Connor Harrell's homer was a big hit for Vandy.
OMAHA, Neb. – It didn't look good for Vanderbilt early, but the Commodores mounted a late comeback to defeat the North Carolina Tar Heels in the first game of the 2011 College World Series.
Halfway through Saturday’s opening game of the 2011 College World Series, almost everything was going North Carolina’s way against Vanderbilt.
Almost, but not everything.
The one glaring exception? For all the things the Tar Heels were doing right at in the first CWS game at TD Ameritrade Park, their busy offense wasn’t doing a whole heck of a lot of damage on the scoreboard.
That came back to haunt UNC when the Commodores found their rhythm with a fifth-inning rally and never looked back on the way to a 7-3 triumph.
To notch the program’s first series victory in its first-ever game in Omaha, Vanderbilt (53-10) leaned on its deep and talented bullpen and got a big day from freshman leadoff hitter Tony Kemp to spark a 10-hit attack.
The Commodores’ relievers logged 4.1 innings of scoreless relief, with Corey Williams nabbing the victory after he extinguished a major Heels’ threat by striking out Carolina leadoff hitter Chaz Frank with the bases loaded in the fifth inning.
And the speedy Kemp was 3-for-4, scored the first run of the CWS and chipped in with an RBI single in Vandy’s two-run eighth inning that iced the come-from-behind triumph.
Meanwhile, UNC (50-15) piled up hits and base runners against Commodores’ ace Sonny Gray for five innings but never found a way to completely blow the game open.
The Tar Heels peppered Gray, a first-round pick in the recent Major League Baseball draft, with eight hits, he walked five batters and hit another to constantly put himself in trouble.
Besides RBI singles from Colin Moran in the first inning and Seth Baldwin in the second, though, all Carolina mustered was a bases-loaded hit batsman to force in a third run. The Heels finished 2-for-15 with runners in scoring position and stranded a whopping 16 runners, eight in scoring position.
“We really hurt ourselves by not taking advantaged the opportunities we had the first three, four, five innings,” UNC coach Mike Fox said.
“Out here, it’s how well you play from the first pitch to the last and getting big two-out hits. They got them and we didn’t.”
Indeed, Vanderbilt’s fortunes were a major contrast to Carolina once the bats warmed up.
In the first five frames, all the Commodores mustered were three singles and sacrifice-fly RBIs from Aaron Westlake and Curt Casali, which at least kept them close.
But five runs in the last four at-bats – all on two-out hits – allowed Vandy to climb even and then past the sputtering Tar Heels.
It was the sixth inning when Vanderbilt finally got to Carolina pitcher Patrick Johnson, who lost for only the second time all season.
With one out, right fielder Mike Yastrzemski punched a base hit to right field. Johnson got Jason Esposito on a popup to second base for the second out before Conrad Gregor nearly launched the first home run in TD Ameritrade Park history when his opposite-field liner slammed off the left-field fence for a double that chased Yastrzemski home to even the score 3-3.
Connor Harrell accomplished what Gregor couldn’t when uncorked a no-doubt blast over the left-field bullpen for the inaugural homer, giving the Commodores a 5-3 lead.
“Some big, big two-out hits were the story,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “That’s what we needed. They’re a pesky ball club and they kept coming.
“The fifth inning was kind of the decider.”
Even more so than Fox realized at the time.
Trailing for the first time since the first inning, the Heels’ bats went cold with only three hits in 14 at-bats over the last three frames and they came up empty-handed in their last six chances with runners in scoring position.
“I felt like the home run deflated us, maybe more than I expected,” he said.
Williams certainly played a major role in UNC’s offensive fizzle as well.
After he slammed the door in the fifth, Williams worked through a leadoff walk, a balk and a hit batter in the sixth, stranding two runners. He mowed through the bottom of the Heels’ batting order in the seventh inning and left in the eighth after Frank and Moran sandwiched singles around a strikeout.
Corbin called on Will Clinard to put out the fire in the eighth – which he did by fanning Jesse Wierzbicki and coaxing a 6-4 fielder’s choice from Tommy Coyle.
Kevin Ziomek came on to get the final out when Westlake made a dazzling diving grab on Frank’s wicked ground ball to first base.
UNC finished with 11 hits, but two-hole hitter and first-round draft pick Levi Michael was 0-for-4 and Wierzbicki, the cleanup man, was 0-for-5 with three strikeouts and a double-play groundout.
“The fact they only scored three runs, we were fortunate,” Corbin said. “We pitched out of jams.”
Now, after finally ending the drought to get to Omaha, Vanderbilt made sure its first taste of College World Series experience was a good one.
And North Carolina will have its back to the wall Monday in an elimination game.
“We’ve been in this situation before,” Fox said. “You get a day off which is unusual. I think most college teams would prefer to get right back on the field the next day – not let this linger too long.
“We’ll regroup and we’ll go work out somewhere (Sunday) and let the guys rest a little bit, and most important, let them be with their fathers. I think that’s extremely important. Dads always make you feel good, no matter what. So I’ll make sure they get around their dads, and this one will be over with and we’ll see what happens Monday.”
Vanderbilt will play at 6 p.m. Monday against Florida and North Carolina will play Texas on Monday at 1 p.m.