One inning away. One out away. One strike away. The VandyBoys were that close to a sweep of Kentucky, a Southeastern Conference (SEC) East crown, and the No. 2 seed in the upcoming SEC tournament. However, with home runs from Coltyn Kessler and Jacob Plastiak, the Wildcats scored five runs in the top of the ninth inning and propelled their team to a 7-5 win.
Commodore fans will look at umpire Wes Hamilton with frustration, as he ruled a close 1-2 pitch a ball, extending the game and giving Kentucky another chance to rally.
“It was a ball,” head coach Tim Corbin said. “It was a ball. It’s a called ball, so it’s a ball. It’s not a strike three. I didn’t see a strike three. If he called strike three, I would have seen a strike three. It wasn’t a strike three. It was a ball.”
Kentucky also started the game off with a home run. Austin Schultz went yard on the first at-bat of the matchup and was followed by two doubles from T.J. Collett and Kessler that made the game 2-0 early on. From there, freshman Patrick Reilly settled in, only allowing one more hit and no other runs in his five innings pitched.
“I thought that the turning point for Patrick was when it was two to nothing,” Corbin said. “I thought he did a really good job of getting through that particular situation and then coming back and getting us deep into a ball game, just giving up two runs. He left with a lead. I was happy with him.”
Vanderbilt’s offense got started right off the bat with three singles in the first two innings, albeit without any runs to show for it. However, in the bottom of the third, Enrique Bradfield Jr. got the Commodores on the board, going all the way from first to home with the help of an Isaiah Thomas double. After a Dominic Keegan single, Jack Bulger drove Thomas in for the second run of the game. A few batters later with Bulger in scoring position, Tate Kolwyck put Vanderbilt ahead with a sacrifice fly ball to right field. The play ended in a double play after confusion from the base runners, but the damage had been done.
The game remained 3-2 for five more innings with both bullpens having an excellent day. But in the bottom of the eighth, Vanderbilt got the bats going again. Thanks to a double to right field, Parker Noland was in scoring position and crossed home plate with a Jayson Gonzalez single. The run put the VandyBoys up 4-2 heading into the ninth and from there, the game fell apart.
Nick Maldonaldo, an extremely capable and reliable closer, started the inning with two strikeouts. Up two runs with two outs and a 1-2 count, Vanderbilt looked like they would waltz to a win and a sweep of the Wildcats. But instead, Kentucky rallied, starting with a Schultz single. Collett added another single, and then Kessler cleared the bases with a celebration-stopping home run. Maldonaldo hit the next batter and was replaced by Luke Murphy, who proceeded to allow another home run, this time to Jacob Plastiak, making the game 7-4.
Vanderbilt responded with a run of its own, thanks to a Keegan single, a Bulger walk, and a Rodriguez groundout, but it was not enough to bring the Commodores back to level. Kentucky pitcher Sean Harney finished the game off and extinguished the last hopes of a Vanderbilt rally.
The 7-5 result put the VandyBoys behind Tennessee in the East, pushing them back to the No. 4 seed in the SEC tournament in the process. There, they’ll play the winner of the Ole Miss (who they lost to during the season, two games to one) and Auburn series.
Though there is not much for Commodore fans to be pleased about after the game, both Keegan and Reilly provided bright spots for Vanderbilt. Reilly pitched exceptionally well after an initial slow start, and Keegan went five-for-five at the plate, showing once again why he resides in the coveted third spot in the lineup.
“We’ve got potentially a lot of baseball to play…maybe. [It] depends [on] how we respond to this particular situation, so we’ll see. We’ll see what we’re made of because we weren’t made of enough throughout that game to finish it, and we got bitten,” Corbin said.
While Bradfield continues his quest to break the Vanderbilt single-season steal record (he sits at 42 steals and the record is 51), the team will play next on Wednesday, May 26 at 8 p.m. CDT, when they start their postseason with high expectations.