In the pressure cooker of Baton Rouge, the Commodores stepped up to prove their mettle in the SEC. Vanderbilt finally got a big win in a close SEC game - their first since an April 18 win over Auburn - to take their weekend series over the #15 ranked Louisiana State Tigers. This win, coming after three heartbreaking SEC game that ended in walk-off losses over a two week span, broke a cycle of difficult defeats and gave the 'Dores their biggest series win of the season.
With no weekday games, Vanderbilt had the full week to prepare for the freefalling Tigers. LSU had been swept in their last two SEC series on the road (against Ole Miss and Florida) and were looking to right their ship with a return to Baton Rouge. The Commodores, conversely, were looking for traction to shoot back up the national and SEC rankings after losing opportunities to beat up on cellar-dwelling Georgia thanks to last week's flooding in Nashville. As a result, the weekend's games had a bit of a postseason feel to them, as both teams understood the importance of a series win for both rankings and tournament implications.
Much like the Tennessee series of two weeks ago, the series headed into Sunday split behind a dominant Vanderbilt win and a tightly contested loss. However, unlike Game 3 of the UT series, the 'Dores were the ones getting it down in the clutch, as Joe Loftus came through with two outs in the eighth inning to deliver a two-run single that would be the game winner. After a rocky beginning, Game One starter Sonny Gray locked down the save in a rare bullpen appearance that highlighted just how important the series was. The win boosted Vandy's SEC record to 12-10 and gave them a strong hold on third place in the SEC East.
Game 1 - LSU 16, Vanderbilt 15 (10 innings): Sonny Gray was uncharacteristically shelled and Russell Brewer took the loss in an extra-innings slugfest in the series opener. The 'Dores jumped out to a 6-0 lead, but couldn't hold on as LSU roared back to take the lead 15-14 going into the ninth inning. Anthony Gomez swung the momentum back to Vandy's favor with a two-out home run - his first of the season - but Brewer couldn't close out the Tigers, who rallied to win in the 10th on Micah Gibbs's two-out RBI double.
Game 2 - Vanderbilt 6, LSU 2: Taylor Hill shut down LSU's offense on Saturday, falling just one out short of the first visiting complete game shutout. The Esposito/Westlake/Casali/Giobbi middle of the order lineup did the damage at the plate for the Commodores, going a combined 9-19 with three runs scored and all four of the team's RBI. Hill struck out eight over nine innings to pick up his fifth win of the season.
Game 3 - Vanderbilt 4, LSU 3: Joe Loftus played the hero with a two-RBI single in the eighth inning, and Jack Armstrong and Sonny Gray combined to hold off the LSU offense in Sunday's series-clincher. Armstrong allowed just two runs in 7.2 innings, and Gray closed the door on the Tigers for his first save in a rare bullpen appearance. Tensions ran high as the game ran through the middle innings knotted at 2-2, but Loftus's clutch hitting delivered the win and inched the 'Dores closer to a hosting gig for the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
AoG's prestigious pitching and batting awards, coming up after the jump...
The Henry Rowengartner Hot-Ice Excellence in Pitching Award Goes to...
Taylor Hill. Hill's value as the team's glue starter cannot be overstated. When he's on, he provides an invaluable bridge between Friday and Sunday, and creates mismatches for other SEC teams on the mound. While he isn't flashy, Hill is a solid junk pitcher who keeps batters off balance and does a great job of stopping rallies and scattering hits. As the bullpen continues to struggle, his ability to effectively eat up innings will be a huge boost for the Commodores - and you can't do that much better than he did on Saturday, throwing a complete game while walking only one and allowing just two runs.
The Clu Haywood "How's your wife and my kids?" Destroyer of Pitchers Award Goes to...
Joe Loftus. Loftus had his best weekend of the season, giving the 'Dores some unexpected help from the end of the batting order. The sophomore batted .429 with seven RBI, four runs scored, and was just a single away from batting for the cycle in Friday's game. Loftus is showing a little pop in his bat at just the right time, and should be seeing plenty of RBI opportunities batting seventh behind the Espo/Westlake/Giobbi/Casali block. As long as he can continue to cut down his strikeouts and put the ball in play, he'll be a valuable player at the plate to complement his solid defense.
So, there's your recap. Award winners this week can pick up their awards at the Nashville Red Cross flood relief headquarters - and while you're there, feel free to pitch in with some help. The Commodores got a huge series win over a disintegrating LSU squad, and made a case that they could fit in with the conference's elite. Tomorrow, the team will face their toughest out-of-conference test since UCLA when they host #9 Louisville in a rematch of their 2009 NCAA Regional Finals. A win there would be a huge statement to the NCAA Selection committee about both Vanderbilt's talent and the strength of the SEC. Following that, they get a bit of a break against SEC West weaklings Mississippi State before a season-closing showdown with #10 Arkansas. Wins this week can clinch a SEC Tournament spot, so look for the 'Dores to take it to the Bulldogs and boost their postseason stock even higher.
vs. #9 Louisville, May 11 - 6:00 P.M.
at Mississippi State (20-28, 5-19 SEC)