Vanderbilt celebrates its win over Louisville (Eric Sorenson)

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Finals-Bound Vanderbilt Maintains Poise In Comeback Win

College World Series

OMAHA — For eight innings, Louisville righthander Luke Smith limited the scariest offense in college baseball to one run on three hits. But Friday night, the greatness of Vanderbilt’s offense was revealed through its persistence, rather than its explosiveness.

The Commodores came from behind with two runs in the ninth to beat Smith and the Cardinals 3-2 and punch their ticket to the CWS Finals, where they will take on Michigan in a best-of-three series starting Monday night. Maybe Louisville pressed its luck by sending Smith back out for the ninth inning, facing the top of the Vanderbilt order for the fourth time in the game — but Smith had been on cruise control since the fourth, and he struck out two batters in the eighth inning. His pitch count was reasonable, and he opened the ninth by retiring Austin Martin — “the best hitter in the country,” as Cardinals coach Dan McDonnell put it — on a groundout.

But then Vanderbilt struck. JJ Bleday worked a walk, taking a couple of close pitches for balls, and Ethan Paul drove him in with an RBI double into the right-field corner. Just like that, the game was tied. And that quick strike after eight innings of frustration might have been even more impressive than some of the huge innings Vandy has produced this season. Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said said as much, “because of the frustration that exists throughout a game.”

“I mean, that kid did such a quality job of containing us, and it’s not easy to do,” Corbin said. “I’ve seen this team for a long period of time right now. You have to really concentrate for nine hitters.”

Paul proved to be the last batter Smith would face. Two batters later, Pat DeMarco chopped a double down the left-field line against Michael McAvene to drive in what proved to be the winning run. McAvene was able to strand the bases loaded to minimize the damage — but enough damage was done. The Vandy offense was contained for eight innings, but getting 27 outs against the Commodores is never, ever easy.

Pat DeMarco strokes the game-winning hit (Eric Sorenson)

“I think this is one of the better lineups they’ve ever had, and that’s not a knock on their past lineups,” McDonnell said. “I mean, come on, they’re pumping out great players every year, but this to me seems to be one of the most complete lineups, and they jam all those lefties in the lineup, and they’re pretty good with their splits. It’s not like they’ve got lefties that can’t hit lefthanded pitching.”

The Cardinals fought back in the ninth, and got a break when a Drew Campbell grounder down the first-base line hit the bag and ricocheted over the head of first baseman Julian Infante for a one-out double. But second baseman Harrison Ray made a diving catch on a tricky flare to end the game, finishing a tense, emotional victory for the Commodores.

But Vanderbilt maintained its poise and mastered its emotions, even though the fiery Smith was demonstrative throughout the game, and got into a shouting match with Infante after a strikeout to end the eighth.

“We talked about [emotions] before the game started,” Corbin said. “I thought it would get to that point at some time, and I thought the most important thing was containing emotions and containing adrenaline at certain points, and I felt it could happen. I knew at some point they would land a punch, and it was going to be a matter of how we responded, and I thought the guys did a nice job. You can’t play this game angry. You just can’t. You have to contain your emotions. You have to breathe, and you have to center yourself in order to deliver a pitch or get the barrel to the ball. Ethan did that. That was a huge at-bat. But Ethan has been a part of a lot of big at-bats at Vanderbilt.”

Indeed, Vanderbilt’s veteran poise was on display Friday night, in addition to its offensive tenacity — and its outstanding pitching, for that matter. The offensive fireworks shouldn’t overshadow the fact that Mason Hickman turned in six shutout innings for the Commodores, and Tyler Brown continued to be an incredible weapon at the back of the Vandy bullpen, getting the final three outs and stranding the tying run at second.

“You know, they do everything well,” McDonnell said. “I think what’s probably most impressive about this team — nothing against past teams, Tim has had a ton of great teams, but the lineup, it’s such a really good lineup. I mean, you have the middle of the lineup beat us there, but they’ve always got great pitching. They’re always good defensively. They always have team speed.”

And now Vanderbilt has its pitching lined up perfectly for the Finals: a rested Drake Fellows on Monday, a rested Kumar Rocker on Tuesday. The preseason No. 1 team will play for the national title, because Vanderbilt is every bit as good as the hype, and its mature veterans have continued to perform on the sport’s grandest stage.

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