Pitted against a team famous for turning the tables when their backs were up against a wall, the Commodores needed a spark.
Aaron Westlake walks up to the plate.
It had been a long game for him the night previous. Oregon State's strategy in game one was simply to pitch around the powerful first baseman. It didn't exactly work, as Vanderbilt clobbered the Beavers 11-1, driving in 10 2-out runs in the game. Of course, it didn't hurt that Commodore Game 1 SP Sonny Gray was dominating.
Certainly, this game would be a test of Westlake's patience. Would Oregon State pitch around him again? Would he try to force the issue with any balls near the strike zone?
With Anthony Gomez on board, Aaron Westlake tattoos a Ben Wetzler pitch left up in the middle of the strike zone, handing Vanderbilt a game-opening 2 run lead.
For a team carrying the weight of those previous Super Regional disappointments, the importance of this early breathing room cannot be overstated.
With Vanderbilt's Game 2 SP, 2011 SEC Player of the Year Grayson Garvin, struggling to find the consistency that helped him dominate opponents throughout the season, the team finds itself right back in a dogfight as Oregon State is able to tie the game with one earned and one unearned by the end of three frames.
It's clear that Vanderbilt is struggling a bit from the pressure and that Oregon State is looking to exploit any Commodore mistakes.
A costly miscommunication on a shallow fly ball from Vanderbilt 3B Jason Esposito by the Oregon State SS Ryan Dunn and LF Garrett Nash leads to Vanderbilt's only run in the top of the fifth and a near game ending injury to Ryan Dunn. Though he would be okay, the damage is done. Vanderbilt has retaken the lead.
The bottom half of the next frame is decisive. With Garvin again struggling with two runners and only one out, the Commodores make a pitching change and bring in reliever Will Clinard. Though Clinard loads the bases with the first batter he faced, he is able to get out of the jam without any damage. A small, yet immense victory for the Commodores.
The sixth inning. Vanderbilt is able to score two runs thanks to clutch hitting and excellent baserunning. Aaron Westlake again approaches the plate with Anthony Gomez on board. With the score 5-2, Oregon State makes their second pitching change of the game, bringing in southpaw RP Matt Boyd, a member of OSU's vaunted closing staff, the "Killer B's."
A few pitches later and another middle of the plate pitch and Aaron Westlake puts the game firmly in the Commodores grip. More importantly, there is blood in the water, and the Commodores can taste it. They are back on the attack.
Fast forward to the 8th inning. Game still 7-2. Aaron Westlake strides to the plate with Riley Reynolds standing at third with two outs. Commodore fans sense the moment. This is something special. They all rise to their feet, giving their redshirt-junior a deserved standing ovation as he approaches the plate.
* Strike one over the inside corner. *
The applause gives way to the crowd's chant of "Westy."
* Ball one, low and inside. *
A few deep breaths, a quick half-swing of the bat and he steps back to the plate.
* Foul ball, strike two on a huge cut by Westlake that clearly signaled his intent to sate the crowd. *
A few more deep breaths and a couple practice swings to calm him down. Patience.
* Ball two on a low slider that ends up bouncing in the dirt just behind the plate. *
It was a great pitch by Boyd -- one that would have fooled almost anyone in that situation, especially someone swinging for the fences.
* Another pitch, middle of the plate. *
The crack was reminiscent of wood, and it will ring forever in my ears. Westlake, in that final swing in front of the crowd at Hawkins Field, had firmly delivered Vanderbilt a trip to Omaha. It was a performance that Commodore fans will remember for the rest of their lives. Like Shan Foster scoring 42 against Mississippi State, or Derrick Byars' block in overtime against Washington State, it is a moment that will last forever as one of the greatest moments in Commodore history.
I'm sure if you ask him, he will credit everyone from his teammates to his coaches to the Vanderbilt administration. Certainly we wouldn't be heading to Omaha without any of it. And we're obviously all grateful and excited and proud. And confident.
But thanks, Westy.