A pitch away from going home, Vanderbilt miraculously saved its season
24th June 2021

    Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. She previously wrote for The Kansas City Star and The Omaha World-Herald.

OMAHA, Neb. — They were one pitch away from going home. Bottom of the batting order. Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin scanned the dugout Wednesday night and decided to pinch hit Spencer Jones, who had just 87 at-bats all season, who, less than a year ago, was undergoing Tommy John surgery.

“The one thing about Spencer,” Corbin said, “[Is] you’re going to get a good heartbeat because he contains himself very well. He’s very present in what’s going on.”

Despite the fact that Stanford ace Brendan Beck was cruising, retiring eight straight batters, six of them on strikeouts, Jones was confident. The 6-foot-7, 225-pound utility player turned to teammate Enrique Bradfield Jr., who was batting behind him, and promised that he’d get on base and give Bradfield one more chance to save the Commodores’ season.

A few minutes later, Jones was crossing the plate and eventually shirtless, wildly celebrating Vanderbilt’s 6-5 walkoff victory over Stanford.

It was one of the more memorable finishes in recent College World Series history, and it gave new life to the Commodores, who came to Omaha with the glitz of two high first-round draft pick pitchers, but stayed alive with five lesser-known hurlers and bats that came alive after a fiery speech in the dugout from Corbin. After the Commodores fell behind 4-0, the veteran coach laid into his players in the fourth inning following three errors and another misplayed ball.

“We know we played pretty much the worst baseball in four innings, both sides of the ball,” Bradfield said. “It was just about regrouping, getting back to what we know we could do.

“Going into the ninth, we all knew we could do it. We’ve done some crazy things this year, down in the last inning, two outs.”

Down to their last strike and trailing 5-4, eight-hole hitter Javier Vaz walked, then Jones ran out an infield single, and shortstop Adam Crampton’s errant throw allowed Vaz to reach third. Bradfield singled to right to tie the game and Beck, the Cardinal ace who was pitching on three days’ rest, showed signs of fatigue. A pitch squirted out of his hand and sailed over catcher Kody Huff’s head, and Jones scored to put the 47-16 Commodores into Friday’s Bracket 1 final against North Carolina State.

Stanford, which turned to Beck in the seventh inning, gathered along the right-field line long after the game was over, hugging and not wanting to leave. Beck, the Pac-12 pitcher of the year, was so dominant for 2 2/3 innings. Vaz worked a 3-2 count before his walk.

“That’s what happens here at Omaha sometimes,” Stanford coach David Esquer said. “You get in those late innings and sometimes you have those magical endings for one team or another. And, hey, zero regrets on our side.

“Hats off to Vanderbilt for staying with it and creating that inning out of nothing against an unbelievable pitcher. So when you’re able to do that against a pitcher like Brendan Beck, you’ve earned that win. And so I congratulate them. But I feel for Brendan.”

The Commodores did not turn to their one-two pitching punch of Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker. They knew they’d have to get to Friday to see Rocker, the fireball-throwing righty. In somewhat of a surprise, Corbin started Christian Little, a 17-year-old freshman who reclassified in 2020 and arrived on campus in January.

Little lasted three innings but his defense did him no favors, committing two errors in the first inning. Little was visibly frustrated by the developments, and Vanderbilt coach Scott Brown tried to allay his frustrations, telling him to let it go.

In the fourth inning, Nick Maldonado came in and quieted Stanford’s bats, allowing one run in three innings. Around that time, Corbin delivered his dugout speech.

“It was just a moment,” he said. “I don’t typically talk to them during the course of the game. But I thought that there were some moments. I went out to the mound to change pitchers, and I didn’t think the eyes looked good. And when I came back in, Browny said the same thing. So just didn’t want to go down — if we were going to lose, we’re going to lose playing aggressively and I just didn’t think we were.

“It was more of a challenge than anything else. First of all, I don’t like doing that. And, second of all, it’s their game. It’s theirs to win or lose, and you don’t ever want to interfere. But at the same time I didn’t feel like they were playing like themselves and we needed to snap out of it. And I’m not saying that discussion had anything to do with what happened. But at that point we just needed to snap out of whatever fog we were in because we were not playing like ourselves.”

Shortly after that, Dominic Keegan crushed a two-run home run to left field. Vanderbilt pulled within a run in the bottom of the sixth inning on Parker Noland’s RBI single but the next inning, Beck arrived and the Commodores’ bats were quiet. Until they were down to the last out.

The Commodores can reset now, with Rocker and Leiter available and the nerves of elimination possibly behind them. Rocker will face an NC State team that beat Vanderbilt 1-0 Monday, despite Leiter’s 15 strikeouts.

“We might not be the most talented team,” Corbin said, “but the thing that you can’t deny the kids is they are tough. They’re tough. And every time you challenge them, they come back. And I appreciate that. I appreciate they’re fighters.”

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