Belmont surprises Vanderbilt at First Tennessee Park

Photo by Claire Barnett

Last year Vanderbilt lost to Belmont in a four-hour battle at First Tennessee Park, the latest installment of the Nashville rivalry to be played in a neutral location.

First Tennessee Park, the home of the Oakland A’s AAA-affiliate Nashville Sounds, was built in 2015 and features numerous non-baseball attractions such as mini-golf and novelty foods to get people into the ballpark. Despite all the appeal of the match-up, the stands were especially empty this Wednesday night because of the cold, blustery weather.

Although they both border Belmont Boulevard, a comparison of Vanderbilt and Belmont’s seasons so far this spring could be entitled A Tale of Two Cities. Belmont has struggled so far, most recently losing to Tennessee Tech last week. Meanwhile, the Commodores have energized the Vanderbilt faithful with a squad full of talented pitchers, freshman, and freshmen pitchers. Vanderbilt swept an ailing Mississippi State program last week, and seeks to continuing building on that momentum going into conference play.

In the top of the first inning, Kyle Conger bashed a hit down the first base line that was just out of reach for a fully extended Julian Infante. By easily advancing to second base, Conger intimidated the Commodores early.

After battling through a 3-2 count with several foul balls, Devon Gardener hit a dribbler to Vanderbilt shortstop Connor Kaiser, who under pressure fumbled the ball for an error. Perhaps feeling the pressure mounting with two men on and no men out, Vanderbilt RHP Jake Eder went 3-0 against Matt Cogen. Through multiple pick off attempts, Eder had a hunch something was in the works, and that play showed when Belmont attempted a double steal on a 3-2 count. Clarke was unable to get Conger at third, but Cogen was struck out swining.

Belmont’s Chas Hadden hit a short hop to Kaiser, who this time calmly fielded the ball and threw it to Infante for the third out.

In the first inning, in a turn of events bizarre enough to bring out Vanderbilt skipper Tim Corbin, Paul hit a deep sacrifice fly to left and Infante was called out for not retagging second base. The Commodores refused to give up on the inning, however, as Pat DeMarco busted a Texas Leaguer up the middle. Following Corbin’s tried and true tradition of pinch-hitting for the starting pitcher, Julian Infante stepped in the box. Despite hitting a tricky spinner of the end of his bat between Matter and the Belmont first basemen, Infante was forced out a first to end the inning. Vanderbilt 0, Belmont 0.

In the top of the second, Eder promptly dispatched Belmont’s Austin Reynolds on three pitches. Eder had to reach to cut off a chopper from Cully Day, but he got the out. Another ground ball ended the frame. In Vanderbilt’s offensive frame, Belmont pulled Michael Matter after his shaky first inning in favor of the southpaw Justin Fowlkes. Vanderbilt’s freshman catcher, Phillip Clarke, gave him a warm welcome on such a cold, windy night with a line drive hit to left-center to start. Clarke, who’s established himself as a jack-of-all-trades of sorts by being a catcher who can hit .263 as well run fast, was gunned down while trying to steal second base. Jayson Gonzalez struck-out swinging, and soon after Julian Infante hit a soft fly ball to right.

In the top of the third, Belmont’s Jackson Campbell hit a hot ground ball right to second baseman Ethan Paul, who encountered the ball on a bad hop while playing back, but nevertheless was able to body it up and make the play at first. Eder quickly retired Belmont lead-off man Conger, and forced Gardener to strike an easy grounder down the first base side to end the inning.

Many spectators expected Belmont to throw their Friday starter (which in college baseball parlance means a team’s top pitcher) but because the Bruins are to face OVC rival UT Martin this weekend, the Belmont brass decided to have a staff day. So, junior RHP Kyle Klotz got to take the bump, making him the third Belmont pitcher to do so in three innings. Klotz led the OVC in appearances last season as the Bruins’ closer.

After dispatching Harrison Ray, Klotz walked Martin. Martin cruised to second without drawing a throw. Paul hit a chopper between the first and second basemen that scored Martin, and after some deliberation in the press box, his ball was officially ruled a hit. With DeMarco advancing to first and clean-up hitter Infante now batting, Belmont burned Klotz’s one mound visit. Whatever composure came of it was soon broken, however, as on the next pitch DeMarco executed a delayed steal of second base, taking out Belmont second baseman Jordan Henshaw on the slide.

Klotz’s pitching became more erratic as he missed several pitches outside, sending Infante to first with two outs. Kaiser would launch a fly ball deep into the gap as Vanderbilt’s players raced around the bases, but the Bruins’ center fielder Day was there to make the catch and end the eventful inning. Vanderbilt 1, Belmont 0.

To start off the top of the fourth, Cogen sent a frozen rope into shallow left center and gained an unpreventable double. Eder wasted three inside move pick-offs on Cogen, then Hadden sent a grounder that rolled for a long time and might have been a base hit if Paul hadn’t made a good transition for the out. The umpire made a controversial call of “ball” on a payoff pitch that landed high in the zone of Belmont’s Ben Kocher, putting Vanderbilt in a first and third situation. On his first pitch, Reynolds sent a blooper to shallow left center, bringing Cogen home to tie the score up at 1. DeMarco made a diving catch to return Reynolds and keep Kocher at first. A pitch, which might have been ruled wild were it not for the only apparent weak spot of Phillip Clarke’s game being blocking, from Eder allowed Kocher to move to second. The hiccup was made irrelevant, however, when the Bruins’ Day grounded out.

Predictably, in the bottom of the fourth, Belmont trotted out another arm in sophomore lefty Jack Rettig. Rettig retired Clarke and struck out Gonzale. Infante beat out a ground ball to have a Commodores’ beachhead on first base, but Ray’s fly ball to right ended the inning.

After surrendering first base to Belmont, Vanderbilt pitching coach Scott Brown called on freshman young gun Justin Willis to take back the mound. Eder had a solid start, but combining the fact that his velocity had been decreasing since the first inning and the nature of midweek games, it was time for him to accept the thanks of his teammates.

Willis struggled to find the zone against his first batter. Phillip Clarke made an ill-concieved attempt to pick off Kyle Conger at first base off of a bad pitch, which allowed Belmont to create a first and third situation with no payoff. Willis loaded up the bases unintentionally with one out, bringing up the Bruin’s five-hole hitter Matt Kocher. Coach Brown had seen enough to start warming up Vanderbilt’s bullpen and to make a mound visit out to the Freshman pitcher. The Belmont batter hit a blooper to shallow right field, just out of reach for Ethan Paul. Belmont crossed home plate to make it 2-1.

It was mostly downhill from there for the Commodores, as Vanderbilt let up several more runs that inning. In the sixth, Jayson Gonzalez came out with an injury following a play in the outfield. It was later confirmed to be an ankle sprain by Gonzalez in a postgame interview.

Tennessean Vanderbilt beat reporter Adam Sparks commented that the Commodores hit a lot of balls hard in the game, to which Coach Corbin replied, “I don’t think there’s a night or day here where you want to hit the ball in the air here. It’s the friggin’ Grand Canyon, and if you’re gonna hit it you better hit with some energy or the United States of America flag better be blowing out 100 miles-per-hour.”

Vanderbilt will play LSU at home this weekend.

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