College | Story | 6/26/2019

Vanderbilt finishes 2019 on top

Nick Herfordt        
Photo: (Vanderbilt Athletics)

See also: Rocker, Vandy even CWS FinalsMichigan takes CWS Finals lead

OMAHA, Neb. – With their incredible Cinderella-esque run to the finals as one of the final four teams to make the tournament, the Michigan Wolverines appeared to be on the path to reclaiming their first college baseball national championship since 1962. With their underdog status they certainly were the adopted local favorite and they had repeatedly overcome adversity to be one of the final two teams remaining.

Nevertheless, the Vanderbilt baseball team couldn’t have cared less if taking home their second title in six years stood in the way of a good story. In a winner-take-all matchup it was a traditional southern-based powerhouse Vanderbilt against an over achieving northern-based Michigan team for the national title. The team that entered the College World Series as the favorite to win it all did just that, as the Commodores came out on top, 8-2, to claim their second championship in six years.

In the opening inning second baseman Ako Thomas – who had regained the leadoff spot following an unfortunate injury to Jordan Nwogu the night before – continued his torrid hitting in Omaha by lacing a single to left field. Center fielder Jesse Franklin promptly followed with a base knock of his own to instantly put runners on the corners and the Commodores’ defense on its heels. Next to the plate was Jordan Brewer, the remarkable Big Ten Player of the Year, who rapped an 0-2 offering into left field to give the Wolverines a quick 1-0 lead.

With three straight singles Michigan was already on the scoreboard. Optimism bellowed from the dugout and the roaring maize and blue contingent in the stands. Headed into Wednesday’s contest Michigan had won every game in Omaha in which they had plated a run in the first inning.

The quick strike seemed improbable considering their opponent on the mound. Vanderbilt’s Mason Hickman had entered the game with an unblemished 8-0 record and had held opposition to a diminutive .183 batting average coming into the game. And he responded by striking out the side, retiring the next three batters with nine straight savage strikes.

Hickman’s positional starting equivalent on the Michigan side was Karl Kauffmann, an All-American hurler who had been selected 77th overall by the Rockies in the recent MLB Amateur Draft who had been dominating in the NCAA postseason. Coming into game three he had earned four postseason wins and thrown 30 innings against the ilk of Creighton, UCLA and Texas Tech, only allowing 20 hits with 20 strikeouts and a 2.40 ERA.

Kauffmann easily wrangled the vaunted Vanderbilt lineup in the first inning, but center fielder Pat DeMarco whipped his bat though the strike zone and connected with a gargantuan blast that ended with the ball bouncing into the Commodores’ bullpen in the second. Yet, just as Hickman recovered after giving up an early run, Kauffman recovered and finish the inning with three swinging strikeouts of his own.

After two innings the winner-take-all game was tied 1-1.

Hickman threw another scoreless inning with a pair of strikeouts in the top of the third and Kauffmann easily retired his first two batters in the bottom of the inning as well. It appeared both pitchers were in the zone, however, the wheels fell off Kauffmann’s proverbial wagon.

JJ Bleday was able to reach base via four consecutive pitches outside of the strike zone. He moved to second after a single by Ethan Paul and the bases suddenly became loaded after Philip Clarke was able to facilitate another walk. After starting the inning with two outs and no one reaching, Kauffmann and the Wolverines quickly found themselves in a dangerous position.

DeMarco, who had drilled a ball over the fence in his first at-bat, battled Kauffmann to a full count. The seventh pitch was well outside the strike zone and DeMarco earned a bases loaded walk. As he trotted to first Bleday came across the plate to give Vanderbilt the 2-1 lead.

The damage wouldn’t end there. The next batter, Stephen Scott, laced a single up the middle and another pair of runs crossed the plate and pushed the lead to 4-1. With Michigan’s regular Friday starter Jeff Criswell feverishly warming up in the bullpen, Kauffmann enticed Harrison Ray to pop up and end the inning and scoring threat.

After three innings Vanderbilt held the lead, 4-1.

The resilient Michigan team wasn’t ready to give up yet. Following a strikeout to start the inning, Christian Bullock drew a full count walk to reach first. After narrowly escaping a pickoff attempt, he got a tremendous jump from first and was able to advance to third following a Jack Blomgren single. A walk to Riley Bertram filled the bases. Thomas belted an offering to left field but it was easily collected for the third out. Hickman was able to extinguish the smoldering Michigan spark and keep his team three runs in front.

In the fourth inning Vanderbilt’s scoring continued.  Designated hitter Ty Duvall drew a full count walk, the fifth of the game for the atypically ineffective Kauffmann. With the free pass, Kauffmann’s fifth of the night, his night would be over and Criswell was brought in to hopes to keep UM within striking distance.

Criswell was able to calm the threat temporarily with a strikeout, but he suddenly couldn’t find the strike zone and Austin Martin was awarded first base with a walk. Bleday, who had earlier in the game increased his streak of reaching base in consecutive game to 51, rifled an offering into center field. The hit scored Duvall and moved Martin around to third. The Vanderbilt lead was increased to four, 5-1. The next batter, Ehtan Paul, wasn’t able to reach base safety, but he did deposit the ball deep enough into left field to allow Martin to tag up and score and increase the lead once again. Vanderbilt led 6-1.

Meanwhile Hickman performed spectacularly on the mound. Any apprehension that had resonated after allowing hits to the first three batters was long gone. In the fifth inning he struck out two and frustrated Michigan’s cleanup hitter Jimmy Kerr into a weak flyout. It was similar circumstances in the sixth when he once again retired the Wolverines 1-2-3. Hickman would be relieved after the inning. For the night he only allowed four hits and three walks and struck out 10.

“If you want to talk about the game, it certainly starts on the mound with Mason,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin stated after the game. “He's created such harmony during the course of the year with how he's pitched the weekday and certainly down the stretch here. He's pitched some very difficult games himself and certainly gave us a great start tonight.”

Criswell had been initially able to keep Vanderbilt from increasing their lead, but the Commodores added to their total in the seventh and eighth with single tallies in each frame. In the seventh inning Harrison Ray drove in DeMarco with a single, and in the eighth a Philip Clarke hit pushed Bleday home.

Michigan did offer a glimmer of a comeback in the eighth after Franklin hit the first pitch he saw into the left-center field gap for a double. He’d score soon after, but it was too little too late as a strikeout ended the inning.

After eight innings the score stood 8-2.

Jake Eder, who had come in relief for Hickman in the sixth, finished the game strong earning a three-inning save. The final out was made when DeMarco lovingly squeezed a fly ball in center field to earn the final out. The ‘Dores had done it again.

DeMarco, whose home run tied the game in the second and whose based loaded walk gave the Commodores the lead, beamed as he described the experience after the game.

“I don't think it's really sunk in yet. I don't think it's sunk in yet for any of us yet, this whole experience,” DeMarco explained, “I was just trying to stay in the moment, and hopefully it'll sink in in a couple years, but right now just feels like any other.”

With their second national title in six years, which also includes a second-place finish in 2015, Vanderbilt has now unequivocally erased any doubt that they are a baseball powerhouse. Tim Corbin Commodore clubs have gone 17-7 overall in Omaha, and despite a senior-laden roster, the team returns a wealth of talent for next season, including the College World Series Most Outstanding Player, Kumar Rocker.

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