Vanderbilt gets it done in Hoover

Few thought they'd even bother; Vanderbilt had already won the 2007 SEC regular season baseball championship and was a lock to host an NCAA regional. A No. 1 seeded team had not won the SEC Tournament since 1996. But this team is different than the previous No. 1 seeded SEC teams. This is a team that hates to lose any game regardless of the situation and a team that makes the plays to win.

To get to any championship it takes plays and Vanderbilt needed them after falling to rival Tennessee 6-4, on Wednesday in game one and facing elimination.

The Commodores faced a tough Mississippi State team on Thursday in the losers bracket. The Commodores got a stellar pitching performance from David Price who struck out 11 Rebels to pick up the win. Price also boosted Vanderbilt's pitching situation by going all 9 innings to keep reliever Casey Weather fresh. The defensive play of the game came in the top of the seventh when center fielder David Macias fired home a ball to catcher Shea Robin who tagged out Bulldog Mitch Moreland. Had Moreland scored the Bulldogs would have tied the game 3-3 and who knows what would have happened.

Friday Vanderbilt had another tough task. The Commodores faced a confident Tennessee team that had beaten them two days earlier. Freshmen ace pitcher Mike Minor shut down the Vols, striking out 8 and allowing just 2 earned runs. Vanderbilt bats were blazing as a red hot Pedro Alvarez pounded out 4 hits and a walk in 5 at bats. Three other Commodores had multiple hits on the day in helping Vandy to advance to Saturday's games.

Saturday was the biggest obstacle of all for the Commodores quest for a second SEC Baseball Championship in 2007. Vanderbilt met an excellent Ole Miss team that had knocked them out of the title game in 2006. One win wouldn't suffice, the Commodores had to defeat the Rebs twice, back-to-back, to advance to the title game again.

The pitching hero this time was Cody Crowell. Crowell pitched all 8 innings. Yes, all 8 innings because of a 10-run mercy rule that was invoked after Vanderbilt batters dominated for the second straight game. The Black and Gold raced out to an early 8-0 lead that might as well have been 100-0. Crowell struck out 5 and scattered 5 hits as Vandy went on to win 13-1 and advance to play the Rebs again. Alvarez had his second consecutive 4-hit game and Brad French, Matt Meingasner, Ryan Flaherty, and Dominic de la Osa each had a pair of hits.

The second game with Ole Miss was one for the ages. Ty Davis opened as the starting pitcher but Davis is a great reliever, not a starter. That was quickly obvious after the Rebs jumped out to an early 2-0 lead. But who would relieve Davis? It was the second inning and it was too early to bring in Casey Weathers and besides, Corbin wanted a lefty because Ole Miss seemed to have trouble with them. Introducing Jason Cunningham. Cunning who? said many Commodore faithful who likely squirmed in their seats when they saw the unfamiliar face. Cunningham, who served as a student manager for the team during the 2006 season, proceeded to show us why college sports are so special. The little known player wasn't overpowering but he got the job done. In 4 2/3 innings of quality work he allowed just two hits and no runs.

After six scoreless innings Vanderbilt trailed 3-2 going into the bottom of the ninth. Shea Robin got the hit when his team needed it. A double to lead off the inning that eventually got him in position to score the tying run after an Ole Miss player made the mistake of catching a foul ball, allowing Robin to score.

The game was tied through the ninth, which forced extra innings. In the tenth things looked bleak for our Commodores but Vanderbilt never quits, besides, coming from behind to win games is nothing new for this team. Ole Miss surged out to a 6-3 lead and the Rebels were celebrating a likely repeat visit to the SEC Championship game. Surely, Vanderbilt's final at bat would only be a formality. The Vanderbilt team would have none of that. Who would be the next hero? Try the lead off batter, Dominic de la Osa, who launched a home run over the fence to bring Vandy to within two at 6-4. Back to back singles by Pedro Alvarez and Ryan Flaherty got the Rebels nervous and a throwing error put Matt Meingasner on base and scored Alvarez, bringing Vanderbilt to within one of the Rebels.

Then it happened. Trailing 6-5, Shea Robin came to the plate. Robin had made an earlier costly errant throw that played a big factor in the Rebs building their 6-3 lead in the top of the tenth. Robin calmly smacked the first pitch to right field, scoring Meingasner and Flaherty to give the Commodores the win and a spot in the SEC Championship game for the second consecutive year.

The Sunday title game wasn't as exciting as Saturday's thrilling second game win over Ole Miss but it was more significant because another loss in a title game would have the Commodores looking like the Buffalo Bills of SEC Baseball. It looked early on like it would be another rout similar to the 15-2 victory over Tennessee two days earlier. Vanderbilt bolted out to a quick 4-0 lead over Arkansas behind hits by Macias, de la Osa, Alvarez, Flaherty, and Hanks but hitting wasn't a concern for Vandy in this game, pitching was the concern.

The decimated Commodore pitching staff sent Tyler Rhoden to the mound and after giving up two early home runs to make the score 4-3 he performed well, striking out six and lasting deep into the seventh inning. Vanderbilt carried a 6-4 lead into the eighth. The Hogs were threatening to pull within one when Commodore left fielder Matt Meingasner made the defensive play of the game, gunning down the Hog's Matt Willard at home plate from left field. In the end it was two mid week pitchers who got the crowning win and save of the season as Rhoden got the win and Brett Jacobson picked up the championship save.

The Commodores now head to the NCAA Tournament and they'll host a regional for the first time ever.

Will they make it to Omaha? That remains to be seen but they need to worry about the coming weekend first. One thing is for sure, these Commodores can make the plays when they need to and that seems to be a trait of championship teams.


Vanderbilt catcher Shea Robin tags out Arkansas' Matt Willard in the eighth inning of the Southeastern Conference baseball tournament championship game at the Regions Park in Hoover, Ala., on Sunday, May 27, 2007. Vanderbilt won 7-4. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

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