OMAHA, Neb. — It was One Shining Moment for Vanderbilt Wednesday night. Oops ... wrong round ball.
But song or not, the evening was glittering enough for the Commodores, and college baseball in general. One more time, June in Omaha meant high drama, players to remember and moments to savor.
The anthem was sung, the planes roared above TD Ameritrade Park, and the College World Series could begin. “That just kind of gave us chills,” Michigan first baseman Jimmy Kerr would say later, having delivered a two-run triple to help settle the opener. “That’s when it kind of hit us, we’re playing now.” Not only playing, but winning a CWS game, which Michigan hadn’t done since 1983. That sound coming from the stands? The Michigan masses belting out The Victors. In Omaha. Get used to it.
Florida State’s Drew Parish and Arkansas’ Isaiah Campbell went eyeball-to-eyeball and fastball-to-fastball, neither one blinking. Together, they would throw 214 pitches with 146 of them strikes, and combine for 15 innings with only 10 hits, no runs and 19 strikeouts. A ninth inning run on a sacrifice fly was the difference. “We gave the fans a treat, a pitcher’s duel,” Campbell would say afterward.
Louisville had not trailed in 45 consecutive innings, but that streak lasted one pitch, as Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin sent it into the left field stands. This was the second consecutive game he had led off with a homer. So what, he goes to the plate in the first inning with fire in this eyes and hacking in his heart? “I swing at them if they’re strikes,” he said. Martin homered again in the seventh inning. The same Louisville lineup that had scored 26 runs in two super regional games and 50 in its last five tournament wins could manage only one.
Baseball can be so two-faced. Auburn carried a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth, and the loudest noise had been inspired by Edouard Julien’s mighty 429-foot bomb — which matched the longest CWS home run ever hit in Ameritrade Park. Three more outs, and Julien — whose parents from Quebec were in the stands tapping on their cell phones for Google translation, since they can speak little English — would be the star of the day. Or not. Mississippi State tied the score in the bottom of the ninth — on Julien’s throwing error. Sacre bleu! That’s baseball; roses one minute and thorns the next. Marshall Gilbert’s walk-off single then won it, the 28th time this season the Bulldogs had come from behind to win.
Arkansas, we hardly knew ye. The Razorbacks, who came so close to winning the championship in 2018, were two-and-headed back to Fayetteville, mostly because the offense went mute. The .200 team batting average in two games was a ticket home, both their losses by a single run. The two teams combined for a record-tying four homers. Arkansas’ problem: Texas Tech hit three of them. “We had a hunch these guys were going to be fun to watch with their backs against the wall,” Red Raiders coach Tim Tadlock offered afterward.
It was like watching a pitching machine. Strike after strike after strike from Michigan’s Tommy Henry, until he had finished off Florida State on three hits and 100 pitches. Only twice did he even go to a three-ball count, and those were in the first inning. No Big Ten team had started the CWS 2-0 in 53 years, and the Wolverines hadn’t done it since 1962. Henry — who got out of a hospital bed with flu and pneumonia and beat UCLA in the super regional — had officially achieved folk hero status. And the Wolverines fairy tale thundered on. Well, except for Jordan Nwogu’s face-first flop of a slide short of third base, which got more TV replays than anything. “I’ll never hear the end of it,” he said.
Louisville grabbed a 4-1 lead after four innings, in no small part because of Drew Campbell’s work in right field, as he threw a runner out at the plate, and later made a diving catch. The Cardinals then had to wait 20 hours to protect that lead. Rain suspended the game for a day, and when they returned the next morning to a dryer TD Ameritrade Park, they turned the issue over to their bullpen. Most impressive was Adam Elliott, who didn’t even know until 10 minutes before stretching began that he would be on the mound when the game resumed. He worked two brisk, scoreless innings. Elliott is a Louisville kid who went to Saint Xavier High School. Know who else went to Saint Xavier? Tommy Mapother. You might know him better by another name. Tom Cruise.
One sure-fire way to hype the attention for your first College World Series appearance: Throw a no-hitter and strike out 19 in the super regional. That made Kumar’s start the most awaited moment in the first week of the College World Series. His fifth pitch was hit for a single, and he later said his adrenalin was on full-throttle in the first inning. Then he settled down and everyone could see what the fuss was about. He gave up five hits and a run in six innings. “He’s a freshman,” Mississippi State’s Jake Mangum said. “That speaks volumes of his last two starts.”
For the 17th time, Martin left Omaha with the championship trophy he had chased so long. Only this was the last time. Any chance at a happy ending ended with a feeble Seminoles offense that produced only two runs and 11 hits in three games, and went 0-for-17 with runners in scoring position. “Our season ended in Omaha,” he said. “There’s a whole lot of folks that wish their season ended in Omaha. I ain’t going to say we never won one, because just getting out here is so much fun . . . I’ll get through the rest of this night with a smile, because I got to see young men grow up.”
Louisville coach Dan McDonnell and Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis were teammates and roommates at The Citadel in the 1990s, and so close as buddies, they were in each other’s weddings. When chance tossed them in the same College World Series game, they both wanted badly to win, without the other having to suffer much. But, oh, how Lemonis felt the pain. A Mississippi State team that had become renowned for its rallying ways — with a nation’s leading 28 come-from-behind victories — saw the other side of baseball fortune. The Bulldogs let a 3-0 lead get away with two Cardinal runs in the seventh and two more in the ninth. Then they shook hands and patted each other’s backs.
Boom, boom, boom. That’s not fireworks, that’s Michigan’s offense. In a College World Series first week of close games, this was the outlier, as the Wolverines bashed their way to their first CWS finals since 1962, and the Big Ten’s first in 53 years. Ten of the runs came with two outs, giving Michigan 14 two-out RBI for the tournament. And it could have been even worse. Michigan not only scored 15 runs, but stranded 14 men on base. Something special was afoot with these Wolverines.
The emotions reached the red zone in this one. Louisville pitcher Luke Smith shut down the Vanderbilt bats for eight innings — clearly and loudly enjoying every strikeout of it. The Commodores’ frustration built by the inning. After a few testy exchanges between Smith and Vanderbilt’s Julian Infante — which had the umpires interceding — an inflamed Vandy team batted in the ninth, down 2-1. Three hits led to two runs, knocked Smith from the game and sent Vanderbilt to the finals. “That’s competition,” Vandy’s Ethan Paul said of the on-field emotional bubble-over. “That can bring out a lot in 20-year-old men.”
It took 57 years for Michigan to get back to the College World Series finals. It took 11 pitches to score and get the lead for good in game 1. All nine Wolverines in the lineup got at least one hit, six drove in at least one run, and Tommy Henry’s pitching shut off any Vanderbilt chance of answering. The quick start had become a Michigan trademark in this tournament. In the first 13 games of the College World Series, the Wolverines scored six runs in the first inning – the other seven teams combined had scored two.
“We’re trying to get on base, push the pressure and go at it,” catcher Joe Donovan said. The Commodores had to quickly understand what they were up against.
Michigan’s chances of a sweep in the finals were gone faster than you could say Kumar Rocker. The freshman phenomenon struck out five of the first six Wolverine batters and gave up one run and three hits in 6.1 innings, striking out 11. Yes, there would be a winner-take-all game 3. It ran his NCAA Tournament line to 4-0, with 44 strikeouts and five walks, and left an intriguing question for post-Omaha: How good is this kid going to be when he’s had time to develop?
“He trusts himself, he believes in himself, more importantly, we all believe in him,” closer Tyler Brown said. “He brings a lot of good things to the table. He’s going to be a big leaguer some day. I’m proud to have him as a teammate.”
Vanderbilt had the veteran leadership of seven seniors or redshirt juniors who had put off pro ball for this chance. The Commodores had the talent of 13 draft choices. They had the confidence of a team with 58 wins, and the deep emotion of a group that had been scarred and was playing for a fallen teammate. Every bit of that was on display when Vanderbilt pushed past the Wolverines for their second national championship in six years.
The Commodores had never wavered from their path, and in the end, played as if they knew the championship was coming all along. “It’s been incredible to watch,” coach Tim Corbin said, and yet, there was a complexity to the moment for him. “I’ve got a lot of conflicting thoughts right now.”
One reason was having to beat his former assistant and friend, Erik Bakich of Michigan. Another was the Commodore who wasn’t here. The determination of the seniors partly came from the drowning death of teammate Donny Everett when they were freshman. They have carried his memory ever since. He should have been out there with them. But his parents were, and the sight of the Vanderbilt family embracing Teddy and Susan Everett on the award stand was a powerful and fitting closing image for the 2019 College World Series.