If Coach Tim Corbin ever needed an excuse to pull out the safety or suicide squeeze in the regular season, he got several Sunday. Despite several chances with a runner on third base, the 'Dores just couldn't plate a deciding run against Florida and dropped a vital series to the visiting Gators this weekend.
After battling to a 1-1 split through Saturday, the final game of the last Vandy homestand of the season not only decided the series winner between Vanderbilt and Florida, but established the standings at the top of the SEC. The playoff-esque atmosphere transformed the team in many ways. For guys like Taylor Hill and Jack Armstrong, it meant mowing down Gator batters in tight spots to put the 'Dores in position to survive. For the team's batters, it meant getting cold at the worst possible moments.
The Commodores left a runner stranded at third with less than two outs four times Sunday, including twice in game-winning situations. Each failure gave Florida new life, and it wasn't long before the Gators capitalized with a three-run home run that effectively sealed the game and the series for the visiting squad. Of Vanderbilt's two losses this weekend, both came despite holding leads late in the game. As a result, the 'Dores dropped into a three-way tie atop the conference standings with UF and South Carolina.
It was a troubling outcome for Corbin's squad. This team has played six games against elite teams in their conference (UF and USC). They've lost four of those games - including three where the 'Dores have led in the seventh inning or later. Suddenly, this team's clutch batting tendencies and bulletproof bullpen work from the early part of the season has faded away. As a result, it's tough to feel confident about Vandy's chances to close games when the postseason rolls around.
The losses aren't the end of the world - they may end up having almost no effect on the team's playoff projections and tournament seedings - but they do raise a few red flags. Will this be a defining moment of the team's weaknesses, or the rallying point from which the 'Dores charge their way into Omaha? Vandy will have the chance to prove it's the latter rather than the former when they play a dangerous and desperate Georgia team that needs a series win to keep their NCAA Tournament chances alive.
Vanderbilt can still win the regular season conference crown, and a sweep of the Bulldogs will ensure at least a share of the title. However, after losing to both Florida and South Carolina in winnable series, they'll still have plenty to prove in Hoover for the league's tournament. This team is carrying the burden of unfinished business on their shoulders, and it dates back to last year's Super Regional loss at Florida State. Corbin's squad was able to make good on retribution in 2010 when they took revenge against Louisville and made it to baseball's sweet sixteen. Can they build on that experience and stake their claim as the nation's best college baseball team?
Game 1 - Florida 6, Vanderbilt 5: Disruptive weather hijacked the 'Dores' momentum, turning a Friday night lead into Saturday's loss in a game that was suspended due to storms across the Nashville area. Sonny Gray headed to the dugout Friday night with six innings of two-hit baseball and a 4-2 lead under his belt, but the team was unable to sustain his momentum the next day. The Vandy bullpen allowed four UF runs, including a rare blown save from Navery Moore, to allow the Gators to steal the win.
Moore came into the ninth with a 5-4 lead, but gave that up with just two pitches, allowing a leadoff home run to Josh Adams. A RBI double four batters later would give Florida the margin they needed to win the game. Though Vandy put the heart of their order at the plate for the bottom of the ninth, they couldn't mount any offense against Austin Maddox.
Game 2 - Vanderbilt 14, Florida 1: Just 40 minutes after the end of game one, the Commodores exacted revenge in a big way, rebounding to post a 14-1 pounding of the Gators and setting up a pivotal Sunday showdown. Grayson Garvin picked up his 11th win of the season with seven solid innings on the mound, striking out six and allowing only one run against a talented UF offense. Aaron Westlake's fifth inning grand slam opened the floodgate for the 'Dores and capped a five-RBI day for the fourth-year junior.
Game 3 - Florida 6, Vanderbilt 3 (12 innings): Missed opportunities were this game's overarching theme, as Vanderbilt failed to capitalize on run scoring opportunities even as Jack Armstrong pitched this team out of jams in 8th, 9th, and 10th innings. Vanderbilt put their leadoff batter on in the 9th, 10th, and 11th innings but couldn't produce a game-winning run, even with runners on third in consecutive innings.
Curt Casali was responsible for all three Vandy runs hitting a RBI double in the second (and later scoring on Connor Harrell's double) and driving a blast to left field for a solo home run in the fourth. Taylor Hill's dominant start (6.1 innings, four hits) and Jack Armstrong's big-time relief performance went for naught in the loss.
The Henry Rowengartner Hot-Ice Excellence in Pitching Award Goes to...
Jack Armstrong. Don't let his deceiving stat line (3.2 innings, four walks, two earned runs) fool you - Armstrong was the reason Sunday's game got to 12 innings. He came in from the pen in the eighth inning to face Austin Maddox with the bases loaded and induced a huge strikeout to keep the team alive. He got two huge back-to-back outs in the ninth after the Gators put a runner on second with one out. He was similarly effective in the 10th after an Anthony Gomez error turned a potential double play into a two-runner situation with one out.
Armstrong ceded the mound to Navery Moore after an intentional walk in the 12th, and Moore quickly surrendered a three-run homer to Mike Zunino, earning Big Jack the loss. Despite picking up his first defeat of the season, you can't help but be impressed with Armstrong's performance. He'll give the 'Dores another big arm who can start or come out of the bullpen in the postseason.
The Clu Haywood "How's your wife and my kids?" Destroyer of Pitchers Award Goes to...
Conrad Gregor. Gregor didn't look like a freshman in the team's first two games this weekend, stepping up in one of the team's most important series and raking the ball against top pitching. In two games, Conrad the Terrible went 5-7 with three RBI, two runs, and a walk. Though he didn't finish strongly (0-4, 3 strikeouts on Sunday), he continued to show that his growth will benefit this team in the postseason. Vanderbilt's lineup has slowly eliminated its weak points, evolving to the point where the team's #9 batter (in this case, Riley Reynolds) is batting .319.
So, there's your recap. Award winners can pick up their custom-made AoG plaques at our headquarters located deep inside Navery Moore's nightmares, next to the UF lineup, Inception-style. Vanderbilt should have won this series. They led for 19 of the 30 innings all weekend but earned only one win despite looking like the better team for much of the matchup. However, Florida is due a huge chunk of credit for their work - their pitchers came up big when they needed to and their batters performed in the clutch. In the end, they proved to not only be the better team at Hawkins Field, but also the one who is the most prepared for postseason play.
Vanderbilt will have to rebound this weekend against a Georgia team whose postseason has already begun. Two losses to Kentucky dropped the team to .500 - a mark the team needs to maintain or surpass to qualify for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs will get a warmup game with Kennesaw State before hosting the 'Dores, and they'll need to win two of three against Vandy in order to put themselves in position to earn an invite after the double-elimination SEC Tournament.
It'll provide a test for the Commodores that they'll have to get used to - an opponent fighting for its life. So far this team has proven that it can handle very good teams, but they struggle against great ones. This weekend's showdown will be the team's launchpad for the second season - will they soar into the SEC Tournament with a big rebound win and a share of the regular season title, or will the hangover from the Florida loss force Vandy to limp into the postseason?