Vanderbilt baseball continued their march back to relevancy this weekend, winning two of three games against arch-rival Tennessee to claw within one game of .500 for the season.
After dropping Friday's opener, the Commodores rallied to win Saturday and Sunday despite sloppy starts from pitchers Tyler Beede and Kevin Ziomek. Vandy's bats came alive to carry the team, as Connor Harrell continued his hot streak with a pair of home runs. The wins pulled Vandy up to 11-13 in conference play and may have given them the victories they'll need to make it to the conference tournament in Hoover, AL.
That was the easy part. Now comes Vanderbilt's biggest test of the season.
Veteran coach Tim Corbin will guide his young team through a minefield of tough games over the final two weeks of the regular season. The team will host #22 Louisville before traveling to Baton Rouge for three games against the fourth-ranked LSU Tigers. They'll then host #24 Ole Miss in the final weekend of play before the SEC Tournament.
That's quite the lineup for a team that will have to go 5-2 in order to guarantee a record of .500 or better. Vandy sits at 23-24 right now, but they'll need to get to 28 wins in order to ensure that two losses at the double elimination tournament won't disqualify them from a NCAA Tournament berth. They'll also need to rack up some more quality wins to impress the tournament selection committee, as the 'Dores would still have to sweat out an at-large bid thanks to a rough start to their season.
On Friday, it looked as though this team had put the cart in front of their horse. They dropped an early lead and played lifeless ball once the momentum had swung to the Volunteers in the middle innings. They easily could have done the same on Saturday and Sunday when neither of their starting pitchers made it through the third innings of their respective games. However, the Commodores battled through and got the wins they needed to make the last two weeks of the season a bit more manageable. There's still plenty of work to do, but now this team has a few more ways to make it to the NCAA Tournament than they did a week ago. For a young team that is learning more every game, that's about as much as you can hope for right now.
Game 1: Tennessee 8, Vanderbilt 2 - Back-to-back three-run innings gave Tennessee the lead on Friday, and Vanderbilt's bats couldn't respond as the Vols opened up the weekend with a big win. T.J. Pecoraro lasted less than five innings, setting a disappointing precedent that the team's starters would follow all weekend in Knoxville. Mike Yastrzemski hit his fourth home run of the season to account for half Vandy's offense on the night.
Game 2: Vanderbilt 7, Tennessee 4 - Vanderbilt overcame some wild pitching from Tyler Beede and three errors in the field to hang on and defeat UT Saturday, evening the series at one game apiece. Steven Rice earned his first collegiate win with 1.1 innings of scoreless relief after Beede was ousted in the third. Connor Harrell's hot streak continued as the junior had three hits, including his fifth home run of the season.
Game 3: Vanderbilt 12, Tennessee 6 - Kevin Ziomek gave up five runs in just 2.1 innings, but Vandy's bats dug the team out of an early 3-6 hole to lock down the series win on Sunday. Harrell finished a triple shy of hitting for the cycle, while Conrad Gregor added his third home run of the year in a showing that matched the team's biggest offensive output against a SEC team of the season.
AoG's prestigious awards are after the jump...
The Henry Rowengartner Hot-Ice Excellence in Pitching Award Goes to...
Will Clinard. Clinard gets this award by default during a week in which Vanderbilt's pitching was below average. The Weatherman pitched three innings of scoreless relief to earn his first two saves of the season. Clinard is the veteran leader of this pitching staff, and Vandy will need him to be on his game to provide a stabilizing presence behind some young but talented players.
The Clu Haywood "How's your wife and my kids?" Destroyer of Pitchers Award Goes to...
Connor Harrell. Last week, we asked if this could be the beginning of one of Harrell's famous late-season mash-offs. The junior answered that emphatically after going 6-13 against Vandy's arch rivals on the road. Harrell hit his fifth and sixth home runs of the season, and it's no coincidence that the game that this team lost was also the one in which he went 0-4. The big Texan needs to be Vanderbilt's engine in the heart of the lineup. If he can continue to play like he has in the past two weeks, Commodore fans should be able to count on watching this team in the NCAA Tournament.