Vanderbilt may have swept #6 Illinois by a combined score of 17-2 this week, but that aggregate number fails to account for how close Monday's game was. The Commodores clung to a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the eighth when the Illini loaded the bases with just one out. Illinois was a single well-timed base hit from tying this game back up...and then Kyle Wright entered the game.
Wright, a freshman All-American, shut down the Illini with five straight outs to lock down a second straight College World Series berth for the Commodores. He needed just 18 pitches to eliminate the Illini on Monday afternoon. His emergence may be the most important storyline to develop from Vandy's trip to Champaign. After struggling in the late innings throughout 2015, Tim Corbin may finally have found his door-closing reliever in the postseason.
Kyle Wright is trending up for the Commodores, even after a dominant regular season. Who else is hot for Vanderbilt as they return to Omaha for the second straight year? Let's take a look at the stat sheets - but first, a caveat.
After tearing through the Nashville Regional, it was extremely unlikely that Vanderbilt would be able to stay as hot now that they were facing a top 10 opponent on the road. However, they managed to outscore their postseason average against a pitcher with a 1.41 ERA when they dropped a 13-0 landslide on Illinois on Saturday night. The Commodores couldn't keep that pace up in game two against #6 overall pick Tyler Jay, but some baserunning errors kept them from turning a tight 4-2 win into a much more comfortable victory.
As a result, some players are trending downward despite hitting .300 or better in Champaign. Here's how the Commodores looked in the Nashville Regional:
and here's how they looked against Illinois:
With a tougher opponent on the docket and some impossibly high standards to live up to, few of Vandy's batters were able to improve on their Regional performances. Let's take a closer look.
Kyle Wright. Wright looked nothing like a freshman when he entered the eight inning with a full set of Illini runners on the basepaths. He induced a fly out and then got a monster strikeout to get Vandy through the inning unscathed and then closed the door on Illinois's season with a 1-2-3 ninth. Wright's breaking ball was just nasty on Monday, and he proved that he can handle big time pressure. He'll be an asset for this team in Omaha.
Karl Ellison. Ellison had just one hit in Champaign, but his defense was invaluable behind the plate. His ability to block pitches and hold runners at bay shows exactly why Tim Corbin has to leave the hot-hitting Jason Delay on the bench.
Tyler Campbell. "Mr. June" batted .600 out of the ninth spot for Vanderbilt and added a late home run in Saturday's blowout win over Illinois.
Ro Coleman. Ro still had a solid campaign in Champaign, but even a .300 batting average was less than half of what he was hit back in the Nashville Regional. Coleman only scored one run from the leadoff position after averaging 2.3 runs per game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Will Toffey. Toffey still provided lots of value by getting on base thanks to a patient eye at the plate, but he managed only one hit in Champaign this week. It was a relatively anonymous performance from a freshman that Vanderbilt has come to expect fireworks from in 2015.
Ben Bowden. He induced a huge strikeout to get Vanderbilt out of a jam in the seventh inning, but control issues helped Illinois load the bases against Bowden in the eighth. The sophomore lives and dies on the location of his breaking ball, but if he can't get swinging strikes he'll wind up in trouble. That's what happened on Monday, but Wright was there to ensure that Vanderbilt would escape the inning.