- Their 97 home runs lead the nation.
- Closer Tyler Brown has faced 16 batters so far in Omaha, and retired 14 of them.
- The pitching staff has given up eight runs its last 45 NCAA tournament innings.
- Smith retired the first six Vanderbilt batters Friday, something no pitcher has done since April 12. It’s only happened three times all season.
“This team is special,” Paul said. Clearly. Next week will tell us how much.