Hoover, Ala. - Vanderbilt rallied in the ninth inning to stun No. 2 Florida 8-6 on Saturday afternoon at Regions Park and advance to the Southeastern Conference Tournament Championship Game.
The Commodores (33-25) entered the ninth inning trailing the Gators (42-18) 4-3 after the teams traded runs early in the game. Freshman Connor Castellano led off the inning with a double into the right field corner and moved to third base on Andrew Harris' sacrifice bunt. Florida closer Austin Maddox then hit Tony Kemp to put runners on the corners with one out for Mike Yastrzemski. The junior dropped down his second squeeze bunt of the tournament to score Castellano and tie the game. The Commodores, however, were not finished. Gators' catcher Mike Zunino nabbed Yastrzemski on the back end of a double steal for the second out of the inning. Anthony Gomez produced a clutch single through the left side to score Kemp and put Vandy back in front for the first time since the third inning.
Vanderbilt then cranked up the running game against Maddox with Gomez stealing second. An intentional walk to Conrad Gregor put two runners on for Spencer Navin. Gomez and Gregor stole second base and third base with the Gators countering with another intentional walk, this one to Navin to load the bases. The Dores then pulled off one of the greatest plays in school history with a triple steal, with Gomez stealing home before the pitch reached Zunino. Gomez's run put Vandy up by two runs and the triple steal tied a SEC Tournament record for steals in one inning with six. Will Cooper lined a single into right field to cap the rally at five runs and give the freshman his first two career RBI.
The Gators battled back in the ninth, scoring two runs and putting the winning run on base before Drew VerHagen entered and picked up a one-pitch save, getting Justin Shafer to fly out to right field. The win sends Vanderbilt to the title game for the sixth time in nine trips under Head Coach Tim Corbin and marks the second straight year the Dores will play for the title.
VU scored twice in the first inning to claim an early lead. Kemp led off the game with a double and came around to score on a wild sacrifice bunt with two errors by the Florida defense. Gomez then knocked in Yastrzemski from third on a groundout to shortstop. A RBI-double from Connor Harrell in the second made it 3-1 before Florida scored two in the third to tie it. Nolan Fontana gave the Gators the lead in the fourth with a RBI-single
Nine different Commodores had at least one hit in the win with Yastrzemski, Gomez and Harrell all picking up two hits. Brian Johnson led Florida with two hits and two RBI. Will Clinard (7-2) earned the win despite a shaky ninth with Maddox (3-3) taking the loss.
Vanderbilt has now won a season-best nine straight games, including eight games against ranked opponents.
The Commodores will meet Mississippi State in the championship game tomorrow at 2:30 p.m. Vanderbilt will be the visiting team with the Bulldogs the home team.
Opening statement... "It was an emotional game and we got off to a pretty good start. This, however, was the first time in the tournament that our defense let us down a little bit. They were able to capitalize on it. We had a really big ninth inning. It was big. It was as big of an inning as we have played all year. Credit Castellano for coming off the bench and starting us off with a double. Then the fine bunt, and after that we had a bunch of quality at bats put together. [Tony] Kemp's hit by pitch then a safety squeeze to get it going, after that just some aggressive baseball. We held it together, they are tough to put away. They are a very good team. I think they will end up in the middle part of the country. They are a very good team and they will be able to play with a chance to win."
On the steal of home... "I am OK with certain guys, and I am OK with him [Gomez]. We had talked about it. We had talked about it previous to today's game. We were going to do it earlier in the tournament. We both had the opinion that it was over three seconds to the plate. I think the cue that Anthony got at that moment was he saw that [Florida pitcher Austin Maddox] looked down at his glove first and made a small movement before he got into his delivery, which would have extended that time. Once he took off I just started yelling at [Will] Cooper not to swing. It happened really, really quickly. Thank goodness Cooper saw him out of the corner of his eye. It is not a play that we hadn't worked on, because it is something that we do right before we start practice. It happened because Anthony is an instinctual base runner and he could pull it off."
On the aggressive base running... "Once Castellano got on base and we got things going we were up one. We had one out and were just trying to push as much as we could. They were trying to throw a lot of strikes. He got his leg up there, and I had time to get to second. I just kept going."
On his performance... "I just trust myself. It was a big crowd and a big game. We were playing against, arguably, the best team in the country. I just took a step back and calmed myself down. I know my team has my back. We have developed into a really great team over time. I am always ready to get out there and give them whatever I need to."
On the pressure in this game... "After the suicide squeeze against South Carolina, I didn't feel any pressure here. Just knowing that regardless of whether we score a run or not, we will have a guy on second base. The pressure was taken off me immediately. Trust in our runners. Trust in the guys behind us. It makes it really easy if you know that the guys behind you will do their jobs even if you can't do yours. You've just got to step back, take a breath, and trust yourself."
Florida Head Coach Kevin O'Sullivan
Opening statement: "I thought it was a really well-played game by both teams. Obviously we kind of gave it away there in the ninth. Vanderbilt earned everything tonight. They battled all the way to the end. I was awfully proud of our team. We got the tying run to the plate there in the ninth, didn't give up. Ultimately, Vanderbilt deserved to win. They played better than we did today, and they deserve to move on."
On if Vanderbilt Head Coach Tim Corbin's aggressiveness surprised him... "No, I know they like to run. Reflecting back after the game, closers don't necessarily do a great job of holding runners. They don't have many base runners to begin with. No one likes to lose, but in all honesty, I'm glad it happened this weekend and not next weekend. It gives us some things to work on this week. We got exposed there in the ninth, and they did a really nice job, and it is what it is. We have some things to work on. Trust me, we'll get that cleaned up."