Vanderbilt thrives on turning up the heat on its competition.
For a while on Saturday night, however, the Commodores baked in the pressure cooker.
Illinois blasted a big hit to start the game, sped around the base paths and challenged plays at the plate in jumping out to a two-run lead over the No. 2 national seed.
“They were going to try to make anything happen. Basically try to play our game against ourselves,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “[Then] the tide turned.”
With Tony Kemp, Mike Yastrzemski and Carson Fulmer leading the way, the Commodores stole back the momentum. Vanderbilt reassumed the role of aggressor and pulled away for a 10-4 victory in a NCAA Regional at Hawkins Field.
Kemp, the Southeastern Conference player of the year, hit and ran his way out of his longest slump of the season. Yastrzemski smacked three extra-base hits into gaps on both sides of the field. Fulmer, a hard-throwing freshman, stepped into a one-run game and chewed up five pivotal innings in relief.
Then a five-run eighth inning, fueled by two bunts and two Illini throwing errors, sealed Vanderbilt’s fifth straight trip to a regional final.
“We moved the game back around to us,” Corbin said. “We ran the bases hard and ran the bases effectively and cause some pressure. They didn’t handle the pressure on the bunts and we were able to capitalize on it.”
After two empty innings for Vanderbilt (53-9), Kemp set things in motion with a two-out single through the right side. He then stole second base and alertly and quickly moved to third when catcher Jason Goldstein’s throw scooted 10 feet away from the bag.
His bunt single in the eighth forced a high and errant throw from first baseman David Kerian that rolled into right field. Two runs scored and Kemp skated around to third to start the five-run inning.
“They turned it into a track meet after that,” Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said.
Kemp, the junior from Franklin finished with four hits and three runs to break out of a 0-for-10 skid – tying for his longest slump of the season. More importantly, he reached base safely, which he failed to do Friday against East Tennessee State for only the fourth time this season.
“When that kid gets on base there is nothing we can’t do,” Yastrzemski said. “Everyone feels that too. He is our spark plug.”
Yastrzemski provided plenty of energy on his own.
The senior drove in three runs, starting with a standup triple to left-center field. His two-run double off the top of the right-field wall tied the game in the fifth. He then stole third and scored on a groundout. He ended his multi-hit night by going back to the opposite field and shooting a double into the gap in left field in the seventh.
Yastrzemski did it all with a massive blood stain showing on his right pant leg. The right fielder broke open a scab on his knee when he dove to try to rob Thomas Lindauer of a leadoff triple in the first.
“We did not get ahead of him and he put very good swings on balls,” Hartleb said. “He drove a ball into each gap. Those are the guys that are tough – the guys who can use the whole field. [Kemp and Yastrzemski] are a big part of why Vanderbilt has been so successful this year.”
Just as crucial as the top of the lineup – Kemp, Yastrzemski and Xavier Turner accounted for 10 of the team’s 17 hits – was a career-high five scoreless innings thrown by Fulmer (3-0).
He relieved Tyler Beede in the fifth and inherited a runner with Vanderbilt clinging to a 5-4 lead. He worked out of the jam by striking out Brandon Hohl and benefitting from a batter’s interference call that negated the tying run.
Fulmer, named to the All-SEC Freshman team earlier in the week, threw 66 pitches, 41 going for strikes. The 5-foot-11 right-hander allowed just three hits and wiggled out of trouble in the sixth and seventh.
“The mentality is what we needed in there at the time. We needed a change up,” Corbin said. “The momentum was not in our favor at all, and if that game continued it would have been back and forth and back and forth, and we had to grab the momentum and take it on our side.”