Vanderbilt, Louisville roll out the barrel for baseball rivalry

Monday, May 7, 2012 at 9:25pm

The last time Louisville was in Nashville, the Cardinals and Vanderbilt played one game over two days.

The Commodores were playing their first home game since the flood. With free admission, a record midweek crowd of 3,203 on May 11, 2010 donated more than $21,600 for flood relief efforts.

Vanderbilt rallied three times, including in the ninth and 14th innings. The epic game, which lasted five hours and 33 minutes, ended in the 17th inning when Jason Esposito blasted a solo home run.

“We’re all exhausted at 12:30 in the morning and Espo comes up and leads off the inning with a home run,” Vanderbilt outfielder Connor Harrell recalls. “It was a pretty emotional moment for us, given that we hadn’t played a [home] game since the previous Friday and with the end of the year and Espo emphatically put an exclamation point on that game.”

It went down as an exhilarating chapter of a growing rivalry – one that will be renewed on Tuesday when Vanderbilt hosts No. 22 Louisville (6:30 p.m., Hawkins Field).

For the first time, the teams will play in the Battle of the Barrel. The winner will be presented with a barrel, which signifies both states' connection through the bourbon (Kentucky) and whiskey (Tennessee) industries.

“That midweek game every year is kind of our measuring stick in a way,” Harrell said. “To be able to play them every year with something on the line this year ... personally for us this year it is a good game and it is going to be a good game for a lot of years to come.”

The teams have played each other in non-conference battles since 1971 and at least once a year since 2008. Vanderbilt holds an 18-4 lead all-time and has won seven of the last nine.

The rivalry intensified with four meetings in 2010.

After the marathon in May, they met three times in three days in June at an NCAA Regional in Louisville. The Commodores fell to Louisville on the second day and staved off elimination with three straight wins. Two came against the Cardinals, who eliminated Vanderbilt in a 2009 Regional. Richie Goodenow shut out Louisville with a two-hit complete-game to force a final game. Harrell, then a freshman, sent Vanderbilt to the Super Regional when he laid down a suicide squeeze in the bottom of the 10th, scoring Curt Casali from third base for a 3-2 victory.

“That is one of the things we had rehearsed since the beginning of September and I don’t think I had executed many of those in that year,” Harrell said. “To be able to put it down in a clutch spot when we needed it and not really having a great Regional up to that point, it was huge. It was huge for me and it was huge for the team. It took us to a Super.”

This year the teams head into the matchup on different paths.

Louisville (33-15) is tied for second in the Big East and appears poised to host another NCAA Regional. Vanderbilt (23-24), on the other hand, is trying to reach .500 for the first time all season. A win over Louisville would strengthen the Commodores’ RPI and help move them toward their goal of finishing the regular season with a winning record in order to be eligible for the NCAA Tournament.

“I don’t think it is a tall task,” Harrell said. “We’re playing with a lot of confidence right now and we’re confident that our group is going to be able to play for a few more weeks. Given that they’ve had a good year and the way [the games have] turned out the last few years it is going to be a little bit of a grind obviously.”