Vanderbilt baseball solidified their campaign for a regional hosting gig this summer with four wins in the next-to-last week of the regular season. After a thrilling 11-10, 17-inning win over #9 Louisville on Tuesday, the Commodores hung a pasting on SEC West cellar-dweller Mississippi State in Starkville, scoring 40 runs in a three-game sweep. The wins clinched Vandy's spot in the SEC Tournament, where the 'Dores currently hold the fourth seed, and bumped the 'Dores up to #15 in the USA Today Top 25.
As the weather is heating up, so are the 'Dores bats. This week's explosion of 51 runs over four games was the team's most in any week this year. Vanderbilt paired two blowout wins with two come-from-behind rallies to make a bold statement in favor of hosting a NCAA Regional to kick off the NCAA Tournament. While the team's pitching staff gave up more runs than usual, Vandy's hurlers got important outs when they needed them and let the bats take care of the rest on their way to a perfect week.
Players like Jason Esposito, Andrew Giobbi, and Will Clinard were instrumental to the Commodores' success. Esposito will come into Friday's game with Arkansas riding a 15 at-bat on-base streak, and added three steals and two runs per game against Mississippi State. Giobbi provided the team's power with home runs in back-to-back four RBI games to close out the Bulldogs. Clinard is just one example of the team's pitchers coming through in the clutch, shutting down Louisville in extra frames with six innings of work and returning to close out MSU in the 10th inning on Saturday.
The Commodores continue to ride a hot streak, going 7-1 since an unexpected series loss at Tennessee and upset at the hands of Austin Peay. Vanderbilt, combined with the slumping play of former Top Ten teams LSU and Ole Miss, has made a serious case for membership in the SEC's elite. Unfortunately, coming into the final week of the season, the 'Dores can't climb any higher than fourth in the league's tournament seeding, due partially to the two canceled games against Georgia and the presence of the SEC West winner, who will claim the second seed in the tournament even if there are teams with better records in the East. Still, the motivation for Vanderbilt has to be not only pride but the chance to play their NCAA Tournament opener on the resilient turf of Hawkins Field.
Game 0 - Vanderbilt 11, Louisville 10 (17 innings): Vanderbilt rallied twice from what would have been game-ending two run deficits to rally past the #9 Cardinals in the first game in Nashville since the floods. Jason Esposito launched a two-out walkoff home run that sealed the win after over five hours of play in the 17th inning. Will Clinard spun six innings of effective relief, all in the extra frames, to pick up the win. A more extensive write-up is here.
Game 1 - Vanderbilt 13, Mississippi State 8: The Bulldogs jumped on Sonny Gray, scoring five runs in the first two innings, but the Commodore bats came on strong to support their Game One starter, delivering a win. Gray gave way to Richie Goodenow in the sixth inning, who shut down MSU for three innings - striking out five and allowing no hits as the 'Dores extended their lead to 13-5. Aaron Westlake and Curt Casali both homered at the plate, while Connor Harrell added two doubles and four RBI.
Game 2 - Vanderbilt 13, Mississippi State 7 (10 innings): Down 5-1 after five innings, Vanderbilt rallied to extend Game Two, then blew it open with an eight run 10th inning to clinch the series win. Trailing by two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Anthony Gomez scored on a wild pitch and Jason Esposito scored the equalizer when Joe Loftus, one strike from ending the game, was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded. The 'Dores took advantage of this opportunity and unloaded on the Bulldogs in the 10th, unloading five hits and four walks to push across eight decisive runs. Russell Brewer got the win despite another shaky outing, allowing two runs in 1.1 innings of relief.
Game 3 - Vanderbilt 14, Mississippi State 4: The Commodores didn't need a comeback on Sunday, jumping out to a 8-0 lead after four innings and cruising to the series sweep. Esposito reached base six times (five walks) and Bryan Johns hit his first home run for Vanderbilt in the blowout win. The victory pushed Vandy's SEC record to 15-10.
AoG's prestigious pitching and batting awards, coming up after the jump...
The Henry Rowengartner Hot-Ice Excellence in Pitching Award Goes to...
Will Clinard. Clinard shone against a backdrop of lackluster pitching performances this week (although Jack Armstrong's Sunday start deserves recognition as well). Clinard put in a starter's effort in Tuesday's relief job, and his shutdown pitching over the final three innings gave the Commodores the chance to win it in the 17th. He came back on Saturday to settle things down in the 10th inning as well, and for the week threw 6.2 innings with five strikeouts and just two earned runs. Clinard looks like he'll be the Commodores' go-to guy for long relief in the postseason.
The Clu Haywood "How's your wife and my kids?" Destroyer of Pitchers Award Goes to...
Jason Esposito. Anytime you reach base 15 straight times, you get this award. Espo not only had an OBP of .833 against MSU, but he also stole a base in every game over the weekend and scored a pair of runs in every game. Before that, he hit the game winning home run to lift the 'Dores over the highly ranked Cardinals. Vanderbilt fans knew that the sophomore would be a solid point in the Commodore lineup, but few could have predicted that he'd be able to impact games in so many different ways. Esposito may just be marching headlong into an All-American spot in 2010.
So, there's your recap. Award winners this week can pick up their plaques at the AoG main offices, located in a darkened apartment this week, quietly avoiding the Census takers. The past week was great, but in reality, Vanderbilt just did what they were supposed to do - beat a good team at home and sweep a bad one. This coming week will give the 'Dores a big-time challenge that should give us a barometer reading of where the team stands heading into postseason play. Friday will spark a big time showdown between #14 Arkansas and the Commodores, with the winner likely clinching a National Seed for the NCAA Tournament and hosting duties on the tournament's first weekend. It might also be the last chance to see Vandy play at home, and will have all the pressure and intensity of a playoff series. If you're in Nashville, you should absolutely make your way out to Hawkins Field.
No weekday games.
vs. #14 Arkansas 38-14 (16-11 SEC)