Vanderbilt’s season ended in Omaha, Neb. – just not with a national championship.
The Commodores couldn’t extend their first trip to the College World Series, falling short in a 6-4 loss to Southeastern Conference rival Florida on Friday.
“It is just a bad feeling,” Vanderbilt starting pitcher Sonny Gray said. “You don’t want to feel this way but eventually every team is going to feel this way except for one. Unfortunately, we weren’t that one.”
Vanderbilt (54-12) rallied from a three-run deficit and tied the game in the top of the eighth. But Preston Tucker delivered a one-out, go-ahead RBI single in the bottom half of the frame that propeled Florida (53-17) to the CWS championship round for the first time since 2005.
Both of Vanderbilt’s losses in the double-elimination tournament came against Florida. The Gators, who were 5-1 against Vanderbilt this season, will resume play on Monday, matching up against either defending national champion South Carolina or the No. 1 seed Virginia.
“Losing, it sucks,” Vanderbilt first baseman Aaron Westlake said. “You are not going to feel good right now. You want to get to the championship. You want to win. That is why we are here. It sucks right now but once we get back to Nashville, wind down, regroup as a team, we will look over this year and we are going to be proud of each other.”
The Commodores trailed 4-1 heading into the seventh inning. They finally broke through against the Florida bullpen when Mike Yastrzemski and Conrad Gregor singled, putting runners on the corners with two outs. Connor Harrell laced a single to left field that drove in Yastrzemski and chased relief pitcher Tommy Toledo.
Lefty Nick Maronde then walked pinch-hitter Bryan Johns and Tony Kemp, which directly led to run as Gregor trotted in. Vanderbilt tied it in the eighth. After three straight singles, Florida’s Austin Maddox plunked Gregor on the right foot, allowing Curt Casali to score.
Still, the Commodores could not take the lead with the bases loaded and one out. Harrell laced a liner to the left side but shortstop Nolan Fontana made a diving catch for the out. Johns then grounded to third to end the inning.
Gray went back out onto the mound in the eighth, having tossed 123 pitches. Vanderbilt’s ace gave up three straight singles to start the inning. The last two came on bunts as third baseman Jason Esposito’s throw was a little late and off the bag. Gray then failed to bare hand a bunt near the third-base line. That would be all for Gray as the Smyrna native threw a season-high 131 pitches.
It was most likely his last game as a Commodore as the junior right-hander was drafted 18th overall by the Oakland Athletics earlier this month.
Right-hander Will Clinard came in for one batter and forced a pop up. Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin elected to go with the lefty-lefty matchup, bringing in Corey Williams to face Tucker. Florida’s first baseman powered a shot the opposite way to left field.
The ball went just over the glove of outfielder Tony Kemp, who attempted an over-the-shoulder catch. He quickly scooped up the ball off the wall and threw it into the infield, keeping more than one run from scoring.
Cody Dent scored anyway after Clinard threw a wild pitch. The ball got away from Casali after a swinging third strike by Mike Zunino.
Down to its last strike in the top of the ninth, Westlake doubled off the wall in right-center. Any potential rally was snuffed out immediately as Casali flied out to left field to end the game and Vanderbilt’s season.
“Even in the top of the ninth, we still battled,” Westlake said. “We’re never going to give up.”
Westlake’s solo homer – his team-leading 18th of the year – in the first gave Vanderbilt a 1-0 lead. Florida tied it in the third as Dent led off with a triple and later scored on a groundout RBI by Tucker.
The Gators took the lead in the fourth on a two-out, two-RBI single up the middle by Fontana. They tacked on another run in the sixth. They rattled off 12 hits against Gray (12-4), a career-high. The 6-foot, 180-pounder gave up six earned runs, walked five but struck out eight.
“Sonny is the best competitor on our team, whether he is throwing well or not,” Casali said in a postgame radio interview. “Some days he does have good days. Some days he is really off. He is always going to grind out for us. He is one of the best team players we have. ... He is our rock.”