NASHVILLE, Tenn. – If Vanderbilt’s regular season series against Hawaii was shaping out to be a memorable one for sophomore Isaiah Thomas, it was for the wrong reasons.
Now a regular in the lineup after being a reserve in 2019, Thomas logged a hit in nine of his first 10 games of 2020 entering the three-game weekend series against the Rainbow Warriors. But then Thomas went 0-for-4 in Friday’s opener, striking out twice, and did not play for the first time during the season in Saturday’s middle game.
“I met early with (assistant coach Mike Baxter) Bax on Saturday morning,” Thomas said. “We went over some routine things. We got into the cage early that next morning and we fixed some things. In the (Sunday) game, I wasn’t stressing to perform or execute, I was just trying to release and have fun.”
Thomas made the most of his freshman season, batting .368 in 21 games including six starts. In his final start of 2019, the Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, product produced five RBIs and two home runs as part of a 4-for-5 performance against Tennessee Tech.
“The conversation part of it was consistency from an emotional standpoint with the highs and lows, especially as you’re working into more of an everyday role,” Baxter said of the session between the two. “You need to have a consistent mindset. The physical part of it, he was looking to identify a couple parts that when he’s doing well, how is he feeling.”
Saturday’s off-day allowed Thomas to refocus and the results paid off in Sunday’s finale. He struck a lead-off solo home run in the fourth inning, trimming Vanderbilt’s deficit to one. The Commodores took a one-run lead an inning later before Hawaii evened things up on a solo homer in the seventh.
The teams remained scoreless over the next three frames. Then in the 11th inning, Hawaii broke through and scored twice to take a 5-3 lead helped by a walk, error and infield single.
With the teams splitting the first two contests, Vanderbilt was in danger of dropping its first three-game regular season home set since April 2018.
“You remind them that they’ve been here and done it,” Baxter said of the deficit. “More than anything, you try to make sure they understand the path to success is by handing it off to one another as opposed to trying to do it yourself. When you need two runs, it’s going to take contributions from more than one player.”
It would take some work to get to Thomas, who’d bat sixth in the home half. Junior Cooper Davis provided a spark, leading off the 11th with a single and came home two batters later on an Austin Martin RBI-single after taking second on a wild pitch.
“The leadoff hitter in an inning is always a tone setter,” Baxter said. “It definitely shifts momentum. Cooper hitting a nice barrel through the infield sets the tone of momentum. From there, it gets you into the meat of your order. Dominic (Keegan) had a very good at-bat. It put I.T. into a position where they had to come after him. He was ready. I think he was in a good space.”
With two outs and Martin standing on second, Keegan fell behind 0-2 before working a six-pitch walk to extend the game. That set the stage for Thomas, who flew out two innings earlier, sending the game into extras and stranding the winning run – Martin – at second.
“The second time I went in with the game on the line, I felt a lot more confident,” Thomas said. “I did have the opportunity in the ninth and popped out so as I went up the second time, I knew I wanted to end the game there. Obviously, I wasn’t trying to do that but I felt a lot more confident especially after those good takes on the cutters and sliders.”
Thomas, who said he was sitting on the cutter, watched right-hander Carter Loewen miss with his first two pitches. From there, he turned his attention to the fastball. He did not miss.
“That was the best feeling of my life.”
— Vanderbilt Baseball (@VandyBoys) March 1, 2020
“I hit the ball and didn’t run that fast after but I still didn’t know it was gone,” Thomas said. “I didn’t really know it was gone until I rounded first base. It was kind of a blur. It all set in once I rounded first base. It was a crazy feeling.”
The three-run home run capped a four-run frame and marked Thomas’s fourth homer in 12 starts. The walk-off homer was the first for a Commodore since JJ Bleday‘s heroics in Game 2 of the back-and-forth 2018 NCAA Nashville Super Regional against Mississippi State.
Ten days later, the Commodores played their final game, an 11-2 win against Toledo, with the remainder of the season cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thomas’s heroics against Hawaii provided arguably the brightest spot of the 18-game season. It also added another high point at Hawkins Field which, like other stadiums across the world, sits vacant awaiting the return of baseball.
But because it does so, the fondest of that moment doesn’t change.
“It was a very special game and day in my life,” Thomas said. “It was special to do it at home and in the highest level I’ve played at so far. It was a special moment for me, my family and my team.”