NASHVILLE, TENN. - The nightmare scenario when a team is trying to play its way back through the loser’s bracket to win a NCAA regional is that the lack of pitching creates a situation in which the opponent can simply overwhelm inexperienced arms with their offensive potency.
That was Indiana State’s fear entering its do-or-die contest against second-ranked Vanderbilt. The Commodores can slap around the best pitchers college baseball has to offer, after all.
But that’s not what happened at Hawkins Field late Sunday night. Against all odds? Runs were at a premium between the Sycamores and Commodores.
ISU’s band-aid pitching staff did the best it could. Deep into the game, ISU was tied or within a run of the Commodores.
But the dam eventually broke. A two out, sixth-inning grand slam by Vanderbilt Ty Duvall highlighted a five-run Commodores’ sixth inning. The Sycamores’ best season since 1990 came to an end with a 12-1 loss to the powerful Commodores.
Vanderbilt will host the Super Regional against Duke next weekend. ISU ended its season with a 43-18 record.
“We run of out bullets and we hit the wall quickly,” ISU coach Mitch Hannahs said. “The sixth inning got away from us and it was basically the game.”
ISU got a fantastic starting effort from little-used Zach Frey. The junior had only thrown 5 1/3 innings entering the game and had an 8.44 ERA. Frey, however, flummoxed the Commodores. He lasted 3 1/3 innings, struck out five, and allowed just two hits. Though one of those hits was the game-tying home run, Frey gave the Sycamores a chance.
Unfortunately for the Sycamores, Vanderbilt starter Mason Hickman was even better. Hickman (2.20 ERA) was masterful. In seven innings, Hickman struck out nine and allowed only three hits, two of them by Roby Enriquez.
“He was able to keep us off-balance. You couldn’t bet on one pitch coming,” ISU shortstop Clay Dungan said.
The first of Enriquez’s hits did give the Sycamores an early edge. With Hickman’s changing speeds throwing ISU’s hitters off early on, Enriquez dialed in on Hickman’s stuff and slugged a solo home run to right to put the Sycamores up 1-0.
Frey kept Vanderbilt off the board until the fourth. On the second pitch of the inning, Vanderbilt designated hitter Phillip Clarke smoked a solo home run to right to tie the game. It was just the second hit Frey allowed.
“A lot of it [for Frey] was guts more than stuff. He was throwing 90 early and was throwing effectively wild at times,” Hannahs said. “He was pulling off some pitches that were sailing up. I think it actually helped him.”
Frey gave way to Geremy Guerrero, who pitched 2 1/3 innings of relief, also allowing just two hits.
However, one of them was also a solo home run. Julian Infante, who had three doubles against the Sycamores on Saturday, smacked a long home run to left field to put Vanderbilt up 2-1.
ISU continued to hold the Commodores off for a time. At the start of the sixth, ISU left fielder C.J. Huntley started a 7-4-3 double play with a catch against the wall and a laser throw to the infield to double off Ethan Paul at first base.
“It felt like the momentum was shifting a bit,” Huntley said on the feel at the time of the play.
However, the sixth then took a turn for the worse.
Guerrero was removed for Austin Cross. He gave up an infield single with Pat DeMarco going to second on a throwing error. After an intentional walk, Cross fell behind 2-0 to Harrison Ray, he was removed for ISU’s Tyler Grauer.
Grauer had pitched four innings just two days earlier, so his insertion was a gamble. Grauer walked Ray to load the bases for Ty Duvall.
Duvall hit a 1-1 offering throws rows deep into the right field bleachers to put Vanderbilt up 6-1.
“I knew it was a left-on-left matchup. I wanted a good pitch to hit, but I didn’t want to chase. He threw a changeup and I saw it well. Then I pulled a fastball left side. Then he went back to the changeup. I saw it out of the hand and tried to put a good swing on it,” Duvall said.
One batter later, Sycamore tormentor Infante hit a solo home run on to the Memorial Gym roof in left field to make it 7-1.
It was an unkind fate for Grauer, who did so much in ISU’s regional-opening win against McNeese State to get the Sycamores this far in the first place.
Hannahs lamented the situation ISU was in pitching-wise. It’s part of trying to advance via the loser’s bracket at a regional, an almost impossible task against any team, let alone Vanderbilt.
“Trying to balance the pitch count and the arms we have available was the tough part. If we somehow found a way to win? I’m not sure how we would have balanced another day,” Hannahs said.
Dungan, Huntley and Means made the All-Tournament team for the Nashville Regional. Infante was the MVP.