As Connor Harrell climbed the dugout steps and walked toward home plate, Vanderbilt hitting coach Josh Holliday stopped him with a heads up.
“You’re probably going to bunt here,” Harrell recalled Holliday saying. “I’m thinking, ‘holy cow.’ ”
Moments later, Holliday’s inkling was affirmed by head coach Tim Corbin, who relayed the bunt sign to Harrell from third base.
No problem, Harrell thought, quietly feeling butterflies fly around in his stomach.
After all, this wasn’t just any bunt. This was a squeeze in the bottom of the 10th inning of a 2010 NCAA Regional championship game.
Harrell was a freshman center fielder who had bunted in a game maybe twice all season. And Corbin asked him to lay one down in order to score Curt Casali from third and send the Commodores to their first Super Regional since 2004.
Oh, and, the guy on the mound? All-American closer Neil Holland. In his 28 previous appearances that season, Louisville had yet to lose a game.
“Digging into our playbook and seeing our personnel, you thought that maybe a bunt was in play there,” Harrell said. “I just thought it might be from somebody that had proven more skill than me. I remember the shock you felt through that stadium — from our side and theirs. No one thought a freshman hitting in the nine-hole could lay down his third bunt of the season and win a regional.”
A dog pile ensued at home plate after Harrell squared and punched the first pitch into no man’s land between the mound and first base.
At the time, the moment represented a breakthrough for Corbin and Vanderbilt. The Commodores had reached a Regional the previous four years. Twice they were one win away from a trip to a Super Regional. But in 2007, as the No. 1 national seed, they suffered a gut-wrenching loss to Michigan. In 2009, Louisville ended their season.
Therefore, it was sweet, sweet victory in 2010 when Harrell drove in Casali and sent Vanderbilt to just the second Super Regional in program history.
More than just exorcising regional demons, the win served as a springboard. This weekend, the Commodores (54-10) will be playing in their third Super Regional in four years when Louisville (49-12) arrives at Hawkins Field for a best-of-three series starting Saturday, three years and one day after Harrell’s bunt.
“I think that was a growing point,” Corbin said. “When we got to that Super Regional in 2004 [in just Corbin’s second year] it was almost too early. I don’t even think we knew what we had done. We got through a Virginia Regional and ended up playing Texas and that was a tough Super Regional. But the Louisville Regional [in 2010] at the time was a very difficult regional to get through. We had lost [earlier in the regional] and we were going in what we thought was a little bit under the radar playing against a very powerful team at the time.
“I think that generated some confidence in our program and obviously allowed us to go to Florida State and play in an environment we needed to. I think without that environment we never would have gone to the College World Series in 2011.”
Vanderbilt pushed national powerhouse Florida State to the brink in a best-of-three Super Regional in 2010. In the clinching third game, the Commodores scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth and had the tying run at third base. But the Seminoles secured the final out and advanced to their 20th College World Series.
The next year, a veteran team that had a Southeastern Conference-record 12 players drafted breezed through a Regional and Super Regional with five straight wins to head to Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series for the first time.
“To be able to come back in 2011 and give some guys what they wanted, what they needed was pretty cool, especially guys like Coach Corbin,” Harrell, now a senior, said earlier this week. “Again, I was naïve enough as a sophomore to think we just went to Super Regionals and College World Series all the time. Having some perspective as a senior it is a little bit different. But it has been really exciting.”
Now, trips to Super Regionals are expected.
If Georgia Tech had upset Vanderbilt, the No. 2 national seed, a second time last weekend and eliminated the Commodores in the regional, it would have been a crushing blow. After all, this is a team many believe will not only be at the College World Series again but is a leading contender to win a national championship.
That one short hit in 2010 went a long way toward creating the current state of affairs.
“It is kind of hard to put into words. It was cool,” Harrell said. “As a guy that didn’t bunt a whole lot to be able to help our team and push us into territory we hadn’t been to in a while was pretty neat. It is a good piece of history.”