Gators end fine Vanderbilt season

OMAHA, Neb. – Emotions tend to peak when a season comes to a sudden halt.

So it wasn't a big surprise to hear Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin and his Commodores speak with raw, unfiltered feelings Friday afternoon.

Florida slammed the door on Vandy's memorable 2011 campaign Friday with a taut 6-4 triumph at TD Ameritrade Park in the College World Series semifinal round.

The Commodores (54-12) coughed up an early lead in the fourth innings and clawed back to pull even in the eighth inning, but couldn't keep the Gators from claiming a fifth win in six games between the two teams this season.

And this one hurt more than any of the others because it ended Vandy's bid for a spot in the national championship series in its first-ever trip to the CWS.

"We put together a great season," said junior pitcher Sonny Gray, who wrestled his emotions throughout the postgame press conference. "Nothing to be ashamed of. We battled throughout the year and, unfortunately, we came up short two games here to Florida. They're a good team, but I don't think they're any better than us. I just think they were able to get the best out of us."

Added first baseman Aaron Westlake, "We battled our asses off. No regrets."

Westlake got the Commodores off on an explosive right foot when he crushed a 1-and-0 offering from Florida pitcher Alex Panteliodis into the right-field bullpen three hitters into the game for a 1-0 Vandy lead.

But that quick start – the third time in four CWS games the Commodores scored in the first – was all they managed against the crafty Florida left-hander.

As he did in the SEC Championship Game (a 5-0 triumph over VU), the regional championship game against Miami and a Super Regional final vs. Mississippi State, Panteliodis showed why the New York Mets snagged him in the ninth round of the recent Major League Baseball Draft.

Panteliodis gave up only two more hits in his six-inning stint, retiring 16 of the last 18 batters he faced after Westlake jerked the homer, his 18th and Vandy's fourth of the CWS.

"I missed my spot and (Westlake) definitely got a hold of it," Panteliodis said. "But after that, I got in the groove, settled down, started executing pitches, putting the ball in play and using my defense."

Meanwhile, the Gators had little trouble solving Gray, who again wasn't as sharp as he had been most of the season. Florida (53-17) collected at least one hit in every inning but the eighth, 12 of those off Gray (12-4).

Nine-hole hitter Cody Dent got the Gators untracked when he opened the third inning by pumping a triple into the Bermuda Triangle corner in right-center field. Gray walked Nolan Fontana, struck out Bryson Smith and induced a ground ball to Westlake from Preston Tucker.

Westlake fielded the routine chopper but inexplicably didn't look for the out at the plate, allowing Dent to streak home with the tying run.

Gray ran into more trouble in the fourth inning. With one out, Josh Adams lined a single to left field and Tyler Thompson dumped another hit to the same spot.

After striking out Daniel Pigott, Gray issued one of his five walks to Dent to load the bases with two outs. Fontana made that sting when he flared a soft line drive just over the second-base bag to score a pair of runs for a 3-1 Gators' lead.

The Florida advantage swelled to 4-1 in the sixth after Pigott doubled, Dent walked, Gray misplayed a Fontana bunt to fill the bases and Bryson Smith's double-play grounder plated a run.

Just when Vandy looked dead in the water, though, it got new life in the seventh inning – surprisingly against a Gators' bullpen that had been untouchable for the first two CWS games.

Tommy Toledo took over for Panteliodis and surrendered singles to Mike Yastrzemski, Conrad Gregor and Connor Harrell for a run that closed the gap to 4-2. Nick Maronde came in and couldn't find the strike zone, walking pinch-hitter Bryan Johns and then Tony Kemp to force in another run.

The third Gators pitcher of the inning, Greg Larson, finally put out the fire when he got Anthony Gomez on a fly ball. But the Commodores chased him in the eighth when Curt Casali and Yastrzemski whacked back-to-back one-out singles, Yastrzemski's wiggling through the middle just out of the grasp of Fontana and Josh Adams, the Gators' middle infielders.

Jason Esposito beat out an infield single to greet Florida closer Austin Maddox and load the bases, and Maddox hit Conrad Gregor with a pitch to force in a run that knotted the score 4-4. Harrell nearly untied the game when he blistered a ball between third base and shortstop, but Fontana made a spectacular diving stab for the second out.

Johns tapped into a fielder's choice to end the threat and leave the bases loaded for a second straight inning.

"That's what you want to do, you want to put runners on base, you want to try and score them," Esposito said. "Unfortunately, we didn't, and it's part of the game. You've just got to score runs to win and we didn't."

And the Gators did.

Although Gray had thrown over 120 pitches through seven innings, Corbin sent him back out for the eighth and didn't flinch when asked about that decision after the game.

"I don't care what the number of pitches was," Corbin said, tersely cutting off a questioner. "He wanted to go back out there. That's all there is to it. You're not going to take the ball away from him or else you're going to fight him. (I'd) rather give him the ball and let him pitch."

He did and Gray's struggles continued.

Pigott punched a leadoff single to center and Dent reached on a bunt when Esposito double-clutched on a throw across the diamond. Fontana laid down another bunt to the third-base side that Gray tried to field bare-handed and whiffed on for another scratch hit to load the bases.

"They found a way to bunt the ball in difficult triangles, and we weren't able to get an out from it," Corbin said. "I think that was probably the toughest part of it, even if we didn't get the runner at third, just trying to get an out. … They executed the small ball pretty well. We knew they were going to do it, we knew we could handle it, and we just didn't."

Will Clinard came in with the bags full and got Smith on an infield pop. Corey Williams entered and didn't find the same fortune against Preston Tucker.

The red-hot Florida first baseman ripped an opposite-field screamer to left field that Kemp frantically chased, but the ball tipped off his glove. Kemp somehow hopped right back up, grabbed the ball off the fence on a bounce and made a nice throw to the infield to limit the damage to one run.

That prompted Corbin to summon Mark Lamm, who struck out Gators' cleanup hitter Mike Zunino for the second out. But the third strike eluded Casali to allow Dent to score an insurance run – the season-high sixth tally charged to Gray.

"I wanted the ball," Gray said. "I went back out there and they put the things together and we were able to scratch two runs in the eighth inning."

Maddox worked around Westlake's one-out double in the Vandy ninth, getting Casali on a fly ball to Thompson in left to vault the Gators into the best-of-three national championship series, which starts Monday.

Which means the Commodores' season is suddenly over – a deeper run than they've ever experienced before, but still a few sizable steps short of where they wanted to be.

Asked to put what his team accomplished this season in perspective how it will help in the future, Corbin was more interested in the here and now.

"I'm not thinking about forward, right now," Corbin said, showing some raw emotion as he spoke. "Actually I'm thinking about backwards. Because when you have to sit maybe 2-3 hours from now and reflect on what you've done with a group of kids, you have to think about what you've accomplished. You can't think forward right now. Right now I want to take my phone and computer and dump it in the Tennessee River and just spend some time with these guys, because this is the toughest moment a coach, coaches, players can go through."

"This particular team will be like no other we've had at the university, in my opinion, in terms of their selfless behavior and the way they exhibited themselves in the classroom and on the field.

"You know, I've always said it's a car that's going 100 miles an hour and slams on the brakes. Tomorrow they're all gone. That part stinks. That's not fun. That's not fun at all. I just hate to see it come to an end, but it does and life moves on."

VandyMania.com Top Stories