Entering the eighth inning of Vanderbilt’s Saturday afternoon home game against Tennessee, Kyle Wright had been having a month for the ages. Since April first, he had thrown 29 straight innings without allowing a run, giving up only 10 hits and striking out 30 batters over that span.
After the eighth inning, however, the scoreless streak was no more.
Jordan Rodgers gave the Volunteers lead over the Commodores with a towering grand slam, and that was all the offense they needed to take the second game of the series by a score of 9-3.
After a lackluster start to his junior season, one in which he entered as a projected top five draft pick, Wright has stymied opposing hitters in the month of April. That continued for most of Saturday afternoon. Just a day after Tennessee failed to muster a run against right-hander Patrick Raby, Kyle Wright mowed the Volunteers down to the tune of just three hits allowed with six strikeouts in seven and a third innings of work, carrying a no-hitter into the seventh. Even in the excellent month that Wright has had, though, he has only gotten credit for one win, and just like April and most of the season before it, his pitching efforts were all for naught on Saturday.
What was once a 3-0 Vanderbilt lead evaporated in an instant, and while Wright will get credit for the loss in this one, it’s hard to ignore the lack of support that has come from the bullpen in recent weeks. This marks the second straight week in which Ruppenthal has given up a home run to lose the lead, and Collin Snider’s ERA after today’s outing hovers over five. For Vanderbilt, the bullpen hasn’t been reliable all season, and head coach Tim Corbin seemed reluctant to tag the struggles as a trend.
“It’s just one game,” said Corbin. “I don’t care about the past few games. It’s one game.”
After a perfect first inning from Wright, Will Toffey led off the bottom of the first by drawing a walk. Toffey then immediately broke for second on a pitch in the dirt from Tennessee freshman right-hander Garrett Stallings. The throw wasn’t nearly in time, but in reaching for the second base bag, Toffey’s left arm stopped his body short, and he immediately held his left shoulder in pain, leaving himself exposed to be tagged out easily. Toffey was seen walking around the dugout after the game without anything on his shoulder, but Corbin seemed unsure of his status going forward.
“I think his shoulder came out,” said Corbin. “It was put back in, he was in a lot of pain, but we just have to figure it out.”
Alonzo Jones replaced Toffey at the top of the order, and the Commodores went quietly in the first. They managed to get a couple base runners again the next time around, as a Stephen Scott single, followed by another base-knock off the bat of Jason Delay put them in business with two outs, but a groundout stranded the runners to end the second.
The teams alternated 1-2-3 innings for the next two innings, with the only exception being a walk issued to Tennessee centerfielder Justin Ammons. Ammons was quickly erased, however, as he was gunned down trying to steal second by Delay.
With the game still knotted at zero in the sixth, Tim Corbin reached into his bag of tricks to pull out his usual late-game small ball. Jones drew a walk to start the inning, and Jeren Kendall came to the plate looking to lay one down. Kendall advanced Jones to second successfully, but an error by third baseman Jordan Rodgers allowed him to reach first safely.
While Kendall’s bunt was no surprise, the decision to have Julian Infante square around caught the Volunteers completely off guard. Infante laid down the sacrifice bunt beautifully, giving the Commodores second and third with only one out. That’s all they needed to break through and score first. Reed Hayes found the hole on the left side to bring home Jones, and Paul followed suit with a long single off the left-field wall to score. An infield single from Delay sent Hayes home and gave Vanderbilt a three-run lead.
With one out in the seventh, Rodgers came to the plate for the Volunteers and lined a single that one-hopped over a sliding Ethan Paul at third for Tennessee’s first hit of the ballgame. It appeared as if Paul misread it off the bat, and the crowd at Hawkins Field seemed not too pleased that the play was ruled as a hit, effectively ending Wright’s no-hit bid. Paul had been moved to third after Toffey exited the game in the first.
Luc Lipcius looked to tack on another hit for Tennessee, but JJ Bleday saved what could have been extra bases with a highlight-reel diving catch in right field. Rodgers advanced to second regardless on an errant pick-off attempt from Wright, but the Commodores still got out of the inning unscathed.
After a scoreless seventh for the Commodores, Wright came back out to pitch the eighth with his pitch count sitting at only 80, but things started to unravel. After issuing a leadoff walk to Pete Derkay, Wright hit Matt Waldren, and pinch-hitter Will Heflin singled to right, loading the bases. Wright was able to strikeout Brandon Chinea, but leadoff man Jeff Moberg laced a single into right to score Derkay and put Tennessee on the board in the eighth for their first run of the series.
Rather than let Wright try to escape, Corbin went to the bullpen and brought in right-hander Matt Ruppenthal. For the second straight week, Ruppenthal couldn’t get the job done in relief of Wright. After inducing a groundout to Ammons, Rodgers came to the plate again, and this time there would be no debate over whether his hit was legitimate. Rodgers rocked the first pitch he saw over the wall in left for a grand slam, shifting the momentum and the score in an instant.
“He was the right guy,” Corbin said of his decision to bring in Ruppenthal rather than left-hander Zach King to face a lefty. “He didn’t execute what he wanted.”
Tennessee continued their offensive push in the ninth, as a double by Andre Lipcius and a walk to Durkey put them in business. The Volunteers then executed a perfect double steal, taking advantage of Vanderbilt moving the infield in. Collin Snider came in for Ruppenthal and walked Max Bartlett to load the bases before giving up a two-run single to Moberg. An error by Infante allowed two more runs to score, putting this one out of reach.
Vanderbilt will look to bounce back tomorrow afternoon as they take on Tennessee in the rubber game of the series at 3:00 pm.