HOOVER, Ala. – Three games of deft execution and stout pitching got Vanderbilt to the semifinal round of the SEC Tournament.
The Commodores used an altogether different and unexpected formula to march one round deeper on Saturday.
Ignited by a record-setting aggressive approach, Vandy stunned Florida with a five-run ninth-inning rally and then held on for dear life in the bottom of the frame to notch an 8-6 triumph.
The win was the No. 5-seed Commodores’ fourth in a row at Regions Park and sends them into Sunday’s 2:30 p.m. championship game against another surprising upstart, seventh-seeded Mississippi State (38-22).
To get there, Vandy (33-25) had to rally for its 14th come-from-behind win this season and it’s a safe limb to walk on to say the Commodores have never had a rally quite like this one.
“We had a really big ninth inning,” VU coach Tim Corbin said. “It was big. It was as big of an inning as we have played all year.”
Down 4-3 in a game featuring plenty of early firepower, the Commodores came up for their final hacks in the ninth inning with Florida closer Austin Maddox staring at them from the mound.
Prior to Saturday, Maddox was 12-for-12 in save chances this season and the Gators were 37-0 when they took a lead to the ninth inning.
Connor Castellano came off the bench to pinch-hit and immediately kick-started Vanderbilt’s ninth when he doubled to right field on Maddox’s second pitch. Andrew Harris bunted Castellano to third base, leaving the tying run 90 feet away.
Maddox dug the hole deeper when he hit Tony Kemp for runners on the corners. Mike Yastrzemski rekindled his role as a hero when he laid down a safety squeeze bunt, beating it out for a single to score Castellano and even the score 4-4.
“After the suicide squeeze against South Carolina, I didn’t feel any pressure here,” Yastrzemski said. “Just knowing that regardless of whether we score a run or not, we will have a guy on second base, the pressure was taken off me immediately. Trust in our runners. Trust in the guys behind us. It makes it really easy if you know that the guys behind you will do their jobs even if you can’t do yours. You’ve just got to step back, take a breath, and trust yourself.”
With the teams back to square one, the Gators got the second out when catcher Mike Zunino gunned down Yastrzemski on the back end of a double steal, but that gamble was a sign of good things to come for the Dores.
Anthony Gomez began his memorable ninth by punching a hot shot to Florida shortstop Nolan Fontana for an infield single that plated the speedy Kemp with the go-ahead run.
With blood in the water, Corbin started pushing some unorthodox buttons.
Gomez swiped second, prompting Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan to intentionally walk Conrad Gregor. Those two broke early in the count to Spencer Navin and pulled off a double steal and O’Sullivan responded by walking Navin to load the bases.
Maddox’s focus was understandably on getting the third out, so he wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to the base runners. Gomez sensed that, and with Will Cooper at the plate, the Vandy shortstop bolted full speed down the line and delivered a surprisingly easy steal of home that triggered a triple steal.
“Once Castellano got on base and we got things going, we were up one,” Gomez said. “We had one out and were just trying to push as much as we could. They were trying to throw a lot of strikes. (Maddox) got his leg up there, and I had time to get to second. I just kept going.”
|Anthony Gomez and Tony Kemp celebrate after Vanderbilt closes out an 8-6 win vs. Florida to advance to the SEC Tournament championship game.|
Added Corbin, “We both had the opinion that it was over 3 seconds to the plate. I think the cue that Anthony got at that moment was he saw that (Maddox) looked down at his glove first and made a small movement before he got into his delivery, which would have extended that time. Once he took off I just started yelling at Cooper not to swing. It happened really, really quickly. Thank goodness Cooper saw him out of the corner of his eye. It is not a play that we hadn’t worked on, because it is something that we do right before we start practice. It happened because Anthony is an instinctual base runner and he could pull it off.”
Cooper did uncork a swing two pitches later, cranking a single to left field that scored Gregor and Navin for an 8-4 cushion. Cooper was thrown on the play to end the inning, but plenty of damage had been wrought: Five runs on five hits.
Gomez’s steal of home was Vandy’s sixth of the inning and seventh of the game – both SEC Tournament records.
“Obviously we kind of gave it away there in the ninth,” O’Sullivan said. “Vanderbilt earned everything (Saturday). They battled all the way to the end.”
As did the Gators (42-18), enough so that they had the bases loaded and the winning run at first base in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Will Clinard had entered in the Florida eighth and squashed a threat by getting double-play ball to keep the deficit at one run. He sandwiched the first two outs of the ninth around Fontana’s single and needed just one more out to slam the door.
But Zunino whipped a double down the left-field line and Brian Johnson singled in Preston Tucker. Daniel Pigott produced another run with a base hit to left field and Casey Turgeon kept hope alive when he dumped another single to left to load the bases.
Corbin lifted Clinard for Drew VerHagen, and he put out the fire on his first pitch when he coaxed Justin Shafer into a routine fly ball to John Norwood in right field.
“We held it together” Corbin said. “They are tough to put away. They’re a very good team. I think they’ll end up in the middle part of the country. They are a very good team and they’ll be able to play with a chance to win.”
The Commodores get one more chance on Sunday as they seek their first tournament crown since 2007.
This will be the first meeting with Mississippi State in the tournament finals. The Bulldogs won the season series with Vandy in Starkville, Miss., 2-1. State won the first game 7-4 and the teams split a pair of one-run games – the Dores winning the middle contest 4-3 in 12 innings.