Close Loss, Big Lesson

Vandy youngsters gain valuable experience in high-energy title rematch

by Chad Bishop

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Vanderbilt and Michigan played another classic Friday.

A little more than six months after beating the Wolverines for the national championship at the College World Series in June in Omaha, Nebraska, Michigan got a little bit of payback with a 4-3 win at the MLB4 Tournament at Salt River Fields. The 2019 runner-ups got a two-run homer in the ninth and then escaped a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of that inning to start the year 1-0.

“It was an exciting game for sure,” Vanderbilt junior Mason Hickman said. “No team really gave way to the other, it was a tight game all the way with a lot of counter punches thrown. Props to Michigan – they played pretty clean tonight, they hit the ball pretty well, they fielded extremely well and they played a good game of baseball.”

Hickman was sharp as usual by starting the game and going five strong innings of three-hit, one-run ball. He left a 1-1 ballgame that turned dramatic long after he departed.

Vandy (0-1) had scored two in the seventh thanks to a clutch single from a freshman and a safety squeeze from a veteran. The Dores were then two outs away from victory only to see Clark Elliott single to left and Matthew Schmidt homer to deep left on what turned out to be the game-winner.

“One pitch got hit and that’s how baseball works sometimes,” Hickman said. “It’s an unlucky coincidence and you have to tip your hat to Michigan.”

Friday’s game saw Vanderbilt start three freshmen – CJ Rodriguez at catcher, Spencer Jones at first base and Carter Young at shortstop. It was another freshman, Parker Noland, who was a temporary hero in his first-ever college plate appearance.

The Knoxville native came up with two on and one out in the seventh with the Dores trailing 2-1 and knocked an RBI single through the right side to tie the game. Senior second baseman Harrison Ray came up after that and rolled a perfect squeeze bunt down the line to first to score Justyn-Henry Malloy and to give Vanderbilt a 3-2 lead.

“It was good to see (the freshmen) out there and just having them out there being able to play with us to get a little more chemistry,” Ray said. “It was definitely good having them out there getting their feet wet tonight.

“This type of one-run game, this is what it’s going to be like for, at least, the postseason and when baseball gets real tight. It was good to have them out there and let them have this experience.”

Even after Schmidt’s home run, Vandy didn’t go quietly into the desert night.

Cooper Davis kept hope alive with a two-out bunt before Rodriguez and Austin Martin were hit by a pitch, respectively. Isaiah Thomas had a chance to tie it – or win it – but flew out to deep center.

“I think the big takeaway tonight is we got to see some of our identity late in the end,” Hickman said. “The last inning we had two solid at-bats to start off the inning and ended up finding ourselves with the bases loaded. We tried to give ourselves a chance, never thought that we were out of the game and kept playing until it was over. It’s always good to see that, especially from the first game.

“We’ll just take it as a learning experience and it will come back later in the future to help us for sure.”

Ray and Hickman were part of the 2019 team that beat Michigan two out of three games for the national title in June. Vandy lost the opener of that series before rallying to win two to claim the trophy.

This go-round the Dores won’t face their newfound nemesis from the north again as they now play UConn (0-1) at 6 p.m. CT Saturday and Cal Poly (1-0) at 3 p.m. CT Sunday. But maybe when the weather turns warmer and the focus of the college baseball landscape turns to the Midwest, Vanderbilt and Michigan will find themselves on the same field once again.

“I think the best thing I could tell them is this a team we’re going to see later down in the road in Omaha or wherever it may be,” Ray said. “This is a team that’s a quality team, they’re older, they know what they’re doing. These are the type of games you’re going to play when the lights turn on and it’s really late in the year.

“It’s good to get this one early to see where we are, test ourselves. It was a good experience – hate to be on the other side of it, but a real good experience for those young guys.”


• In his last 14 starts, Hickman now has a 1.88 ERA over 79 2/3 innings with 15 earned runs allowed with 114 strikeouts.

• Friday’s game between Vanderbilt and Michigan was the first between two programs who played for the previous season’s national championship (Oklahoma State and Georgia, 1990 and 1991).

• Vanderbilt has won its season-opening, three-game series seven straight years. It will need to beat UConn and Cal Poly the next two days to run that streak to eight.

• Rodriguez at catcher, Jones at first and shortstop Young all made their first career starts Friday.

Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for Follow him @MrChadBishop.


Downed in the Desert by Vanderbilt Athletics on Exposure