Vanderbilt’s Pat DeMarco raised his right knee up to his waist then powerfully planted the sole of his cleat on the top of home plate.
It’s been the program’s customary punctuation to a home run trot for several years. The Commodore stomp. So many overmatched foes have watched as the talent-rich SEC powerhouse emphatically marched through them in pursuit of its prize.
Michigan did provide some serious resistance this week. The Wolverines even jumped to a 1-0 lead after the first three batters ripped singles into the TD Ameritrade Park outfield.
But, eventually, Vanderbilt put its foot down.
The Commodores clinched their second national title in six years, surging past Michigan for an 8-2 win in the decisive third game of the College World Series final. Coach Tim Corbin, who knows the potential of this group very well, saw it coming.
“I felt like we were going to hit well. I felt like we were going to play well,” he said afterward. “I thought this was going to be a nice night for the kids.”
The winner-take-all showdown, though, started like so many of Michigan’s wins lately.
The Wolverines, looking for their first championship since 1962, took a first-inning lead in their first four CWS victories before losing Tuesday. And they were at it again Wednesday.
Senior Ako Thomas and sophomore Jesse Franklin both singled. Then junior Jordan Brewer made it 1-0 with an 0-2 hit.
But right-handed starter Mason Hickman settled in. And his teammates soon broke through offensively — DeMarco’s second-inning home run helped tilt the momentum.
“Pat certainly got us going a little bit,” Corbin said.
In fairness, Michigan right-hander Karl Kauffmann hasn’t been an easy arm to solve. He twice neutralized Texas Tech in Omaha. He tossed gems against Creighton and UCLA, as well.
But he was pitching on four days’ rest Wednesday night. He wasn’t as sharp as he needed to be. Vanderbilt didn’t let him off the hook.
The Commodores loaded the bases with two outs in the third inning. DeMarco worked a walk to put his team in front 2-1. Then senior left fielder Stephen Scott delivered a two-run single up the middle.
Vanderbilt drew two more walks in the fourth before a single and a sacrifice fly made it 6-1. The Commodores saw 91 pitches in those first four innings. They flipped the lineup over twice, too.
“Most of the damage was done with two outs, and we were just getting that big hit,” DeMarco said. “We were stringing good offense together as a team. It was team offense.”
That’s what has made Vanderbilt so dangerous for much of the year.
The Commodores were the first team in 12 seasons to clinch the SEC’s regular-season and tournament titles. They had 13 players selected in this month’s MLB draft. They won 18 of their final 19 regular-season games and earned the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
But their lineup lacked its usual thump in Omaha. The Commodores batted .221 as a team at the CWS, the lowest for a national title winner since 1972.
Vanderbilt had to scratch across two ninth-inning runs to earn a walk-off win over Louisville last Friday, which put the Commodores in the CWS final. Even Tuesday’s win wasn’t exactly convincing — Vanderbilt scored two of its four runs on wild pitches.
But the starters helped secure early momentum.
Freshman Kumar Rocker, who won Tuesday, earned the CWS most outstanding player award. Hickman ended up striking out 10 over six innings Wednesday. And the bats heated up just in time.
“They were the best team,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “I know what they put into it, and they certainly deserve it.”
Play of the game
Senior left fielder Stephen Scott helped his team capitalize on three two-out walks in the third inning by lining a bases-loaded single up the middle. His hit scored two runs and extended Vanderbilt’s lead to 4-1.
Player of the game
Vanderbilt sophomore Mason Hickman gave up a run in the first inning, then the right-hander shut down the Wolverines after that. Hickman struck out 10 over six innings. He retired the final seven batters he faced.
It was made by Michigan’s staff 24 hours earlier. The Wolverines decided not to use starting pitchers Karl Kauffmann and Jeff Criswell in a 4-1 defeat Tuesday, hoping that the extra rest would pay off Wednesday. It did not. Neither was overly sharp in the decisive third game.
After Scott’s two-run single made it 4-1, Michigan tried to answer when it came to the plate. But the Wolverines ended up leaving the bases loaded in the fourth inning. Then Vanderbilt added two more runs in the bottom of the fourth.
Catchers, crouching behind the plate, are vulnerable at times, especially when the ball just barely clips the bat and ricochets straight back. Michigan catcher Joe Donovan was particularly unlucky Wednesday. He took a foul tip to the groin. It caused great pain.
Entering this week, it could have been argued that Michigan was playing the best baseball in Omaha. But there was no disputing that Vanderbilt was the best overall team. The Commodores showed that Tuesday and Wednesday. And now they’re champions for the second time in six years.
He said it
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin: “I know our offense was celebrated for a long period of time, but you look at what happened in this tournament, and it was pitching and defense — and certainly starting pitching. … When you can pitch deep into ballgames in Omaha, you give yourself a chance.”