NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Injuries and a lack of depth in pitching left both teams playing in the finale of this weekend’s Music City Classic a bit out of tune — but that didn’t stop them from going to extra innings.
After all was said and done, it was Vanderbilt — a team ranked in two national polls – pulling out a 6-5 win and stopping IU’s bid to take some revenge for the Commodores ending IU’s 2009 season.
For host No. 25 Vanderbilt (10-1), the story was early exits by two of its primary offensive forces while IU (4-6) was forced deep into its already slim pitching staff — so deep, in fact, that IU finished the game with a pitcher that started the day as a first baseman.
“Given what we’re facing right now with guys having to do unusual things, I’m proud as heck,” IU head coach Tracy Smith said.
IU finished the weekend 2-1 — their first winning weekend record of the season. In the first of the three-game series Friday, a two RBI effort from junior Sterling Mack helped power the Hoosiers to a 6-4 win against Illinois State.
On Saturday, the Hoosiers got a tremendous boost from sophomore pitcher Drew Leininger in a tight 3-0 win against Kent State. Leininger pitched 7.2 innings of shutout ball while junior Jerrud Sabourin tallied three hits — including a third-inning two-run double.
Sunday evening’s contest, though, had a little more riding on the line thanks to Vanderbilt ending IU’s surprise run into the 2009 NCAA Regionals with 10-0 crushing of the Hoosiers.
IU opened up the game in a big way just as the sun was starting to set over Hawkins Field. After two consecutive singles from senior Michael Earley and Sabourin, sophomore outfielder Alex Dickerson turned on a Jack Armstrong pitch and lifted out a three-run home run to the bleachers in right center field for his third home run of the season.
Vanderbilt, though, didn’t waste time in lighting their home half of the scoreboard.
Commodore designated hitter Bryan Johns drew a leadoff walk in the bottom of the first before stealing second base. A fly ball from third baseman Jason Esposito allowed Johns to tag up and advance to third before a throwing error by Hoosier freshman Michael Basil allowed Johns a trip across home plate.
Sophomore starting pitcher Ethan Wilson — making his first start of 2010 — ran into trouble quickly in the bottom half of the second, giving up 2 runs before sophomore Matt Ernest came in relief.
The third inning wasn’t kind to Vanderbilt, as left fielder Aaron Westlake made great play on a deep flyball from Dickerson. But Westlake then had a hard, rib-rattling hit against the left field fence and left the game before the next inning. First baseman Curt Casali came up lame after a ground ball to first and didn’t return to the field.
Before Sunday’s game, Casali and Westlake had totaled over a fourth of Vanderbilt’s RBI in 2010.
Ernest issued just four walks and gave up no hits before leaving the game in the fifth inning with apparent pain in his throwing arm.
The game tightened in the bottom half of the sixth inning when Vanderbilt’s Riley Reynolds scored on an Anthony Gomez single to right. Mack nearly caught the short fly ball, but a headfirst dive couldn’t secure the out, bringing Vanderbilt to within a run.
IU’s meat of the batting order — Sabourin, Dickerson and sophomore Josh Lyon — came up in the top of seventh, but all three struck out.
“We just didn’t get that big hit,” Smith said of the decreased offense in the second half of the game. “You can only dodge so many bullets.”
Vanderbilt tied it in the bottom half, and the score stayed knotted at 5-5 through nine innings, as IU rode Sabourin into the 10th inning. Sabourin managed one out before loading the bases by hitting Vanderbilt’s Mike Yastrzemski with a pitch.
That brought IU coach Tracy Smith to the mound to make his seventh pitching change of the day. Senior closer Chris Squires held serve with consecutive flyouts and the Hoosiers lived to another inning.
In the bottom of the eleventh, the Commodores again threatened as freshman Connor Harrell reached base on a bunt. With Harrell advancing to third, Gomez stepped to the plate with two outs and stroked a 1-0 pitch from Squires to right field, giving Vanderbilt the win.
“Any time I’m the mound and our team loses, I don’t want to say I did my job,” Squires said. “This is my third day pitching, and I just tried to do what I had to do, but I screwed it up a little bit this time.”