The first inning-and-a-half against Texas A&M didn’t look promising for the Commodore baseball team, but that changed in short order.
After falling behind 3-0 behind uneven play from starting pitcher Kyle Wright, Vanderbilt took a 4-3 lead on Jeren Kendall’s two-out grand slam in the bottom of the second inning. Those four runs turned out to be all the ‘Dores needed, as they held the Aggies scoreless for the remainder of the game to take the first game of the weekend series.
Here are five thoughts from Vanderbilt’s second SEC win of the season.
Kendall’s slam the difference
Not only did Kendall come to the plate with two outs in the second, but the junior center fielder took two quick strikes to start off his at-bat. After taking a ball, Kendall launched Aggie starter Brigham Hill’s fourth pitch into the right-center field stands, more than 375 feet away. Hill entered the game with a 2.61 ERA, but the Commodores took advantage of their big opportunity early on. In a game with essentially no offense after the second inning, Kendall’s slam ended up holding even more importance.
“[Hill]’s a heavy changeup guy; we knew that coming in,” Kendall said. “It’s hard to say I was sitting on anything. You know, two strikes, bases loaded, you just gotta try and make the defense play some defense.”
Wright starts slow, finishes strong
Wright, a candidate to be selected No. 1 overall in the 2017 MLB draft entering the season, has had a bumpy start to the campaign. He entered Friday’s series opener with a 4.33 ERA and gave up three runs in his first two innings against A&M, taking 65 pitches to do so. The Huntsville, Alabama, native finished strong, though, in plowing through the third, fourth and fifth innings to earn his first win of the year. Vanderbilt’s hitters haven’t given Wright much run support this season, but he got just enough Friday.
“The kid’s working hard, and we just haven’t come out on top for him,” Kendall said of Wright’s lack of run support this year. “It hasn’t even been him, it’s been offense. For tonight, for us to scratch out a few runs and get him the W for the first time this year, it’s nice.”
King stymies Aggies
At the beginning of the season, Vanderbilt had a lot of options in the bullpen but few proven commodities. Freshman lefty Zach King has asserted himself as one of the Commodores’ most reliable options, and he played a key role in Vanderbilt’s ability to hold its lead on Friday. King turned in 2.1 innings of no-hit ball and racked up five strikeouts. His 1-2-3 sixth inning in which he struck out the side was one of the most impressive frames from a Commodore reliever this year. All three Aggie batters went down swinging, as King overpowered each of them. King’s seventh and eighth innings weren’t as easy, but he did enough to hold off A&M.
“I just stood behind the mound, got myself together,” King said of finishing off innings with men on base. “Throwing strikes [is the] main point, not splitting my mind for the guy on second base. I just made pitches.”
Hayes double duty
Junior college transfer Reed Hayes has become a fan favorite for his double-duty heroics this season, contributing both as a pitcher and batter. At the plate Friday, Hayes failed to get on base in going 0-for-4 batting second in the order. But Hayes came up big when head coach Tim Corbin called upon him to relieve King in the eighth. King had shown signs of losing his control after walking a pair of batters and hitting another, and the Aggies had pinch hitter Walker Pennington on second with one out. Hayes entered the game and promptly shut down A&M’s offense, striking out Hunter Coleman and coaxing George Janca into a flyout. Corbin let Hayes close the game out with Matt Ruppenthal still in the bullpen, and Hayes responded with an easy 1-2-3 inning to finish off the Aggies.
For as offense-heavy as the first two innings were, the rest of the game offered little in the way of baserunners and featured no runs. In fact, neither team produced even a single hit after the fifth inning. King, Hayes and Texas A&M reliever Kaylor Chafin coasted through the latter stages of the game, with the exception of King’s seventh inning jam after a walk and a hit batter. Vanderbilt freshman right fielder Harrison Ray chipped in the major highlight of the game’s latter stages, picking up a single through the right side to throw out Nick Choruby, who was advancing from first to second. The play required the kind of awareness and reaction time not seen often from true freshmen.
“That was very professional,” Kendall said of Ray’s throw. “That’s harder than you think, to come up and be throwing like that.”