In a very fine throwing duel, Troy LaNeve brought the Commodores home.
Vanderbilt came on 4-2 against the Kentucky Wildcats (28-21, 11-17 SEC) to start his final three-game regular season streak. The victory puts Vanderbilt at 38-12 on the season and 18-9 in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) game, tying them for first in the East and second overall in the SEC. The game was close throughout the game until runner-up Troy LaNeve hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth to leave the Wildcats.
“I was just sitting on the fastpitch,” LaNeve said. “We were heavily attacked with fastballs and I was prepared for it.
Vanderbilt pitcher Kumar Rocker put in a fantastic performance in what will likely be his last regular season start wearing black and gold. He opened with five shutout innings, relying heavily on his slider and the occasional fastball to take out eleven batters in the game. Rocker struck out twelve straight batters from the end of the second inning to the middle of the sixth.
“I thought he was very, very good. For him to [pitch seven innings]it’s just about protecting the team, protecting the bullpen and shortening the game for the back, ”said head coach Tim Corbin.
Neither the Wildcats nor the Commodores scored until the end of the third inning. The seal was broken when Vanderbilt had a back-to-back single, Jayson Gonzalez scoring on Enrique Bradfield Jr.’s practice line in left field. Vanderbilt quickly took a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the fourth when Dominic Keegan started the set with a solo home run.
Despite his strong performance, Rocker’s weakness in allowing the long ball was revealed by John Rhodes of Kentucky. Rhodes deep fouled the left-field fence in the fourth inning before straightening his swing for a decisive two-run homerun to tie the game early in the sixth.
On the other side, Kentucky starting pitcher Cole Stupp put on a respectable outing as well. He allowed seven hits and two runs in seven innings against a formidable offense from Vanderbilt, albeit without the presence of Carter Young, a powerful culprit.
Vanderbilt had the opportunity to break the deadlock 2-2 at the end of the seventh inning. Bradfield Jr. came to bat with two strikeouts and two runners and brought Cole Stupp to a full count. During the attack, Stupp had a conference with his coach as fans in a busy Hawkins Field rose for the moment to applaud. At the full count, Bradfield Jr. found himself on second base to complete the set and bring the crowd back to their places.
As the game moved into the eighth it became a showdown between the bullpens when Rocker and Stupp left the game. Vanderbilt’s Luke Murphy soared onto the pitch at the top of the inning, hitting the side with balls rapids reaching up to 98 miles per hour.
In the late eighth, Kentucky Stupp hit Isaiah Thomas with a pitch and was replaced by Daniel Harper. Harper walked Keegan four lengths and after a sacrifice from Parker Noland, chose to intentionally walk CJ Rodriguez. The bases were loaded with an exit for Spencer Jones, who hit a Grounder at second base. On the initial call, Jones was safe at the start and Vanderbilt scored a point. However, a replay review confirmed a successful Wildcat double play that wiped the run off the board and took the game into the ninth, still tied 2-2.
Murphy struggled to maintain momentum from his performance in the eighth. He hit a batter and allowed a single in the middle to start the ninth inning. After recovering with a fouled strikeout and a fly-out, Murphy hit a second batter to charge the bases with two strikeouts. He shifted into the clutch, however, forcing a fly-out to left field to close the Wildcats in the ninth.
With the game on the line in the bottom of the ninth, Harper stayed on the mound for Kentucky. Harper walked Kolwyck to a full count, and was left to face LaNeve. After losing 3-1 in the tally, Harper delivered a fastball that LaNeve connected to to win the game. The VandyBoys then started rushing to home plate to celebrate LaNeve’s home run as Hawkins Field erupted.
The Commodores will have two more games against Kentucky. The first will take place on Friday May 21 at 6.30 p.m. CDT and the second on Saturday May 22 at 2 CDT.