Norris didn’t just get his wish. He got the hit, a double roped to the right-centerfield gap, and the winning RBI. C Mitch Slauter ran unchallenged to home plate while every other Bulldog dashed out to second base to celebrate, with Norris, a SEC series success at last. The 8-7 win, combined with Friday’s 7-4 final, gave State (20-12, 5-7) a winning weekend after three frustrations.
Vanderbilt, which took Saturday’s 12-inning marathon 5-4, left Dudy Noble Field 13-19, 4-8. This after the Commodores led 4-0 through three innings, and pushed a tying score across in the top of the ninth. It seemed the stage was set for one more extra-inning heartbreak for State.
Not this time. “Just the courage our kids displayed was the story of the game,” Coach John Cohen said. That, and gutsy relief pitching from five bullpen Bulldogs; along with the kind of timely scoring-position hitting that was missing in the three extra-inning SEC setbacks. The fourth time, was time.
Vanderbilt had brought lefthander Ziomek in specifically for the Bulldog ninth, which had the 2-3-4 batters due up. Slauter was hitless against the previous five moundsmen, though he had been plunked in the fifth and would score what was at the time the tying run. The catcher was careful and got a 3-1 walk. It didn’t seem to matter much with a pair of quick outs, but at least Norris was given a chance with somebody on base. And given that late as two days ago nobody was sure the sophomore, out since March 7 with a kneecap injury, would even play, Norris wasn’t going to leg out anything himself.
But, he’d also gotten a single off Friday evening starter. And Norris had belied his gimpy status with four other hits in the series, including the two-run single in the fifth for a 5-5 tie. So his confidence, even cockiness, was justified never mind that Ziomek was bringing heat.
Such as the 1-0 fastball. “He left it over the plate and I was just sitting on that and staying ready for it.” His opposite-field drive was immediately obvious as a double, the only question being how quickly could a Commodore recover. Not quickly enough as Slauter crossed without a throw.
“You wouldn’t wish for a better guy for that,” said RHP Evan Mitchell.
The same could be said for Mitchell as well. Entering in the fifth inning, Mitchell didn’t get any decision but was in a real sense the winner, battling through 3.2 rough innings with two runs on three hits, a couple of walks, and five strikeouts. “And every one of those punch-outs it seemed there was a runner in scoring position,” Cohen said. “Evan was really good.”
The win went to Luis Pollorena (1-0), last on the hill for State after keeping Vanderbilt from taking a ninth-inning lead. Ziomek (2-6) absorbed a tough loss with the one run on as many hits.
State has been trying to figure out a rotation all SEC season and this time rolled the dice with a reliever. Closer Caleb Reed, specifically. The senior righthander had not started a game since April 2010 with 52 relief stints since, but sometime Sunday the call went his way.
“In some respects it was unfair to start him,” Cohen said, adding that State just wanted somebody with experience on the hill to begin the rubber game. “I don’t think they took phenomenal swings against him, just a lot of ground balls that got through.” Five of them, for the first four Commodore runs. It began immediately with a Tony Kemp single and ultimately score on Conrad Gregor’s fly ball. In the top of the third real trouble came as Reed walked the number-nine batter.
Connor Harrell was running as Kemp lifted a drive that made the rightfield track. Harrell made the turn for home as RF Brent Brownlee fired to 2B Sam Frost for a relay home that was in time. Still, Kemp was able to reach third on the throw and score on an Anthony Gomez single. A one-out walk had Commodores on corners as Spencer Navin’s short fly fell fair for another RBI. A do-or-die ground ball ate up 3B Trey Porter to make it 4-0. Reed finished his stint with a called strikeout.
Lefthander Nick Routt stranded two in the fourth inning, after which the Bulldogs got on the board with three runs. Routt couldn’t keep it that close, though he was a strike from escaping before John Norwood singled in Navin. Another base hit brought Mitchell from the bullpen with Commodores on corners.
“I just wanted to get my fastball for strikes, the last few outings I’ve been struggling with locating it and with my secondary pitches. I kind of figured it out a little bit.” He struck out Harrell looking, then managed to limit Commodore damage in the sixth to another lone run with big help from his defense. After Connor Gregor singled in Kemp, Vanderbilt tested State’s mental state with a squeeze bunt.
A very good one, too, but Mitchell scampered to the first base line for the scoop and flip to out Yastrzemski. With bases loaded and likely the game in balance, Mitchell froze John Norwood with a fastball for the strikeout.
“The crowd was getting into it and that kind of got my adrenalin going,” Mitchell said.
The Sunday crowd was involved because State had finally started scoring. VU starter Drew Verhagan was just one over the minimum through three and an out into the fourth when porter walked. CF C.T. Bradford and Norris singled to load everything, before LF Hunter Renfroe took a pitch hard off his wrist to force in a run the hard way.
While Renfroe was checked out, Philip Pfeifer entered. He got a quick pop-out but Rea was swinging early and well with a single to leftfield. Bradford scored easily but to the amazement of all Norris was waved on around too, bad knee and all. Ironically he and third base coach Lane Burroughs had discussed this during the pitching change.
“He asked if we got a base if I thought I could get there and I said yeah. But I was definitely hosed, I’m glad he dropped the ball!” Indeed the throw was ahead of the runner, and Norris slid too wide-right anyway. But catcher Navin couldn’t handle the ball and Norris slapped the dish for a 4-3 score.
He was just getting started. It was 5-3 in the fifth when new Vanderbilt reliever Jared Miller walked SS Adam Frazier and plunked Slauter. A bunt advanced both and with two outs Norris singled into centerfield for the tying runs. After Vanderbilt regained the lead in the sixth, the Bulldogs re-tied as Frazier singled in Rea. VU’s Keenan Kolinsky left the go-ahead runner on third that inning, only to give up a lead in the seventh, when for the first time all day Bulldogs came to bat with a tied score.
Porter opened with a single and Bradford bunted him into scoring position. VU called in Brian Miller and while he outed Norris, it was Renfroe ready to deliver the go-ahead run with his base hit.
Mitchell overcame an errored leadoff grounder in the eighth with three-straight strikeouts, and returned for the ninth. He promptly plunked Norwood in the helmet. “I hit the dude in the head with a curveball.” The sacrifice bunt worked and lefthander Connor Casteellano walked to finish Mitchell’s afternoon to earned applause.
With the top of the order now up it was the lefthanded Ross Mitchell’s turn. One pitch popped Kemp to 2B Sam Frost, before State made a by-the-book moving bringing righthander Taylor Stark to match up with Gomez. Two fouls balls later, Gomez lined the tying single to centerfield.
Now it was lefthander Yastrzemski in the go-ahead opportunity, and State had one more move to make by calling in southpaw Pollorena. It didn’t look promising on a 3-1 count but the big-swinger couldn’t lay off a fastball. “I was trying to keep it down and let the defense make a play,” said Pollorena. “He just got under it.” And Bradford caught it.
Those were a lot of mound moves for one inning, but it worked. “It was Johnny Staff day,” said Pollorena after his win. “Just whatever we could do to try to get the series win.”
“We just wanted to give them a different look, he and Ross,” Cohen said. “Ross came in and got a huge out. Pollo was great. Taylor is one pitch away from closing this thing out and I really wish that would have happened. But you can’t be more proud of a bunch of guys who are playing hurt right now.” Those being Stark with his still-healing hamstring, Bradford, Brownlee, and of course Norris. Or for that matter RHP Ben Bracewell, one of the few on the staff not worked over the weekend.
Norris was 3-of-4 with three RBI and one run as the designated hitter, aptly. Frazier had two hits with a run and RBI, and Rea drove in a pair. State was still out-hit 13 safeties to ten, but for once the timely hits were by Bulldogs with just seven stranded. No less than 14 Commodores were left on bases.
For that matter Bulldogs struck out just three times Sunday, compared to nine Vanderbilt visitors. Not that it seemed this would be a factor through three innings with a 4-0 lead on a State squad that has had its heart busted so often, so early in SEC season.
Not this time. “It was early in the game and we knew we had a lot of baseball left,” said Norris. “It was just staying and battling and that’s what I’m so proud of this team for doing.”