On Thursday night, Georgia showed that they can handle Sonny Gray in a high-pressure game. Wednesday night they'll have the opportunity to do it again - but in the SEC Tournament.
The Commodores won their regular season-ending series against the Bulldogs, but had to take the final two games to earn a share of the SEC title after Georgia surprised Gray in the opener. Vandy's ace looked vulnerable in his outing, allowing 12 baserunners in six innings on the mound as the desperate 'Dawgs spun to an opening game win. The loss was Vandy's fifth series-opening loss in the SEC this season. The junior righty wasn't the only Vandy starter to struggle this weekend; Grayson Garvin and Taylor Hill each put in sub-par performances compared to their usual outputs in Athens.
However, there was good news; the Vanderbilt Commodores are your 2011 SEC Regular Season Co-Champions. The 'Dores finished with a 22-8 record in conference play, tying them with South Carolina and Florida atop the league standings. The wins also keep the team in the running for a national seed in the NCAA Tournament and a hosting assignment in the Regionals and Super Regionals.
Vanderbilt's immediate postseason progression will be a rematch with the 'Dawgs on Wednesday, likely followed by a showdown with South Carolina should each favored team win their matchup in the bottom half of the bracket. The conference tournament is a minefield of monumental pairings and trap games, with four of the country's top 15 teams at the top of the bracket and a bevy of dangerous squads on the opposite end. With eight likely NCAA Tournament teams vying for a title, the team's trip to Hoover, AL will provide a fireworks-filled starting point for the road to the College World Series.
Game 1 - Georgia 5, Vanderbilt 4: A RBI walk against Will Clinard capped a two-out rally that scored the winning run in the series opener. Georgia rallied from 3-0 and 4-1 deficits to keep their postseason hopes alive despite facing one of the SEC's best pitchers Thursday night. The 'Dores were able to string together opportunities early in the game, but were unable to produce more than a single hit over the game's last six innings in the loss.
Game 2 - Vanderbilt 9, Georgia 3: Vandy improved to 10-0 in Grayson Garvin's starts in SEC play as the 'Dores ran out to an early lead and never trailed on Friday. Despite Garvin's struggles (2.2 innings, three runs, nine baserunners), Vandy's offense kept the team atop the SEC standings with a 15-hit, two-home-run performance. Curt Casali (5) and Connor Harrell both went deep for Vanderbilt, while Mike Yastrzemski added his 18th and 19th stolen bases of the season in the win.
Game 3 - Vanderbilt 17, Georgia 7: The Commodores exploded for 11 runs in the final two innings of the regular season to rally for the series win against the Bulldogs Saturday afternoon. Every starter had a hit and a RBI for Vanderbilt, including home runs from Aaron Westlake (13), Jason Esposito (six), and Connor Harrell (six). Taylor Hill worked effectively on the mound through the first five innings before getting into trouble in the sixth, and Corey Williams allowed back-to-back homers in the seventh to give the 'Dawgs the lead. However, Vandy cranked out 11 hits over the final two frames to turn a potential upset into a rout and put Georgia's backs against the wall in the upcoming SEC Tournament. The Bulldogs will have to win at least three games in Hoover to be eligible for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tourney.
AoG's prestigious pitching and batting awards, after the jump...
The Henry Rowengartner Hot-Ice Excellence in Pitching Award Goes to...
T.J. Pecoraro. The freshman was called on for long relief duty on Friday when Grayson Garvin struggled, and T-Pec came through in a big way. Pecoraro entered the game with two men on base and Georgia in the midst of a rally, but induced an inning-ending strikeout to start his day. In 3.1 innings, the New Yorker made his case for a rotation spot in 2012 by striking out six batters and shutting down the Bulldogs en route to a 9-3 Vanderbilt victory.
Pecoraro and his fellow freshman Kevin Ziomek (who threw three innings of one-hit ball for the save in this game) have emerged as long relief/spot start options that bring a new dimension to the Vandy bullpen. They'll be counted on in the upcoming tournaments when the 'Dores have to turn to a potential four man rotation depending on how their schedule shakes out. Last year, Richie Goodenow became this team's unlikely hero on the mound - in 2011, it could be one of these youngsters who step up.
The Clu Haywood "How's your wife and my kids?" Destroyer of Pitchers Award Goes to...
Aaron Westlake and Curt Casali. Westlake batted .500 (6-12) with two home runs, four RBI, and three walks while Casali put up an equally impressive live at .455 (5-11), one home run, five RBI, and three walks. The veteran core of this team's lineup helped propel the 'Dores in Athens, providing run-producing at-bats in Friday and Saturday's wins.
The duo, batting in the 3-4 heart of the order in the team's two wins, will be counted on to lead this team through Hoover and on to Omaha. Westlake, Casali, and Jason Esposito are this team's elder statesmen in the Commodore lineup, and all three will likely making their last run at glory while wearing the Old Gold. They'll be turned to for big performances at the plate and to be the solid base for the team to rally around. If last weekend's performance was any indication, the 'Dores will be in good shape.
So, there's your recap. Award winners can pick up their custom-made AoG plaques at our headquarters located in Hoover, Alabama, wistfully touring all the filming locations of the seminal MTV classic series Two-a-Days. Vanderbilt closed out the regular season with some unfinished business surrounding the team - looking vulnerable against Georgia and losing tight series to Florida and South Carolina. The most disconcerting aspect of these setbacks has been the team's inability to win openers with Sonny Gray on the mound. Now, they're faced with a question: were these struggles an indicator of a fatal flaw, or just a weakness that will drive this team to transform into a champion when the stakes are the highest?
Vanderbilt's talent is undeniable, and this team has taken steps forward in each of the past three years, improving and building on the mistakes of their past. In 2010, their season ended one game too early in Tallahassee, and most of the players who experienced the pain of that loss are back to lead the Commodores in 2011. So will Tim Corbin's squad finally break through and earn a trip to Omaha for the first time in school history? The ultimate goal is clear - but this team's ability to break through still isn't. However, they can make a major statement this week with a long run through the SEC's best teams.
vs. Georgia (HOOVER, BABY)