Top-ranked Vanderbilt finally packed some power into an offensive weekend.
Curt Casali and Bryan Johns hit monster home runs Sunday as the Commodores finished off a three-game sweep of visiting Alabama with an 11-6 victory at Hawkins Field in front of 3,357, which added to a three-day attendance total of 9,616 — the second most for a weekend series in school history.
The Commodores (30-3, 10-2 Southeastern Conference) have won 10 straight overall and a school-record eight consecutive SEC games. It was their first sweep of Alabama (21-13, 7-5) since 1986 and first time they have swept back-to-back league series in four years.
Vanderbilt scored 29 runs and hammered out 39 hits in the three games against the Crimson Tide, who came in first in the SEC West. Yet it did not hit any home runs until the weekend's final contest.
“I think the fans would like to see a little bit more home runs,” Casali said. “But if you look in years past, we are pretty much at the bottom of the SEC every year in home runs. That is because we don’t pride ourselves on that. We pride ourselves on pitching and defense and timely hitting. So far this year, that is what we have been able to do.”
Casali and Johns added some long fly excitement as they broke open a one-run game with home runs over the 35-foot left-field wall.
VU was up 4-3 when Casali sky rocketed a 1-2 pitch over the 20-foot scoreboard that sits on top of the wall. The ball bounced off the roof of the Commodores’ indoor baseball facility behind it. Two batters later, Johns delivered a two-run shot that got some help from a strong right-to-left wind and landed on top of the same building, just to the right of the scoreboard
It was Casali’s second home run of the season and Johns’ first — the second of his career.
Those were the exception to what was an otherwise small-ball weekend. Twenty-six of the 39 hits were singles, five of which never got out of the infield.
Vanderbilt bothered Alabama all weekend with what coach Tim Corbin referred to as its “fastbreak offense." Sound bunting and hits that found holes and gaps were aplenty, as was good baserunning that often led to an extra base or run other teams might not have picked up.
“It causes havoc,” Vanderbilt left fielder Tony Kemp said. “Our team has so many elements that we can bring to the game. You have the bunt. You have the hit and run. You have the steal. ... Trying to defend that is going to be tough.”
Coming into the weekend, Vanderbilt ranked 11th in the SEC in home runs and tied for 10th in doubles but was second in total hits. The Commodores now have 12 home runs, 60 doubles and seven triples among its 343 hits.
All together, though, it adds up to 222 runs, the second most in the SEC. More importantly, the hits —while low on power — have led to at least 30 wins for the eighth straight year. Only second-ranked Virginia (31-3) currently has more.
“There is only one statistic I am concerned with and you know what that is,” Corbin said. “As long as that statistic stays high, I don’t really care what our personality is. I don’t care who is getting the hits. I don’t care who is pitching. All I care about is the team stays happy, we stay academically eligible, we do the right things off the field and we win ballgames. Everything else after that is icing on the cake.”
• Kemp made a spectacular diving catch in top of the eighth inning that kept three Alabama runs off the scoreboard. The Crimson Tide had already trimmed a seven-run lead to 10-6 and had the bases loaded with two outs.
On a 2-0 pitch from Vanderbilt relief pitcher Will Clinard, Alabama’s No. 9 hitter, Hunter Gregory hit a liner to left field. The ball dipped quickly and looked like it would get down to score all three baserunners. But the 5-foot-6 Kemp leaped several feet in the air and snagged it on the warning track just before it hit the ground.
“It was unbelievable, man,” Clinard said. “He was like four feet off the ground, completely extended. ... I saw him streaking toward the outfield like a blur in the wind. I knew he would just lay out for that ball. It was an unbelievable catch, one of the best catches I have ever seen.”
Kemp, a Centennial High product, credited hitting coach Josh Holliday for reminding him and the other outfielders that the wind was blowing hard to the left.
“As the ball was hit, I knew the ball would be carrying. So luckily I was able to go back and make the catch,” Kemp said. “It just made me feel a lot better because when I got picked off at first [base in the fourth inning]. It just made me feel better that I could come up for my team.”
• Sophomore shortstop Anthony Gomez extended his hitting streak to 28 games. The right-handed hitter had a single and a double and finished the weekend 7-for-13.
Ryan Flaherty holds the Vanderbilt record of 38 straight games with a hit, which he set during the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
• Corey Williams relieved starter Taylor Hill in the fifth inning and got his first win of the season. Williams (1-0) entered with one out and one on after Hill gave up a two-run single that tied the game at 3-3.
Williams retired the first two batters he faced to get out of the inning and came back for one more in the sixth, working around a two-out double to keep the game tied. In the bottom half of the sixth, the Commodores took a one-run lead on an RBI sacrifice fly from Kemp and broke it open in the seventh with six runs.
• The Commodores now hit the road for four straight games. They play MTSU for the second time in as many weeks when they travel to Murfreesboro for a 6 p.m. start on Tuesday. Vanderbilt defeated the Blue Raiders 9-1 last Tuesday at Hawkins Field.
From there, the Commodores will travel to play the defending national champion, No. 3 South Carolina, for a three-game weekend series, beginning on Friday.