Sparked by senior Taylor Hill on the mound, a quick offensive start and two more jolts of power, the Commodores punched their ticket into the 2011 College World Series semifinal round with a tidy 5-1 victory against North Carolina Wednesday at TD Ameritrade Park.
Waiting for Vanderbilt is another showdown against the Gators, who have won their first two games of the CWS – including a 3-1 triumph over the Commodores.
Florida is 4-1 against Vandy this season. Those two teams and South Carolina were the SEC regular-season tri-champions and all three are alive in the CWS.
The Commodores (54-11) get their next shot at the Gators at 1 p.m. Friday and have to beat them twice to claim a spot in the best-of-three national championship series.
“We're not thinking ‘How the heck can we beat Florida?’” Vandy catcher Curt Casali said. “It's not really in the back of our minds at all.
“We feel we can compete with them. We feel we match up with them well, but we'll see what happens on Friday. We're going to come in confident, I guarantee that.”
Vandy gets that chance Friday because of Hill and an offense that took care of business early and effectively.
After sluggish starts in their first two CWS games, the Commodores pounced for a run two hitters into the game Wednesday when Tony Kemp led off with a triple into no-man’s land in right-center field and then darted home on Anthony Gomez’s sacrifice fly.
Connor Harrell pumped out his second home run of the CWS – a three-run blast in the second frame – and Casali jacked a solo home run in the third inning for the final run.
Those five runs gave Hill and reliever Corey Williams all the breathing room they needed, although Hill worked out of North Carolina’s only major threat by retiring a familiar face.
“The story was Taylor Hill from a pitching standpoint,” VU coach Tim Corbin said. “I thought he came out and pitched very well. He set the tone early, throwing a lot of strikes, keeping them off base. … He did a good job of neutralizing their offense, and got us deep into the ballgame where we could put Corey into the game and give him the ball.
“Connor's home run was big and followed up by Curtis. We did enough offensively to get by.”
As key as Kemp’s immediate run was, Harrell’s second bomb of the series made the task almost impossible for UNC (51-16), which scored only seven runs in 27 innings in Omaha.
Mike Yastrzemski punched a leadoff single in the second inning and with one out Conrad Gregor drew a walk off Heels’ starter Greg Holt. After falling behind Harrell 2-and-1, Holt tried to zip a fastball by Vandy’s eight-hole hitter and he devoured it.
Casali duplicated that with a 1-and-0 offering with two outs in the third for the early exclamation point.
“(Holt) just didn't make some good pitches and left the ball up over the middle of the plate against some good hitters, and they took advantage of it,” UNC coach Mike Fox said.
Meanwhile, Hill didn’t throw a lot of bad pitches.
Stallings whacked doubles in his first two at-bats, but those were the Tar Heels’ only hits in the first four frames.
Brian Holbertson ended that drought with a one-out single to left field and Hill walked nine-hole hitter Seth Baldwin to create some trouble. Chaz Frank dumped a base hit into right field to load the bases and red-hot Ben Bunting (6-for-9 in two CWS games before Wednesday) chased in a run with a hot shot that first baseman Aaron Westlake snared for a 3-1 putout.
Corbin opted to walk Colin Moran intentionally to load the bases for Stallings. After taking a strike and fouling off a pitch, Stallings nearly rifled a double inside the third-base line that might’ve cleared the bases.
On the next pitch Hill – a summer teammate with Stallings, the son of Commodores basketball coach Kevin Stallings – got him to chase a slider down and away.
“I got a first-pitch slider, and it was the best pitch of the at-bat to hit, and I just missed it,” Stallings said. “Taylor really kind of bumped up during that at-bat. His stuff was a lot better just that whole at-bat than it has been in my previous times.”
Added Hill, who improved to 6-1, “I obviously wanted to get ahead. … I was just going to give it everything I had, and if he hit it, he hit it. But thank goodness, he didn't.”
After that missed chance, UNC never made noise again, with the only three runners reaching on walks.
Hill mowed down six of the final seven hitters he faced and Williams breezed through two scoreless innings. Carolina left nine runners on base Wednesday and 34 in three CWS games.
“We left a lot of people on base out here for three games, but a lot of that has to do with the other team, and we were facing some pretty good arms as well,” Fox said.
Those Vandy arms get another day to fight, and Corbin said first-round Major League Baseball draft pick Sonny Gray will get the ball against the Gators.
“We've matched up against them before and done very well,” Corbin said. “We’ve had some very tight games in Nashville. But we're looking forward to this challenge.”
UNC’s season is over, but not without some fond memories.
The Tar Heels are the only team in the ACC that swept Virginia, the league’s regular-season and tournament champion and the top seed in the CWS.
The Carolina season culminated with a fifth trip to Omaha in the last six seasons.
“I don't think anybody expected us to be here, to end our season here or to even be here at the start of the season,” Fox said.
“It's obviously very difficult to win the national championship. We gave it all we had, but I'm proud that we were able to end our season in Omaha in the College World Series, and these guys got to experience it. I had a great group. They were fun to be around, and they taught me a great deal, especially our seniors. They taught me a lot … and we had fun together.”