Mike Yastrzemski scored the game-winning run.
But Spencer Navin’s eight-pitch at-bat that ended with a strikeout ensured No. 2 Vanderbilt of its first series victory over Florida since 2009. The Commodores rallied for a 5-4 victory in a lightning-delayed and time-shortened seven-inning affair on Sunday at Hawkins Field.
With the Gators trying to catch a 6 p.m. flight, it was pre-determined that no inning would start after 3:15. A 49-minute delay in the fifth inning complicated matters particularly when Vanderbilt rallied from a 4-2 deficit and went ahead in the bottom of the seventh when Yastrzemski scored from second on a ground ball.
There were two outs. The clock read 3:13.
Navin then stayed in the batter’s box just long enough. He worked a full count and fouled off two pitches from Daniel Gibson. He was still at the plate when the clock turned to 3:15, causing the Vanderbilt faithful to erupt into cheers, and keeping Florida from getting another shot.
“The most important thing was Spencer,” Yastrzemski said. “Fouling off [two] pitches with 30 seconds to go on the clock, that’s like hitting free throws with one second left to go. It is tough to do and you’re in a hard situation. [The pitcher] knows what he is trying to do and to be able to execute like that. Even though he struck out — I’m sure he is upset about that — he is the reason we won that game.”
Vanderbilt (21-4, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) mustered just five hits — only two got out of the infield — and let an early two-run lead slip away. But in what coach Tim Corbin deemed a “weird game,” the Commodores avoided their third loss in four games by coming up with unusual methods to score.
In the fifth, Yastrzemski scored from third on a balk. The next inning, Navin drew a walk, moved to second on a wild pitch and later tied the game on a two-out infield single by Xavier Turner.
Not be to be overlooked was Brian Miller’s part in the comeback. The submarine-style closer entered in the sixth. Miller (3-0) worked two scoreless innings and made sure not to waste time in between pitches.
“I think the clock management was Brian Miller,” Corbin said. “It is his effectiveness to hit the strike zone. We have so much confidence in him to do that and he really made a difference.”
That set the stage for a dramatic finish.
Yastrzemski led off the seventh with a double off the left-field wall. He stayed put until pinch-hitter Johnny Norwood came up to the plate with two outs. On a 1-2 pitch, Yastrzemski broke for third and Norwood made contact. The slow grounder to shallow short allowed Norwood to just beat the throw.
Yastrzemski never slowed down and slid into home plate head first as catcher Taylor Gushue couldn’t corral the throw.
Ahead once again, Navin stalled long enough to fend off the Gators (11-14, 2-4).
“It was a weird game. It didn’t feel right,” Corbin said. “You know, it is a win. I get it and I understand it. But it feels awkward still to end a game with people cheering at 3:15 and we end the game on a strikeout and we walk off. I’ve never been a part of something like that. Unconventional baseball I guess, but we’ll take it.”
Time was on the Commodores’ side this time.
Last month, Vanderbilt lost 13-9 to Long Beach State in the finale of its first regular-season series. Long Beach State also had to catch a 6 p.m. flight on a Sunday. The first six innings took three hours, forcing another early finish. The game was called after eight innings and cut a Commodore comeback short as they battled back from a seven-run deficit.
“We know what it is like to lose that and it is not a fun feeling,” Yastrzemski said. “It is almost a bittersweet feeling too because you know you don’t play a whole game. But to gut that out and come back and the weather that we were in and the situation — having to sit down for 45 minutes — you can’t say enough about the mindset and heart of these guys.”