Vanderbilt came to the College World Series ranked in the top five in all the major offensive categories. The Commodores have a .400 hitter, the No. 4 overall draft pick and three of the top-20 run producers in the nation.
Through 8 1/3 innings against Louisville pitcher Luke Smith, they did virtually nothing. But once Smith started to go through the order a fourth time, Vandy couldn’t be held back any longer.
Pat DeMarco chopped a grounder over third base in the ninth inning to give Vanderbilt its first lead and the Commodores beat Louisville 3-2 on Friday night to advance to the CWS finals.
The No. 2 national seed Commodores (57-11) will play Michigan in the best-of-three finals starting Monday night. Vanderbilt last played in the finals in 2015.
Vandy coach Tim Corbin said he was exhausted after his team beat Louisville for the third time this season and second time at the CWS. Emotions ran high, with Smith chirping at Julian Infante after he struck him out to end the eighth.
Corbin said his team’s ability to maintain its poise was a big factor.
“We certainly had to stabilize their offense because runs were very expensive tonight,” Corbin said. “Luke Smith certainly pitched extremely well. He frustrated us. He was landing a lot of pitches. He was landing his off-speed pitches and secondary pitches, and we couldn’t get anything going. But then just at the end, we got some very clutch hits.”
When Smith came out for the ninth, Vandy had been limited to three hits and had scored its only run on a double-play grounder. Smith retired .400-hitter Austin Martin but then walked JJ Bleday, the highest draft pick at the CWS.
Louisville coach Dan McDonnell had closer Michael McAvene ready to go in the bullpen but stayed with Smith (6-1). Ethan Paul ripped a double into the right-field corner on a 2-0 pitch to score Bleday and tie it at 2.
“His pitch count was over 110, and I knew that he was close to his end,” Paul said, “so I just wanted to get a pitch that I could handle. I wasn’t going to expand for him or chase or anything like that. Just got in a hitter’s count and got the pitch I was looking for and put a barrel on it.”
Smith said he “absolutely” wanted the ball in the ninth.
“To pitch a complete game in the College World Series is something not a lot of people can say they did,” Smith said. “I had confidence, and I appreciated the coaching staff believing in me. I left the ball over the plate and the guy put it in the right spot.”
McAvene came on, and Philip Clarke’s bloop single behind second base put runners on the corners with one out. DeMarco then hit a bouncer that went over third baseman Alex Binelas and landed just inside the line, bringing Paul in for the lead.
McDonnell, whose team lost for the first time in 46 games when leading after eight innings, said he wouldn’t second guess himself about leaving Smith in after Bleday walked. McDonnell said Smith kept batters off balance, and when he walked Bleday, it wasn’t as if his pitches were missing by much.
“That’s the challenge in coaching,” McDonnell said. “You don’t want to take our pitcher out too early. You don’t want to take him out too late.”
Louisville (51-18), which had a walk-off victory over Mississippi State on Thursday after erasing a 3-2 deficit in the ninth, had a chance against star closer Tyler Brown in the bottom half. Drew Campbell’s one-out grounder down the line bounced off the bag at first and put him into scoring position.
That’s as far as he got. Justin Lavey struck out, and second baseman Harrison Ray made a diving catch of Henry Davis’ short infield pop to end the game. Brown earned his 17th save.
Smith struck out a career-high 10, the most in Louisville’s 14 games over five CWS appearances.
Vandy starter Mason Hickman limited Louisville to two hits in six shutout innings. The Cards scored twice in the seventh off Jake Eder (2-0) to go up 2-1.
MENTOR VS MENTEE
Michigan coach Erik Bakich was Corbin’s recruiting coordinator and hitting coach at Vanderbilt from 2003-09. Vandy was 276-157 in his seven seasons in Nashville. Bakich recruited David Price, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft and Cy Young Award runner-up with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010.
Michigan advanced to the finals with a 15-3 win over Texas Tech in the afternoon.
“After Erik completed that one today, I was very happy for him,” Corbin said. “We spent a lot of time together.”
Vanderbilt is the first school to reach the finals three times since the CWS moved to TD Ameritrade Park in 2011. The Commodores are looking to become the first school to win multiple titles at the stadium.
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