Aaron Westlake isn’t choosy, which is a good thing for No. 1 Vanderbilt.
The slugger will swing at pitches on both sides of the plate, and that boosted the Commodores in an 11-3 rout of Alabama on Friday night in front of 3,118 — the largest crowd at Hawkins Field this season.
The Southeastern Conference’s top hitter smacked the ball twice to the opposite field for hits and each knocked in runs against the Crimson Tide (21-11, 7-3), who entered the game atop the SEC West standings.
Vanderbilt (28-3, 8-2) pounded out 15 hits and scored at least nine runs for the fifth time in six games. With a RBI single by Westlake, the Commodores broke a 2-2 tie in the third and pulled away for their eighth straight victory.
“We jumped on them early and that is really what it takes to win a game like this, because they are a competitive team, they have a competitor on the mound,” Westlake said.
His second hit, however, chased that competitor, Alabama starter Nathan Kilcrease, from the game. Kilcrease, a 5-foot-6 right-hander, entered the game tied for the SEC’s fifth-lowest ERA (1.90). But he left with no outs in the fifth inning, allowing six runs, four earned, on seven hits with two walks. The outing raised his ERA to 2.63.
Westlake, who bats left, played a big hand in Kilcrease’s early departure. The first baseman drove the ball down the left-field line for a single that scored Tony Kemp and put the Commodores ahead in the third. In the fifth, his double bounced off the base of the left-field wall, driving in Anthony Gomez for the start of a three-run inning that pushed the lead to 7-2.
“[Westlake] knows you just can’t take an outside pitch and try to yank it and try to pull on it,” Corbin said. “He is more adept at hitting the ball the other way. ... It is really one of the things Westy can do. Besides being a power hitter, he is a hitter first. He is a talented, talented kid. He does a nice job of hitting the ball line to line.”
Westlake, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior from Redding, Calif., leads the team with 11 doubles. He also has 47 hits, just three behind Gomez, who had three more on Friday, extending his hitting streak to 26 games.
However, Westlake’s SEC-leading batting average dropped a hundredth of a point to a still impressive .412 because of three strikeouts. He has now been fanned 24 times this season, the most on the team.
But Corbin said he isn’t concerned about the strikeouts and Westlake wasn’t beating himself up about it afterwards, pointing to a lack of concentration.
“In a game like this when you get up 11-3, you might lose focus once in a while. I don’t want to say I threw at-bats away, but it is just tougher to try to keep your edge when you know you have a substantial lead,” he said. “But that is what it takes to be at the next level. You have to be focused all the time and it kind of got away from me a little [Friday].”
Vanderbilt starting pitcher Sonny Gray made sure a win didn’t get away from the Commodores. The right-hander walked four and hit one but struck out four. But both runs he gave up in six innings of work were unearned as he lowered his ERA to 1.54, the third lowest among SEC starters.
In the top of the fourth, the Smyrna native got out of a jam that turned out to be a big moment in the game. Nursing a two-run lead, he loaded the bases with no outs by hitting a batter, walking another and giving up an infield hit on a bunt. The 5-10 junior then settled down, though, going to his curveball to strike out the next two batters and induce a soft ground ball to second for the third out.
“He showed right there that he wasn’t going to give in,” Vanderbilt catcher Curt Casali, who drove in three runs, said. “He struggled for the first three batters of that inning but he came through with flying colors. He is a hell of a player.”