It took three months, but Vanderbilt is finally starting to look like the top 10 program that many pundits thought they could be during the preseason.
Vanderbilt needed some big wins this week to put themselves in contention for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. However, matchups with #22 Louisville and #4 LSU made the Diamond 'Dores a hearty underdog on the field. The Vanderbilt team that was pressed into action against Stanford back in February would have crumbled against those odds. The newly matured Commodores shone this time around.
Vandy posted their most significant victories of the season when they needed them the most, being Louisville at home and taking a key series at LSU to improve to 26-25 on the season. They succeeded where Florida, Ole Miss, Arkansas, and Mississippi State had failed to topple the West-leading Tigers with a dramatic 10th-inning win on Sunday. The Commodores' pitching, a major problem for this team earlier in the year, came up huge to lock Vandy in to a spot in the SEC Tournament. The team allowed just 10 total runs in their four games this week.
The wins were a major boost for a team that has slowly rounded into form this season. Vanderbilt looked to have been hitting their stride weeks earlier, but a series loss to Alabama was a significant setback in the team's quest for a winning record and eligibility for the NCAA Tournament. The team was forced to come up big against top-10 squads like Kentucky and LSU, and they were able to rumble through each series with meaningful victories. With the wins, Vanderbilt has placed themselves on the happy side of the tournament bubble - for now.
Game 0: Vanderbilt 3, Louisville 2 - The Commodores came from behind to dispatch cross-league rival Louisville on Tuesday and reach .500 for the first time all season. Vandy trailed 2-1 late in the game, but a two-out single by Mike Yastrzemski scored Vince Conde in the seventh, and Conrad Gregor scored on a wild pitch one inning later to give the 'Dores all the runs they'd need. Kevin Ziomek, Drew VerHagen, and Brian Miller combined to limit the Cardinals to just four hits on the night. The two teams made their rivalry official this year with the "Battle for the Barrel," and Vandy earned the right to keep the whiskey barrel trophy in Nashville until the two teams meet again next season.
Game 1: LSU 2, Vanderbilt 1 - T.J. Pecoraro stood out in a complete game performance, but it wasn't enough as the 'Dores fell in a pitchers' duel to kick off the weekend series. Kevin Gausman fanned 11 Vandy batters in a performance befitting an ace to earn the win. Mike Yastrzemski had the team's lone RBI, once again singling home Conde. Pecoraro allowed just six baserunners over eight innings, constituting his best outing of the season so far.
More game recaps and AoG's prestigious awards are after the jump...
Game 2: Vanderbilt 6, LSU 3 - Vandy rebounded on Saturday to even the series behind Anthony Gomez's four hits and a strong showing on the mound. LSU looked to rally late in the game, putting the tying run at the plate in the eighth inning, but Will Clinard was effective in relief to lock down his third save of the season. Sam Selman's first weekend start in SEC play had its ups and downs. The junior allowed just one run over five innings, but also walked four batters and had a wild pitch over that stretch. However, his otherwise solid start and Kevin Ziomek's fine bullpen work on Sunday should keep the hard-throwing lefty in the rotation for the time being.
Game 3: Vanderbilt 5, LSU 4 (10 innings) - If Vanderbilt makes a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, this will be the moment that fans remember as the turning point for this team. The Commodores trailed 4-3 in the ninth inning after stranding runners on base throughout the game, but Yastrzemski's leadoff homer sent the game into extra frames. It again looked like the team had wasted an opportunity when two bunt attempts failed to capitalize on Connor Harrell's leadoff triple in the 10th, but Tony Kemp's two-out single ended up bringing home the game-winner and pushing Vandy over .500 on the season. It was a big win for a team that needed a rallying point heading into the final stretch of their season.
The Henry Rowengartner Hot-Ice Excellence in Pitching Award Goes to...
T.J. Pecoraro. Pecoraro finally delivered the performance that Vandy fans had been waiting for after the talented pitcher's freshman year was cut short by an arm injury. The sophomore was impressive on Friday, allowing just five hits over eight innings against a talented LSU lineup. Unfortunately, Pecoraro was saddled with a hard-luck loss thanks to Kevin Gausman's brilliance on the other end, but that start was a ray of hope for a pitching staff that has been searching for an ace all season.
The Clu Haywood "How's your wife and my kids?" Destroyer of Pitchers Award Goes to...
Mike Yastrzemski. Yaz only had three RBI all weekend, but all three were huge for the Commodores. His RBI single tied things up late in the game against Louisville on Tuesday. Then, on Friday, another RBI single gave the 'Dores their only run against Kevin Gausman. Finally, his 9th-inning homer on Sunday sent the game to extra innings and gave Vandy the chance to snatch a series victory from the jaws of defeat. Yaz drank the clutch juice this weekend, and he provided an invaluable veteran presence at the plate for the Commodores as a result.