NASHVILLE - Vanderbilt started its NCAA Tournament appearance with a bang Friday night as the Commodores defeated East Tennessee State, 9-1, to advance to the winner's bracket of the Nashville Regional at Hawkins Field.
Vanderbilt (52-9) will meet Illinois in the winner's bracket at 7 p.m. CT Saturday. ETSU (36-23) will play an elimination game against Georgia Tech at 2 p.m. Saturday.
The Commodores didn't waste any time at the plate, as the Dores struck for five runs in the bottom of the first. Xavier Turner got the inning started with an infield single, followed by a single from Mike Yastrzemski. Another infield single from Connor Harrell loaded the bases for Conrad Gregor who immediately drove in two runs on a base hit up the middle. An RBI-single from Rhett Wiseman, a sacrifice fly from Vince Conde and another RBI-single from Spencer Navin would give VU a 5-0 lead.
After the torrid start to the game, VU would be held without a hit until the sixth inning.
"We got off to a good start," said Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin. "That first inning where we pushed across five runs was big especially in the first game of the tournament because they're not easy to play regardless of whether you've been here or not. I thought Nesselt settled down a little bit and kept us off the ball, but during that time, we needed a very good pitching performance in order to contain the ball game. Five runs against that particular team that hits well is not enough, and Kevin did a good job of getting into the 8th inning. Then we separated ourselves a little bit at the end. Good start for us, obviously winning an opening game is a big deal."
In the bottom of the seventh, Jack Lupo led off the inning by advancing to second on a throwing error by ETSU shortstop Chris Riopedre. Two batters later, Turner would drive in Lupo on a single. Stepping up to the plate with a runner on, Connor Harrell sent his 12th home run of the season over the left-center field wall to give Vandy an 8-1 lead.
Lupo would drive in the final run of the game on a sacrifice fly to give Vanderbilt its final score of 9-1.
ETSU scratched out its lone run of the game on a sacrifice fly from Clinton Freeman.
Kevin Ziomek (11-2) threw seven innings and struck out five in the start, while allowing just one run on three hits. He lowered his season ERA to 1.92 after the quality start on the hill. Steven Rice finished the final two innings in place of Ziomek. Rice gave up two hits and struck out two.
"It's huge," said Ziomek when asked about being staked to a 5-0 lead in the first. "The way the defense is playing, it's hard not to have confidence out there. You just have to go out there and throw strikes and know that you have guys who can make plays. Talk about Connor, Vince at shortstop, and Yaz making a heck of a catch out there in rightfield. It's huge. You know you can go in there and don't have to strike people out. You just go in there and pitch with a lead, and it worked out tonight."
Jimmy Nesselt (2-3) took the loss for the Buccaneers. After giving up five runs in the first inning, Nesselt settled in and retired 16 of the next 18 Commodores. He left the game after six and two-third innings, allowing eight runs (five earned) on 10 hits. Nesselt filled in for ETSU ace Kerry Doane, who led the nation with 12 complete games heading into the game, was held out of Friday's game because of illness. Doane pitched a complete game Sunday in the finals of the Atlantic Sun Championship that advanced the Bucs to their first NCAA Regional since 1981 with a case of strep throat.
"Our worst fears came true tonight," said ETSU head coach Tony Skole. "We preached about wanting to get off to a good start this evening, but giving up that five-spot in the first inning allowed Vanderbilt to play relaxed for the rest of the game. After that first inning I thought we settled in and Jimmy (Nesselt) really got control of the ball game and was cruising through the middle innings and gave us a chance to get back in the game. We just couldn't seem to get that big hit and against a pitching staff like that. When you get opportunities in scoring position you have to get that timely hit and we just didn't get it tonight. It's a difficult loss but I'm proud of the way our guys stayed in it and fought."
As a team, Vanderbilt registered 11 hits on the night. Turner, Harrell, Gregor and Wiseman all had multi-hit games. Harrell and Gregor each went 2-for-4 with two RBIs, while Harrell also scored two runs. The two RBIs for Harrell brought his season total to 66 on the season. Seven of the nine hitters in the lineup recorded at least one hit on the evening.
Vanderbilt will meet Illinois in the winner's bracket at 7 p.m. CT Saturday. ETSU will play an elimination game against Georgia Tech at 2 p.m. Saturday. A limited number of single game tickets for the Commodores' game Saturday will be available online at vucommodores.com beginning on Friday night. Tickets are limited, but there will be infield and outfield seats available for purchase online and as walk-up sales at the stadium Saturday. Infield tickets are $20 and outfield tickets are $15.