Vanderbilt baseball sees reason to celebrate after back-to-back rallies against Georgia

Sunday, March 25, 2012 at 7:21pm

After smothering the final out, Vanderbilt first baseman Conrad Gregor tossed the ball high into the air and hurried off to slap joyous high-fives with his teammates.

The scene almost looked like it belonged in June — much like the one that unfolded last summer when the Commodores clinched their first trip to the College World Series.

At this moment, though, Omaha, Neb. — the home of the CWS — couldn’t have been farther away. It was the last Sunday in March with more than 30-regular season games remaining.

Yet to the Commodores this win meant more.

Vanderbilt rallied for a 5-3 victory against No. 17 Georgia on Sunday at Hawkins Field to capture their Southeastern Conference first series this season.

“It is really big. It is almost as big as a [NCAA] Regional game,” Gregor said. “This win was very big for this program. It is going to carry us into this next week. We’re going to play with a lot of confidence and I think it was very good to come out the way we did [Sunday] and play really hard.”

Vanderbilt (9-15, 2-4 SEC) took the last two games of the series and came from behind both times after it lost the opener 1-0 on Friday. VU erased a two-run deficit to walk off with a 5-4 win in the ninth on Saturday. Then the Commodores scraped across four runs in the eighth on Sunday to surge past the Bulldogs (17-8, 3-3).

To a youthful team sputtering through growing pains over the last two months, the importance of this series can’t be undersold.

“We’ve been fighting all year,” pitcher Will Clinard said. “We’ve had a lot of these opportunities late and it feels good to finally break that door down and get some runs late. Gives us a lot of confidence.”

On Saturday, the Commodores used three walks, a Georgia error and a sacrifice fly to score two runs and tie the game in the ninth. In stepped Gregor, who struck a hard hit grounder off the diving second baseman’s glove to drive in Tony Kemp for the dramatic victory.

In the finale, Gregor again provided the timely hit. Trailing 2-1, with two outs and faced with a full count, he lifted Bryan Benson’s eighth pitch into right field, dropping in for a single to again drive in Kemp.

Two batters later, Vince Conde put the Commodores up for good. The freshman smacked a triple over the head of center fielder Conor Welton, easily knocking in Gregor and Spencer Navin, who reached on a walk.

“I got a good whack at it and went it over,” Conde said. “I thought he was going to catch it maybe. I didn’t know. I was just hoping it would go over. Big win for us. We battled the whole year. We’ve worked hard and it feels good to come through finally and come back and win two games of three. We feel good now. We have more confidence.”

Junior transfer Drew VerHagen (3-2) pitched the last two-plus innings to get the win. The right-hander worked out of a jam in the ninth to strand a runner — Georgia stranded 30 in three games — and cap off an excellent week of pitching.

Last in the SEC in ERA (5.23) before the weekend, the Commodores 14 pitchers to allow a combined eight runs in three games — the fewest amount for a series this season.

All three starters — Kevin Ziomek on Friday, Tyler Beede on Saturday and Clinard on Sunday — allowed just one earned run.

Clinard actually picked up the win on Saturday, pitching the ninth inning. Just hours later, he was told he would make just his second career start and first in more than two years. In the rubber match, he allowed just four hits and no walks while striking out four and giving up a homer in four innings pitched.

“We had to give it to someone who was going to throw the most strikes and just keep them down,” coach Tim Corbin said. “We knew they were going to hit the ball because they are a good hitting team. We just didn’t want to hurt ourselves anymore by giving up any type of freebies. Will is very capable of that. I’m proud of him. Those are the gifts he gets for staying another year and we certainly get the dividends of him staying here.

Clinard, a junior, is the veteran of the pitching staff. The right-hander from Cross Plains was the only player drafted — out of 12 — in 2011 that returned. In fact, he was on the mound last summer when the Commodores punched their ticket to the CWS.

Reaching that stage for a second straight year still appears to be a lofty dream. The Commodores sit in fifth place in the SEC East, ahead of reigning national champ South Carolina (17-7, 1-5), which comes to Nashville next weekend. Only the top 10 teams make the SEC Tournament in the last week of May. With the two wins, Vanderbilt sits in 10th place.

“Every game means something,” Corbin said. “This game right here is going to mean something in May. You just need people to step in situations that they might not have been in before.”