Vanderbilt was in trouble. The previous day, they'd charged past #12 Louisville to force a deciding Monday matchup in the 2009 Louisville Regional. Now, they needed to come up with runs or their season would come to an abrupt end against the Cardinals.
Ace Mike Minor, working on two days rest, had been touched for three runs in less than four innings of work and the 'Dores trailed the hometown favorites 5-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning in Kentucky. Still, signs of life persisted. A one-out single from Curt Casali cut UL's lead to two, and Tim Corbin's team had the heart of the batting order ready to make a season-defining rally.
Aaron Westlake, Vandy's moose of a first baseman, stepped to the plate with a home run already under his belt in the contest. One more would knot things at 5-5. Louisville reliever Gavin Logsdon wound up and delivered an 0-1 pitch down the middle of the plate. Westlake made solid contact...and grounded into a threat-ending double play. One 1-2-3 inning later, Louisville had advanced to face Cal State-Fullerton in Super Regional action.
It may not have felt like it at the time, but that game set the stage for what has developed into one of college baseball's best new rivalries.
Louisville and Vanderbilt first met in 1973, and the Commodores' 20-4 standing in the series doesn't explain how the Cardinals have become one of Vandy's fiercest opponents in the past half-decade. Instead, you'll have to turn back to a pair of Regional showdowns three hours north of Nashville. Vanderbilt's rise under Tim Corbin coincided with Louisville's run to prominence, and the two teams, aided by the fact that they're a short trip down I-65 from each other, quickly became an easy pairing for the NCAA selection committee.
Vanderbilt exacted revenge on the Cardinals for that 2010 loss just one year later, coming back after a Saturday loss to Louisville to win two straight and rally to the next round of the NCAA Tournament. Louisville shelled Sonny Gray for six earned runs in a 7-1 win, but had no answer for Richie Goodenow's black magic in the rematch. Goodenow twirled a stunning two-hit shutout to force a rubber match between the two teams. That final game failed to disappoint; it ended in extra innings after Connor Harrell successfully #Vanderbunted Casali home with a safety squeeze in the bottom of the 10th inning. That win sent Vanderbilt to their second-ever Super Regional and gave Corbin's roster the experience they'd need to make it to the College World Series the following year.
2010 didn't just give this rivalry more postseason fodder. It also featured a non-conference showdown that bordered on legendary. Louisville and Vanderbilt played for 17 innings in Nashville, ending only after a walk-off Jason Esposito home run. The 11-10 mash-fest was played in front of 3,200 fans (a mid-week record) and also helped to raise $21,600 for Nashville flood relief. What had been scheduled as a mid-season test for the Commodores helped bring the Middle Tennessee community together to root against the Cardinals and further the legend of the Vandy/'Ville war. That game, and the two team's postseason history, helped turn an on-and-off nonconference relationship into the "Battle for the Barrel," an annual rivalry game that sees the winning team bring a bourbon barrel trophy back to their campus. So far, the Barrel has yet to leave Natchez Trace.
Now, six weeks after Vanderbilt left Louisville after a 10-2 victory in 2013's Battle, the two teams will face off in Super Regional action in Nashville, Tennessee. While Vanderbilt has dominated the recent regular season meetings between the two programs, the Commodores and Cardinals are knotted at one series apiece when it comes to advancing in the NCAA Tournament. This year, #12 Louisville will make the trip down south to face off with #2 Vanderbilt, and the stakes are higher than ever.
The Cardinals, with their base stealing, small ball ways look a lot like a team playing Tim Corbin's brand of baseball. Vanderbilt, with possibly the deepest batting lineup in the NCAA, will put a very good UL rotation to the test. However, scouting reports and statistical readouts will take a backseat to the raw emotion of a rivalry game next weekend, especially with a trip to Omaha on the line. Vandy and Louisville, just 170 miles apart, were a dynamite matchup waiting to happen. History obliged when both teams enjoyed meteoric rises throughout the 2000s and beyond. Now, Vanderbilt can tilt the scales even further in their favor - and make that 20-4 record count for something much bigger - with a statement making win this weekend.