Flames burn Commodores late, take weekend series

Jack Fader

Scott Ota lined a one-out RBI single in the top of the 11th inning off of Matt Ruppenthal and Rob Calabrese crushed a two-run homer two batters later to defeat the Vanderbilt Commodores 5-2 and send the Illinois-Chicago Flames home with a stunning series win in Nashville on Sunday.  

Vanderbilt’s bats fell silent after a strong start to the game and couldn’t back up a brilliant performance by freshman pitcher Drake Fellows in a game that the Commodores will certainly feel like they had well in hand.

UIC came into the series 2-3 and looked to be seriously overmatched by the Commodores, but with two extra inning wins on Friday and Sunday, the Flames proved that they belonged.

Mickey McDonald led off the 11th inning with a double off the right field wall for UIC, and Ota singled two batters later to give the Flames their first lead of the day. After a flyout, Calabrese hit one off the roof of the new training facility in left to seal the game.

Vandy struck for the only time in the bottom of the first inning. After Jeren Kendall popped up to first, a walk and a Will Toffey single set up runners on first and second for sophomore Julian Infante. Infante then lined a pitch to center field to score a run, and an error on the throw from centerfield to third base allowed Toffey to score and put the Commodores up 2-0.

After the early offensive outbreak, the Commodores were held in check by Flames pitcher Reid Birlingmair, mustering just two hits in the next five innings. Fellows was just as good, however, and Vandy would cling to their slim lead until the 7th inning.

“As a whole, that part of the game came difficult to us,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “They pitched well and they were able to slow the ball down and when pitchers come in here and do that it’s impressive.”

The Flames got on the board by manufacturing a run against Fellows in the fifth inning. Ogata singled to lead off the inning and was advanced twice on a sacrifice bunt and a groundout. Matt Bottcher then drove a 1-1 pitch into left field for a single to bring UIC within one. Bottcher was caught stealing by Commodore catcher Jason Delay to end the inning, and Vandy led 2-1.

Fellows scattered seven hits over seven innings for the Commodores, throwing 68 of his 105 pitches for strikes and controlling the Flames for most of the day. The right-hander struck out nine batters, including a strikeout with a man on base in four of his seven innings.

“He did exactly what he needed to do in a week where we are going to play a lot of baseball, he was very impressive and didn’t make many mistakes,” said Corbin.

Birlingmair matched Fellows punch for punch after a tough first inning, going 5.2 innings and giving up just four hits after a two-hit first inning. Birlingmair fanned six Commodores, and never really got into trouble as the game went on, righting the ship for the Flames and turning the momentum of the game on its head.

UIC completed its comeback in the seventh off of Fellows, who came back into the game after throwing 93 pitches through his first six innings. After a leadoff groundout, Ogata blasted Fellows’ 101st pitch just out of the leaping reach of Kendall to tie the game at two. Fellows would get the next two outs quickly to end the inning, but UIC was even.

“We were thinking of this particular game, we weren’t thinking ahead, and he came back in after the sixth and said he felt really good and we thought he was throwing the ball well,” Corbin said of the decision to send Fellows back out.  

Ruppenthal pitched the eighth, ninth and 10th scoreless for Vandy to keep the game knotted at two, beginning with an emphatic strikeout of Flames centerfielder Mickey McDonald for the final out of a perfect eigth inning.

UIC got the first two runners on in the ninth against Ruppenthal before a brilliant defensive play by the Commodores. Toffey charged in to field a bunt off the bat of Calabrese before turning and getting the lead runner at first. Connor Kaiser then got Calabrese at first for a huge double play, ending the Flames rally for the time being.

UIC reliever Charlie Cerny was brilliant for the Flames, allowing just two hits in 3.2 scoreless innings before turning the ball over to righty Alex Padilla for the 10th inning.

Vanderbilt had a huge chance to end the game in the 10th, loading the bases with only one out against Padilla for Kendall. Padilla, however, got Kendall to strike out on three pitches before inducing a soft flyout to right off the bat of JJ Bleday to end the inning and ignite the Flames’ dugout before the big 11th.

Ryan Connor pitched a perfect 11th for the save for the Flames, who flew out of their dugout in celebration after the final pitch.