For six innings, Vanderbilt ace Kevin Ziomek was having his way with the Louisville lineup.
Then the Cardinals' bats began to go the other way.
Opposite-field hits doomed Ziomek and the Commodores as they surrendered three runs, along with a one-run lead, in the seventh inning of a NCAA Super Regional. No. 2 national seed Vanderbilt failed to mount a late-inning rally in a 5-3 loss to Louisville on Saturday in the opener of a best-of-three series at Hawkins Field.
“They grinded through some at-bats there,” Ziomek said. “They battled all game. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit. They stuck with it. They didn’t give up there. I made a couple pitches but they put some good swings and they fell when they needed to. They made some clutch hits at the end.”
Ziomek (11-3) allowed just two hits and one run through the first six innings and retired 11 of 12 entering the seventh. But a flurry of two-out hits spelled the left-hander’s first loss since April 20.
With Vanderbilt leading 2-1, Louisville designated hitter Jeff Gardner led off with a single. Ziomek induced two groundouts in a row as Gardner moved to third.
Then the Cardinals’ left-handed hitters began slapping the ball the other way. Zak Wasserman drove in Gardner and tied the game with a chopper in the hole through the left side. Sutton Whiting followed with blooper over the shortstop. Adam Engel walked to load the bases and end Ziomek’s day after 110 pitches.
“Kevin pitched well,” coach Tim Corbin said. “We just had a couple tough breaks there in that seventh inning.”
The last tough break came with the first batter Vanderbilt closer Brian Miller faced. Corbin said Freshman All-American right-hander Carson Fulmer was unavailable after injuring his eye before the game when a stretching band snapped off his foot and hit him in the face.
Miller, a side-armed right-hander with a school-record 16 saves this season, couldn’t get out of the jam or avoid the opposite-field hit either. On a 1-2 count, pinch-hitter Matt Helms smacked a go-ahead two-run single past a diving Xavier Turner at third.
“If you shorten up and you go the other way, you are going to have a lot of success,” Wasserman said. “When your swing gets big and you try to pull the ball that is when you’re not going to have success against these guys because they have great stuff. The simpler you make it the easier it is.”
While the bats heated up for Louisville (50-12), Vanderbilt cooled off.
After getting six hits in the first three innings, the Commodores (54-11) mustered just one the rest of the game. Through the fourth to seventh innings, 12 of 13 Vanderbilt batters who went to the plate were retired.
The Commodores managed to put runners on in the last two innings and scored a run on an error in the eighth. But they stranded five runners in the final two frames, including leaving the bases loaded in the ninth against closer Nick Burdi.
“Tough ballgame for us,” Corbin said. “We put ourselves in a position to win it at the end, the last couple innings. We just didn’t get the big hit. But I’m proud of the way the kids dug in and got themselves off a tough pitcher. I guess our demise was that seventh inning. We just couldn’t get out of it.”
For the second straight weekend, Vanderbilt heads into an elimination game. After losing to Georgia Tech last Sunday, the Commodores bounced back the next day with a 7-1 win to capture a regional championship.
With its season on the line, Vanderbilt will send sophomore Tyler Beede (14-0) to the mound on Sunday (3 p.m., ESPN).
“We have confidence in everybody,” Ziomek said. “We feel pretty good about [Sunday]. We have a lot of baseball left. So we’re not afraid of anything. We’ve come back before and we’re ready to come back [Sunday].”