It may only be February, but the Vanderbilt Commodores are still winless when sending out their Friday-night starter and top prospect onto the hill.
Despite a great performance from Kyle Wright, Vanderbilt dropped the first game of the series against University of Illinois-Chicago in 10 innings by a score of 5-3. It was a game that most people chalked up as a win before the first pitch was even thrown, but UIC reminded everybody that at the end of the day, it’s baseball. They didn’t look the slightest bit intimidated by the sixth-ranked Commodores or their ace.
After a disappointing outing last Friday at San Diego, Wright looked on top of his game, tossing six innings of one-run ball. He allowed just four hits and no walks, posting seven strikeouts in the process.
“I commanded the fastball a little better, got ahead early in counts,” said Wright. “I still made a few pitches that almost cost me, one of them did cost me, but I feel a lot better from where I am now to where I was last week.”
Wright’s efforts weren’t enough to earn him the win, however, as the Commodore offense stalled. He exited with the game knotted up at one.
UIC started to gain momentum in the middle innings, and they had some star pitching of their own from senior left-hander Jake Dahlberg, who surrendered just one run in five innings of work.
Vanderbilt’s offense started off with a bang, as Jeren Kendall launched the second pitch he saw to dead center field for a leadoff home run, his first of the season.
The ‘Dores appeared to be threatening again in the second inning. Walks from Reed Hayes and Jason Delay gave the Commodores runners on first and second with just one out, but they couldn’t capitalize, as Kendall’s hard liner to first was snagged to end the inning. The third inning had more of the same, with Will Toffey and Ethan Paul left stranded following consecutive singles.
The Flames put up a run of their own in the third on an opposite-field bomb off the bat of Scott Ota, Wright’s lone blemish of the night.
“I just left it up,” said the junior right-hander. “It was supposed to be away-away; it was middle-away and up in the zone.”
Wright really settled in after that, retiring 10 of the next 11 batters he faced, pumping his mid-90s fastball throughout.
Vanderbilt squandered a couple of leadoff baserunners in the middle innings, keeping the game tied at one, but Kendall looked to give the offense some life in the seventh. With two outs, Kendall slapped a ball through the hole on the left side, turning it into a double with some aggressive base running. Unfortunately for the Commodores, Kendall was a bit too aggressive, getting picked off at second base to end yet another scoring opportunity.
Collin Snider relieved Wright in the seventh, tossing a 1-2-3 inning, and returned to the mound for the eighth. That’s when UIC finally broke the tie.
Ota reached base on a hit-by-pitch, and Brandon Gibis advanced him to second on a bunt. Matt Bottcher then poked one back up the middle, just under the diving glove of shortstop Connor Kaiser, and Ota scampered home to take the lead. Another single to right field by Cody Bohanek gave the Flames an insurance run, but Delay stopped the bleeding by throwing out Bohanek on a steal attempt for the second time in the game.
Delay wasn’t the only Commodore who shined defensively. Paul made a sliding catch in shallow right field to prevent a hit, and Ro Coleman used every bit of his 5’5″ frame to make a leaping grab at the wall to save extra bases and a run in the sixth.
In dire need of some offense, Vandy’s bats finally came through in the bottom of the eighth. With one out, Toffey singled, stealing second on the ensuing at-bat. Julian Infante drew a walk, sending JJ Bleday to the plate with the tying-run on first.
Most head coaches would probably pinch-hit for their freshman, who had been 0-for-3, striking out, grounding into a double play and committing an error on a single that allowed a run to score. However, Corbin had faith in his guy.
“He just said to see some pitches,” Bleday said. “A lot of my teammates just told me to focus on this next at-bat, not worry about what happened previously.”
Bleday came through, lacing a shot over the head of the first baseman and into the right-field corner, scoring both Toffey and Infante and tying the ballgame. He was thrown out trying to leg out a triple, but the dugout hardly seemed to care, as Vanderbilt seemed to regain momentum.
Snider was back out to pitch the ninth, drawing on Vanderbilt’s emotion and tossing another 1-2-3 inning. Alonzo Jones led off the bottom of the ninth with a pinch-hit single, but Delay couldn’t get a bunt down, and the Commodores stranded him at first.
Corbin continued to ride with Snider in the 10th, and this time it proved to backfire. The reliever walked the leadoff man before airmailing a throw to first on a sacrifice bunt that put runners at the corners with no outs. He then allowed a rocket off the bat of Gibis that ricocheted off the left field wall for a double, scoring the go-ahead run.
Matt Rupenthal came in to clean up the mess, but it was too late, as the Flames tacked on two more runs. The Commodores went down easily in the bottom of the 10th, and UIC held on for the victory.
Vanderbilt looks to bounce back and pick up a win when it sends Patrick Raby out to start the second game of the series against UIC tomorrow at noon.