Commodores edge Evansville in home opener

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Jack Fader

Vanderbilt used a good start and timely relief pitching to earn a grinding 7-4 win in its home opener Wednesday against Evansville. Six different players collected RBI for the Commodores, who scored five runs off of sacrifices before a two-run Ro Coleman triple in the 8th.

Evansville (1-3) made it difficult for the Commodores, bouncing back from an early 5-1 deficit to bring the game within one before a late spurt from Vanderbilt put the game away. The game was a classic early-season contest, featuring a few errors and base-running gaffes from the Commodores that will certainly leave head coach Tim Corbin less than satisfied.

Sophomore Maddux Conger started the game for the Commodores (3-1), allowing one run on six hits in 4.1 innings. Conger struck out six batters along the way and was aided by some great defense, including a stunning outfield assist from junior Jeren Kendall in the fourth to keep an Evansville run off the board.

“That was a difference at the time,” Corbin said. “Moving the ball and taking initiative… It was a very big defensive play.”

Conger worked out of the bullpen almost extensively last year and says that he sees himself bouncing back and forth as the year progresses.

“I do anticipate it, and whatever Coach Corbin wants us to do, I will do that.” Conger said.

Vandy manufactured a run in the second, as a leadoff Julian Infante single was advanced to third on an error and a sac fly. Alonzo Jones then grounded out to short to score Infante and get the Commodores on the board.

The Commodores added to their lead with a big third inning. After Kendall led off with a single, Kaiser walked and Will Toffey singled to load the bases. Ethan Paul followed with a groundout to first to score Kendall, and another Infante RBI grounder put the Commodores up 3-0. After JJ Bleday walked, a smart play by Evansville pitcher Alex Weigand left Bleday hung up between first and second. In the ensuing rundown, Toffey scored from third, putting the ‘Dores up 4-0 as the inning ended.

“They threw pretty good arms at us, and we did a good job of moving them over and scoring, and that was something we were trying to improve after the weekend [opening series],” Corbin said of the Commodores’ ability early to manufacture runs.

Evansville answered back in the fifth after a single and a long double set up a sac fly from Travis Tokarek for the only run against Conger. Vanderbilt followed with another sac fly in their half of the fifth from Toffey after a one-out double off the bat of Kaiser and an Evansville wild pitch.

Vanderbilt struggled offensively after Weigand left the game for Evansville, managing only one run and two hits after the lefty left the game. Effective relief from the Purple Aces set the stage for Evansville to get back into the game in the sixth.

The Purple Aces began the sixth inning with a walk from Vandy pitcher Zach King, who followed with a quick strikeout. Things went south for the Commodores from there. A base hit and an error on a routine grounder to first scored a run and put runners on second and third with one out. Kenton Crews then singled up the middle off of King to score both runners and bring the Aces within one. King would get the next two batters, but Evansville was back in the game.

Vandy freshman left-hander Jackson Gillis impressed in the seventh for the Commodores, striking out the side to keep the Aces at bay in his first appearance at Hawkins Field. Redshirt junior Penn Murfee got the first two outs of the eigth before being forced out by a walk and a hit batter, and junior Matt Ruppenthal got the final out of the inning on a strikeout.

Vanderbilt put the game away in the eigth, when an error on a grounder by JJ Bleday and a Jason Delay single led to a two-run triple to left-center off the bat of senior Ro Coleman that made the game 7-4.

“It was a one-run game and in the balance, and Ro took a good fastball and drove it the other way, which was great to see,” said Corbin.

Ruppenthal pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for the save. The Commodores are back in action Friday at 4 p.m. CT against Illinois-Chicago at home, in a game that will feature top Commodore prospect Kyle Wright.