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CWS GAME 1: VANDERBILT 7, NORTH CAROLINA 3
OMAHA, Neb. -- The first College World Series game at TD Ameritrade Park featured two programs with vastly different recent histories. North Carolina has reached the CWS four of the last five seasons, while Vandy is the lone first-timer to the event.
Given those two facts, you'd assume the Tar Heels, certainly not the Commodores, would enter the CWS opener looser and more ready to roll, right? Not exactly, as the Commodores captured an impressive 7-3 victory over the Tar Heels to begin the tournament.
"Sometimes you never know how you're going to react, but our kids were very comfortable during batting practice and when we started the game," Vandy coach Tim Corbin said. "Sonny grinded through the game and we got some very good relief pitching from Corey Williams and Will Clinard. We also got some big two-out hits."
It's safe to say a pitcher's duel between two of the nation's best starting pitchers was expected. Vanderbilt right-hander Sonny Gray, a first-round pick in last week's MLB draft, entered the contest with a 1.97 ERA in 114 1/3 innings, while North Carolina right-hander Patrick Johnson, a senior, is one of the great stories in college baseball this season. He entered the contest with a 2.27 ERA in 107 innings.
Both starting pitchers had issues throughout. Johnson was unable to make big pitches at times and finished the contest striking out just five, walking two and allowing five runs (four earned) on six hits in six innings.
"I didn't have my best stuff, and against such a good hitting team you can't leave balls over the plate, and they made me pay for that," Johnson said. "I wasn't as sharp as I have been and made a few mistakes."
Gray also didn't have a consistent and crisp performance. He started the game in slow fashion by allowing a run on two hits in the first inning. But his uncharacteristic performance was best illustrated through a quick dig through Vanderbilt's CWS notes.
Gray struck out five batters but also walked five and allowed three runs on eight hits in 4 2/3 innings. That may not seem too bad on the surface, but consider this: Gray's 4 2/3 innings was his shortest start since the season-opening series against San Diego, he allowed more than five hits for just the second time since April 15 and he recorded a season-high five walks.
"He was probably just trying a little too hard. Sometimes the first games in Omaha are tough on starting pitchers," Corbin said. "You had two highly skilled guys in Gray and Johnson and you see them not going too far in games because they're trying a little too hard. He didn't feel great and was grinding through it. He gave us what he had."
With both starting pitchers failing to go the distance, the game boiled down to clutch hits and relief pitching.
Vanderbilt bested North Carolina in both areas.
On the mound, Vandy left-handed reliever Corey Williams, who entered the contest with a 5.23 ERA, recorded five strikeouts and allowed just two hits in 2 2/3 shutout innings, while Will Clinard struck out a pair of batters and allowed a hit in 1 1/3 innings.
"The fifth inning was the decider in this one, when were able to get out of the jam. They had 20 guys reach base. The fact they only scored three runs, we were fortunate. Corey's strikeout with bases loaded was big," Corbin said. "We've been a team that has been able to get ourselves through the middle of a game and put things away in the 7th, 8th and 9th innings. That was kind of the story today. Pitching at the end was crucial."
While Corbin was pleased with his pitching, North Carolina coach Mike Fox, who typically approaches press conferences in serious fashion, could only crack jokes when it comes to his offense, or lack there of.
The Tar Heels finished the contest with 11 hits, one more than Vandy. The decider, though, is the fact the Tar Heels also finished the game with an astonishing 16 runners left on base. Vandy left eight on base.
"It seemed like it was kind of a game of two halves. The first half we really, really hurt ourselves not taking advantage of some opportunities," Fox said. "We left 16 runners on base. That pretty much tells the tale of the game for us at the plate. Out here, it's how well you play from first pitch to the last. They got the big two-out hits and we didn't."
With North Carolina leading Vanderbilt 3-2 in the top of the sixth inning with two outs, Commodores designated hitter Conrad Gregor had the first big two-out hit with an RBI double, while outfielder Connor Harrell had the deciding blast, a hard-hit two-run shot to left field to give his team a 5-3 advantage.
"That was a momentum switch for us. Coming off the inning where we shut them down [the fifth], they probably felt like they had a chance at that point," Corbin said. "Those were clinching moments."
Vandy electric freshman outfielder Tony Kemp had the most productive afternoon. In addition to some great defensive plays, Kemp went 3-for-4 a run scored and an RBI.
"He's a pest, he's an absolute pest," Fox said. "I'd like to have him. He hits lefties, righties, slaps the ball around, can bunt and run like the wind. He puts a lot of pressure on you."
Freshman, sophomore, junior or senior, Vanderbilt, in its first game at the College World Series, played like a team who has been here a few times.
Corbin hopes that becomes a recurring trend.
Player of the game: OF Tony Kemp -- The Commodores got several solid performances from players in the game, but Kemp was the ringleader. He set the tone for the game with a fabulous bunt in the first inning that was thrown away. He finished the contest 3-for-4 with a run scored and RBI. He also stole his 17th base of the season.
Turning point: With two outs in the sixth inning and down 3-2 to North Carolina, the Vanderbilt offense went to work. Designated hitter Conrad Gregor hit an RBI double to tie the game at 3-3, and outfielder Conor Harrell hit a two-run home run that cleared the left-field bullpen to make it 5-3. The 'Dores never looked back in the 7-3 victory.
Where both teams stand: It's always important to begin the College World Series in the winner's bracket. The Commodores have to feel great about their situation moving forward. They'll start left-hander Grayson Garvin in their second game in Omaha. Garvin has a 2.36 ERA in 106 2/3 innings and has struck out 92 and walked 24 ... North Carolina, meanwhile, will try to stay alive with freshman left-hander Kent Emanuel on the mound. Emanuel has a 2.55 ERA in 95 1/3 innings and teams are hitting him at a .254 clip.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org