Nick Christiani (VM/Don Yates)
LEXINGTON, Ky. --- After falling behind for the third consecutive day, Vanderbilt put together its best offensive performance of the weekend as it rallied to a 4-2 win over Kentucky in front of 2,132 fans at Cliff Hagan Stadium Sunday. With the win, Vanderbilt improves to 14-8 overall and 2-4 in the Southeastern Conference, while Kentucky falls to 15-5 overall and 3-3 in the SEC.
The Commodores were sparked Sunday by a pair of solid pitching performances from starter Nick Christiani and reliever Sonny Gray. Christiani kept the Wildcat offense silent, allowing two runs on seven hits with five strikeouts in six innings for his third win of the season. Gray followed Christiani’s performance with an outstanding one of his own, tossing three innings of shutout baseball to earn his third save of the year.
Vanderbilt came out of the gates on the fast track Sunday as Brian Harris and Riley Reynolds recorded back-to-back singles off Kentucky’s freshman-phenom Alex Meyer to start the top of the first. It marked the first time all weekend that Vanderbilt’s first two batters of the game reached base. The Commodores looked to take the early lead for the first time in six-games but Meyer got Steven Liddle on strikes before Curt Casali grounded into an inning-ending 1-6-3 double play.
Kentucky had some luck fall its way in the bottom of the first as they first two batters reached base on a pair of bloop infield singles to start the inning. The Cats than loaded the bases after Keenan Wiley reached on fielder’s choice sacrifice bunt. UK clean-up hitter, Braden Kapteyn put the Wildcats on the scoreboard when he drove in Chris Bisson from third base on a single through the left side of the infield, giving Kentucky an early 1-0 lead. Things got interesting in the next at-bat as Vanderbilt recorded its first triple play of the season when Marcus Nidiffer hit a soft line drive to Brian Harris at shortstop. After Harris trapped the ball, he threw home to Fann to get Chris Wade on a force out. Fann then threw to third base for a force out of Keenan Wiley for the second out of the inning. VU third baseman Jason Espositio than threw the play back to Christiani, thinking the play was over, but after communication from the dugout Christiani wisely threw it back to Reynolds at second base, who than stepped on the base to complete the triple play.
Vanderbilt put the pressure on the Wildcats once again in the top of third and this time they were able to capitalize. Matt Marquis knotted the game at 1-1 when he came home on the second wild pitch of the inning by Meyer. Marquis reached base after being hit by Meyer and than advanced to second on a perfectly executed sacrifice bunt by Fann. Following Reynolds walk, Meyer threw his first wild pitch of inning, advancing Marquis to third and Reynolds to second.
VU continued to show good patience at the plate as UK’s Meyer struggled with control issues through the first three frames. Vanderbilt got its first two batters on in the top of fourth when Aaron Westlake and Joe Loftus drew walks to start the inning, forcing the Wildcats to use their bullpen after Meyer threw 70 pitches, only 32 for strikes in three innings of work.
With runners on first and second with no one out Vanderbilt was in good position to take the lead. However, the Commodores once again failed to come up with a key hit with runners in scoring position as UK’s Tyler Henry got Jason Esposito to ground into a double play before putting Marquis down on strikes, ending the top of the fourth.
The Cats retook the lead in the bottom of the fourth when Gunner Glad drove in Chad Wright from second base with his RBI single. Wright reached base drawing a five pitch base-on-ball before advancing to s
econd on a stolen base.
The Commodore bats started to heat up in the top of the sixth inning when Liddle belted a 3-0 fastball from Henry over the right field wall for his second homerun of the season, tying the game at two. The homerun for Liddle was his first round-tripper in SEC play. VU kept the momentum as Casali followed Liddle with an infield single to third base. After Westlake lined out to left field Casali advanced to second on a balk by Henry. Following the balk, Esposito recorded his third hit of the series with a single through the left side, moving Casali to third base. Henry then walked Marquis on four pitches Drew Fann came to the plate with runners on the corners. After falling behind 0-2 in the count, Fann drove a single up the middle to plate Casali, giving the Commdores their first lead of weekend, 3-2. VU nearly took a two-run lead as Esposito tried to score from second base on the play but was called out by home plate umpire Larry Short on a bang-bang play.
Meanwhile, VU starting pitcher Nick Christiani continued to tame the Wildcat offense as he limited the Wildcats to only infield singles.
Vanderbilt added some insurance in the top of the ninth run when Riley Reynolds tripled down the right field line to score Brian Harris from second base, making the score 4-2 in favor of the Commodores. Harris got the ‘Dores offense rolling in the top of ninth when he drove a one-out double to left field off UK reliever Clint Tilford.
Instead of making the pitching change, VU kept Gray in to close the door and salvage the series. After retiring the first two batters in the ninth, Gray gave up two-out single to Wiley, before fanning Kapteyn on strikes to end the game.
The Commodores will return to Nashville next week for midweek contests against Austin Peay and Wright State before the weekend series with Auburn next weekend. VU’s game with Austin Peay will get underway with the opening pitch slated for 4 p.m. at Charlie Hawkins Field.
Vanderbilt 001 002 001 - 491
Kentucky 100 100 000 - 2(10)1
Christiani, Gray (7) and Fann. Meyer, Henry (3), Darnell (7), Tilford (8), Kapteyn (9) and Nidiffer. W- Christiani (3-0) L- Henry (0-1) Sv- Gray (3) HR- Liddle (2) 3B- Reynolds (1), 2B- Harris (7) SB- Westlake (2)