NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt exploded for eight runs after the fifth inning Friday at Hawkins Field and beat Kentucky 8-2 to clinch the final three-game series of the regular season.
More importantly, perhaps, Vandy (39-12, 19-9 SEC) moved 1/2-game ahead of Tennessee for first-place in the SEC East with one game remaining in the regular season. The Commodores will look to win a division crown at 2 p.m. Saturday in the series finale.
“We don’t talk about those things too often with the group, but they knew what was on the table,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “We had to do our job and we had to win some games. (Saturday) we’ll find ourselves in a situation where if we do what we need to do then eventually it could happen. We just got to play good baseball.”
Vanderbilt had to overcome a two-run deficit Friday, but they did so emphatically.
In a 2-2 game in the seventh, Tate Kolywck walked and Troy LaNeve singled to right ahead of Jayson Gonzalez who moved those two up a base with a sacrifice bunt. An intentional walk brought Isaiah Thomas to the dish with the bases loaded – and he delivered.
A rocket single to left scored two and put the Commodores up 4-2.
Jack Bulger added some insurance in the eighth with a solo homer. LaNeve piled on later in the inning with a mammoth three-run shot off the batter’s eye in centerfield to provide the final margin.
“What changed was just the momentum of the game and (Gonzalez) staying over a ball and driving it to the other side, then (Bradfield) putting down a good bunt. That kind of started to shift momentum in our dugout. You could feel it. It looked like to was going to crack there for a little bit, but (Rodriguez) did a good job of getting up and delivering.
“Then after that (Thomas’) hit was a large hit at the time, too. Of course the final inning there were some big drives up the middle of the field.”
Kentucky’s bats were loud early, however.
T.J. Collett rudely greeted Vanderbilt starter Jack Leiter by taking an 0-2 pitch deep out to center for a solo home run with one out in the first.
Leiter ran into trouble in the fourth when Collett rolled a single through the middle. John Rhodes was hit by a pitch with two outs bringing Chase Estep to the plate and he smacked an RBI single through the middle making it 2-0.
Vandy finally got something cooking in the sixth thanks to a lead-off single from Gonzalez. Enrique Bradfield came up to drop a sacrifice bunt but his speed turned the deadened ball into a hit.
A wild pitch moved Gonzalez and Bradfield up a base before Thomas was plunked by Kentucky reliever Austin Strickland.
But after a fielder’s choice and a strikeout, the Commodores were suddenly looking at another scoreless inning. CJ Rodriguez had other ideas.
The sophomore catcher lined a single into left tying the score at 2-all. That seemed to be the spark the Dores needed to get the offense cooking.
Kentucky starter Dillon Marsh was nearly untouchable through five innings. He left with none out and two on in the sixth after striking out five and working around four hits.
His bullpen behind him couldn’t keep the visitors in the game.
The Wildcats fell to 28-22 and 11-18 in the SEC. They have lost nine in a row to Vanderbilt.
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.