T.J. Pecoraro didn’t have his best start. Or his longest.
His appearance alone, however, provided a boost for No. 3 Vanderbilt on Tuesday.
Making his first start in more than a month, Pecoraro lasted two innings. The Commodores used a triple steal and strong pitching out of the bullpen for a 4-1 victory over Lipscomb at Hawkins Field.
“I was excited to see Pec out there,” right-hander Tyler Ferguson said. “He is a great pitcher. It wasn’t his best stuff but he’ll be there and we’re going to need him later in the season.”
Pegged to be the Sunday starter, Pecoraro took the mound for just the second time in 2013. Since allowing six runs in 1.2 innings in a loss to Long Beach State on Feb. 17, an inflamed knee kept the junior sidelined.
The right-hander’s return was brief as he threw just 31 pitches. He induced four groundouts, walked three batters and allowed one run on one hit.
“It was the first time I had seen hitters in a while so I was kind of nervous but everything else felt pretty good,” Pecoraro said. “Thirty pitches was good and then I came out and let Tyler do the rest. I was just trying to see some hitters. I don’t want to stay out there too much and start to make corrections I don’t have to make. This way I can progress from here. Just my command right now is a little off. I just got to see some more hitters and hopefully it will get better from here on.”
Vanderbilt (22-4) picked up Pecoraro and took a 2-1 lead in the third when Tony Kemp singled in a run and later scored on a balk.
The Commodores mustered just five hits but manufactured a huge insurance run in the fourth.
With the bases loaded and two outs, coach Tim Corbin decided to roll the dice and send freshman Xavier Turner from third base to spark a triple steal (Jack Lupo took third and Kemp snagged second). The delivery of Lipscomb right-hander Jacob Knott was just slow enough.
“I saw the pitcher going through his windup and it was pretty slow, kind of,” Turner said. “Coach Corbin asked me if I can get it so I told him yeah and just put it on. I slid around the tag. You know, it was close. Closer than what I thought. Luck, I guess. Pure luck.”
Lipscomb coach Jeff Forehand thought so.
Forehand disagreed with home-plate umpire Chuck Pack. He believed catcher Taylor Stewart tagged Turner before he touched home. Even so, Forehand said the play was costly for the Bisons (9-17).
“It was a huge one in that situation,” Forehand said. “[Mike Yastrzemski] strikes out on the next pitch. Runs are at a premium in this game. That run right there and the balk really put us in a position. … When you give up two runs like that against this team it is going to be hard to bounce back from it.”
The triple steal isn’t new for Vanderbilt.
Corbin pulled it out of the hat last year during the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Anthony Gomez stole home during a five-run ninth to rally past Florida and into the SEC title game.
“We like to do it when the opportunity presents itself and there are not a lot of opportunities to do it,” Corbin said. “Sometimes it can be a game-changing play. In our case [Tuesday] it was another run and there weren’t a lot of runs. We needed it.”
Ferguson and closer Brian Miller did the rest.
Pitching for the first time in three weeks, Ferguson (2-0) entered in the third and retired eight straight batters. The freshman allowed just one hit and three walks while striking out three in 4.2 innings.
He handed the ball over to Miller in the seventh with two runners on and two outs. The submarine pitcher quickly got out of the jam with a strikeout. He then put down the Bisons in order in the eighth and ninth for his eighth save.
“I thought [Ferguson] was sharp,” Corbin said. “That is a kid who works very hard. He has a chance to be very good – will be very good. I think you can bet on him. … And Brian Miller is very good at what he does and I told him that after the game. He is a very valuable kid [with] the same mentality all the time and very dependable.”
The Commodores hope to be saying the same about Pecoraro again.
He has yet to enjoy a full season of health. In 2011, his Freshman All-American campaign ended in May when he injured his elbow. Tommy John surgery kept him out the following season until late March.
Thus, Tuesday’s start, though uneventful, could be a springboard for Pecoraro’s immediate future.
“That was big for him to get back on the mound again,” Corbin said. “It was a start. It was an opportunity to throw 25-30 pitches. He hadn’t been out there in a while. We just have to keep giving him the baseball.”