Would there be any rust? That was a common question by Commodore fans directed at Vanderbilt starting pitcher Taylor Hill on Wednesday. And rightfully so after 17 days between appearances. Hill had not pitched since June 5 against Belmont.
Hill answered the question with a resounding NO on Wednesday as he kept North Carolina on its heels (no pun intended), surrendering just four hits and one run in seven innings while throwing a season-high 125 pitches. He also struck out four to get the win.
Often the forgotten man in Vanderbilt's rotation, which features first round draft pick Sonny Gray and SEC Pitcher of the Year Grayson Garvin, Hill turned in the best starting performance of any of his rotation mates in the CWS on Wednesday, as he earned the first win by a Vanderbilt starter.
"The story was Taylor Hill from a pitching standpoint," Vanderbilt Head Coach Tim Corbin said. "I thought he came out and pitched the ball very well, set the tone early throwing a lot of strikes, keeping them off base. It was a contrast really to the first game when there were a lot of base runners for North Carolina. He did a good job of neutralizing their offense and got us deep into the ball game."
With the win, Vanderbilt will now face Florida at 1 p.m. Friday and must beat the Gators twice in order to advance to the championship series.
Two of the four hits that Hill surrendered were doubles by Jacob Stallings. However, Hill prevented further damage after each double. In the second inning, Hill allowed a leadoff double to Stallings, which was followed by a walk. With his back against the wall, Hill dug deep and struck the next two batters out before getting Brian Holberton to ground out to second.
After a one-out double by Stallings in the fourth, Hill again settled down and recorded the next two outs on a pop up to third and fly out to left.
Finally in the fifth, it looked as though Hill was finally nearing the end of the line as he reached 90 pitches. North Carolina had loaded the bases after Chaz Frank singled through the right side after a 13-pitch at bat.
But Hill wouldn't go down that easily.
The Mt. Juliet, Tenn., native then got Ben Bunting, UNC's two-hole hitter, to ground out as one run scored to make the game 5-1.
With lefty Kevin Ziomek and righty Will Clinard ready in the bullpen, no one would have faulted Corbin for going to the bullpen with UNC's top hitter, Colin Moran due up.
However, Corbin stuck with Hill. He then had him intentionally walk the lefty Moran to load the bases and face Jacob Stallings. The decision to put the tying run at the plate against Stallings, who was 2-for-2 with two doubles, left a few people scratching their heads, but the gamble paid off as Hill struck out Stallings to get out of the jam.
"I think he made us keep him in," Corbin said. "Going back to that one inning I don't know how smart we looked when we intentionally walked Moran to get to a guy that already hit two doubles. We just thought the match up was a little bit better to keep the ball away from Moran because he's a very dangerous left handed hitter. We just thought at least Taylor could keep the ball away from Jacob and neutralize his bat a little bit."
Stallings was more familiar with Hill than any other hitter in UNC's lineup. The two had played together for Chatham in the Cape Cod league, where Stallings had caught him. In the first two at bats, Stallings used his experience catching Hill to his full advantage as he ripped two doubles.
The third time around, Stallings saw something different in Hill.
"I got a first pitch slider, and it was the best pitch of the at bat to hit, and I just missed it," Stallings said. "You know, Taylor (Hill) really kind of bumped up during that at bat. His stuff was a lot better just that whole at bat than it has been in my previous times."
"As far as the 0 2 pitch to Jake, he hit the 0 2 slider in the first at bat really well, " Hill said. "Then the next at bat he hit an away fastball the other way. So, I was just trying to move it in and out, and Curt (Casali) was calling great pitches and doing what he always does, catching a great game. I was fortunate enough to have him swing through it."
Hill virtually cruised through his final two innings of work, only allowing a single base runner the rest of the way. With the win, Hill improved to 6-1 overall and has now pitched at least seven innings and surrendered just one run in each of his last three starts.
"He's been the owner of some tough luck during the course of the year," Corbin said. "But he's pitched so well to get us to this point right here. He deserved the opportunity to win that ballgame. Once he flowed through the sixth, we gave him the seventh as well."
As for any rust after a 17-day layoff, Hill's performance made it clear there was not any. In fact, he relished the opportunity to get the extra rest after a long season.
"As far as having two weeks off I was thrilled about it," Hill said. "As a pitcher any time you can have two weeks off is great."