Vanderbilt has turned its NCAA baseball regional into a game of ‘catch me if you can.’
Troy did exactly that Saturday — briefly.
The Trojans led for exactly two-thirds of an inning before the Commodores rallied and eventually pulled away to a 10-2 victory before 3,323 at Hawkins Field. The exclamation point was back-to-back home runs by Aaron Westlake and Curt Casali in the top of the ninth.
“One of the things we’ve done well all year is that if someone punches us, we’re resilient and we punch right back,” Westlake said. “We don’t let it affect us. Since we’ve been in that situation many times we just keep playing the game we’ve been playing all year.
“We have confidence in each other. … We have confidence that somebody is going to pick somebody else up.”
VU’s next game is 7 p.m. Sunday against the winner of a 2 p.m. elimination contest between Belmont and Troy, teams it already has beaten this weekend. With a victory, the Commodores will earn their second straight and third all-time NCAA super regional appearance.
No doubt they would prefer to stick with their play-with-the-lead approach, given how it has been for them at this time of year.
Vanderbilt (49-10) captured the Louisville regional last spring when it won its final three contests without ever trailing. It opened this year’s tournament with two runs in the first Friday against Belmont and cruised to a 10-0 victory .
When Troy (43-18) scored twice in the bottom of the fourth and went ahead 2-1, therefore, it was the first time in 40.2 innings of regional play that the Commodores were on the wrong end of the score. A two-out single by Todd McRae produced the only runs against VU starter Grayson Garvin, the SEC pitcher of the year, who allowed seven hits with one walk and struck out seven in 6.2 innings.
“That was a tough moment at that time,” coach Tim Corbin said. “I didn’t really have any doubts. I don’t think the kids did either, I mean it’s easy to say now, but I felt like we were going to get right back in that game at some point.
“We’ve done a lot of that all year.”
Tony Kemp put the Commodores back in front — and for good — with a two-RBI single in the top of the fifth. He took advantage of a throwing error by Troy second baseman T.J. Rivera and reached third on the play, which allowed him to increase the lead to two runs when the next hitter, Anthony Gomez, delivered a sacrifice fly.
The Trojans got at least one base runner in each of the next three innings but failed to score.
“I think [the top of the fifth] was the key part of the ballgame,” Troy coach Bobby Pierce said. “If we get to feeling pretty good about where we’re at then we might put a couple more runs up. … That could change the ballgame.
“But when you’re playing from behind, which we had to do when they came back, it didn’t allow us to make some moves that we’re normally able to make out of our bullpen.”
Specifically, Pierce said he stayed with his second pitcher, Nathan Hill, longer than usual.
Hill came on in the fifth after Vanderbilt’s first two hitters reached and gave up the single to Kemp and the sacrifice fly to Gomez. Thereafter, he kept it close until he allowed two runs in the eighth. Nick Ward replaced him in the ninth, got just one out and gave up four runs capped by the two home runs.
With that final flourish, the Commodores scored in double figures in back-to-back NCAA games for just the second time ever. The last time was 2007 — also the last time it hosted — when it beat Austin Peay 11-5 and Michigan 10-7 in a single day.
“The game was very similar to some of the games we’ve played all year,” Corbin said. “It was a very tight game up until the seventh inning and then we distanced ourselves late.
“I think the big key was the three-run fifth.”
• Garvin became Vanderbilt’s all-time single-season wins leader as he improved to 13-1. He broke the previous mark that was shared by Jeff Peeples (1973) and Casey Weathers (2007).
“He has been our second-day pitcher, and he’s been so big in so many situations — this game included,” Corbin said. “… My hat’s off to the way Grayson has pitched all year.”
The junior left-hander had just three starts and a 1-2 record in his previous two seasons.
“I can’t do anything I’ve done without the guys behind me,” Garvin said. “… I’ve had unbelievable run support, unbelievable defense, unbelievable catching all year.”
• This is just the third time Vanderbilt won its first two NCAA tournament games. The first time was its first appearance, in 1973 (it lost the next two), and the next time was in 2004, when it went 3-0 at Virginia and then was swept by Texas in the super regional.
“We can just stay in the same routine,” Corbin said. “We played at 7 o’clock on Friday and 7 o’clock on Saturday, we play 7 o’clock on Sunday. It’s just another ballgame, and it’s mostly about what we’re going to do because we don’t know who the opponent is, and at this point it doesn’t matter. We’re going to play another nine or 10 [innings] or whatever it takes to win another ballgame.”
• All nine Vanderbilt starters scored at least one run. The only one who scored two was Gregor. His were the first two.