Vanderbilt sat on a two-run lead for 16 hours on Friday night into Saturday morning. By Saturday afternoon, the lead and the victory was history.
It didn’t take nearly as long Sunday for the Commodores’ bullpen to lose a one-run advantage — and the series — to No. 6 Florida. Mike Zunino’s three-run home run in the top of the 12th inning sent No. 1 Vanderbilt to a 6-3 defeat before 3,248 at Hawkins Field in the decisive game of a weekend series.
The Commodores' only victory of the three-game set was a 14-1 blowout in the second game Saturday. They fell in the other two contests despite having led late.
With one regular-season series remaining, Florida, Vanderbilt and third-ranked South Carolina sit in a three-way tie in the Southeastern Conference standings with identical 20-7 league records. The Gators and Gamecocks each hold a tiebreaker advantage over the Commodores based on head-to-head results.
“It just makes the three games against Georgia more important right now,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “Tough loss. We had our chances to win. But we just didn’t. It sucks. Just [have to] move forward.”
Vanderbilt travels to Georgia to start a three-game series on Thursday.
Friday’s opener against Florida was suspended because of heavy runs and lightning that hit the area. Play resumed on Saturday in the bottom of the sixth with Vanderbilt ahead 4-2. But the bullpen couldn’t hang onto the lead ace Sonny Gray gave them. After Vanderbilt (42-8) regained the lead, closer Navery Moore gave up two runs in the ninth as Florida (39-13) prevailed for a 6-5 victory.
On Sunday, the bullpen once again took over with a one-run lead in the seventh. After Taylor Hill allowed two solo home runs and just four hits, the six different pitchers were needed to finish the game. With one out in the eighth and 3-2 lead, left-handed reliever Corey Williams had the first two batters he faced down 0-2 in the count but let both get on base to load the bases. Mark Lamm replaced Williams but Zunino hit a deep sacrifice fly to right.
Jack Armstrong came in a couple batters later to put out the fire with a strikeout that kept the game tied.
Armstrong left the game in the 12th after 3 2/3 innings of hitless ball. But he walked the leadoff hitter Nolan Fontana, who moved to second on a sacrifice bunt. That left first base open so Corbin opted to intentionally walk Preston Tucker to set up a possible double play and pitch to Zunino — Florida’s cleanup hitter.
Corbin brought in Moore to face Zunino, who took a 3-2 pitch the opposite way, clearing the wall in right field. It was Zunino’s second home run of the game and he left the series hitting .367 for the season, with 51 RBIs and 12 home runs.
“We just wanted the double play. We wanted to see if we could sink the ball under his bat, get something on the ground,” Corbin said. “ ... Zunino may be the [SEC] player of the year. He is a tough match, a strong kid. He drove a fastball the other way. So I credit him. He got a fastball on the outer half of the plate and he drove it the other way.”
Moore wasn’t tagged with the loss — that went to Armstrong (0-1) — but for the second time in just more than 24 hours he was scored upon. That hadn’t happened in his previous 13 outings, dating back to March 20.
He also hadn’t given up a home run all year and entered the series with a 0.36 ERA, nine saves and opponents were hitting just .159 against him. He had allowed just one earned run all season.
“Coming up in situations like that, obviously, it is going to be a little reality check I’m guessing,” Armstrong said of Moore. “I know him. He’s my roommate and I know what type of kid he is. He is very competitive. He is going to come back and can’t wait for the next time to get the rock. He is very good. And I got all the confidence in him as well. He should keep his head up.”
Four times in SEC play, Vanderbilt has lost when the bullpen failed to hold a lead. Three of those have come against either South Carolina or Florida.
“The state of our bullpen is fine,” Corbin said. “I’m not worried about that. I mean, you are pitching against Florida. You are not pitching against some bootleg team. ... You’re playing a damn good team. These guys can play. They’re not easy to shut down. We’re not easy to shut down. They were fortunate to get us. But it’s OK. We’re going to play them again [in either the SEC Tournament or possibly the NCAA Tournament], and we’ll just turn it around.”
• The Vanderbilt bullpen didn’t get much help from the offense.
After Curt Casali homered and gave the Commodores a 3-1 lead in the top of the fourth, 14 of the next 16 batters — going into the ninth inning — were retired.
Nick Maronde had a lot to do with that. The hard-throwing lefty for Florida relieved starter Karsten Whitson in the fifth and allowed just one baserunner — on an infield single — in 3 1/3 innings.
“Any pitcher that can come in and throw consistent strikes in the lower part of the plate is going to get outs,” Casali, who had three hits and two RBIs, said. “You have to tip your cap to him. He did a heck of a job.”
Vanderbilt and Florida both left nine runners on base.
But on four different occasions, the Commodores failed to score when they had a runner on third with fewer than two outs. Their two biggest opportunities came in the 10th and 11th innings. Kemp led off the 10th with an infield single, moved to second when Anthony Gomez was hit by the pitch and both moved up a base with one out during Jason Esposito’s at-bat. But Esposito popped out and Mike Yastrzemski struck out swinging.
In the 11th, Casali led off with a double and moved to third on a sacrifice fly. But Connor Harrell and pinch hitter Sam Lind both went down swinging.
“There were a lot of chances,” Corbin said. “You know, sometimes when you get guys at second and third with under two outs, guys try too hard. They’re kids. They want to win. They don’t want to disappoint. The trying is there. You can’t fault a kid. I’d take my group any day. Just came up a little bit short, then the home run at the end makes it feel worse. Well-played ballgame, a playoff-type game.”
• A war of words ensued after Austin Maddox homered in the second inning. As he ran from third to home, he appeared to turn back and yell something at the Vanderbilt dugout. In the bottom half of the inning, when Esposito scored on a Casali double, Esposito ventured toward the Florida dugout and yelled something.
“Just child [crap],” Corbin said. “It doesn’t matter. It is gone now. That’s what two aggressive teams do when they’re getting after each other. It’s like fighting your brother.”
• Vanderbilt infielder Bryan Johns injured his finger in the second game on Saturday and was not available on Sunday. Johns, who started at second base on Saturday, took a pitch off his right index finger while trying to bunt.
• Besides a grand slam and five RBIs in the second game, Vanderbilt slugger Aaron Westlake was shut down on the weekend. The first baseman, who bats third, went just 2-for-14 with seven strikeouts in three games.