During Vanderbilt’s 7-3 victory over North Carolina in Saturday’s College World Series opener, it was difficult to tell which team was the newcomer to Omaha and which was the veteran.
CWS rookies like the sixth-seeded Commodores often find themselves wide-eyed and in wonder at the surroundings, which can lead to sloppy pitching, shaky fielding and wobbly at-bats.
But in the first NCAA tournament game at TD Ameritrade Park, it was third-seeded North Carolina — making its fifth CWS appearance in six years — that:
• Committed an error against the first batter it faced.
• Struck out seven times with runners in scoring position.
• Saw its pitching ace give up more earned runs in two hours than in the previous seven weeks combined.
• Left 16 runners on base, one short of the CWS record for a nine-inning game.
Thus, sixth-seeded Vanderbilt (53-10) advances to Monday night’s Bracket One winners game, much to the relief of coach Tim Corbin, who watched a Tar Heel-blue parade on the base paths.
“They had 20 batters reach base today,’’ he said. “The fact that they only scored three runs, we were fortunate. We pitched out of jams.
“We’ve been a team that has been able to get ourselves through the middle of the game and then put games away in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings with some runs.’’
On Saturday, it was a three-run sixth inning that flipped the game in front of a near-sellout crowd of 22,745.
North Carolina (50-15) left the bases loaded in the fourth and fifth innings. But the Tar Heels still led 3-2 and had Patrick Johnson pitching. The senior right-hander came to Omaha with seven straight wins and a 0.60 ERA since the end of April.
But Vanderbilt got a one-out single from right fielder Mike Yastrzemski. Then a two-out, game-tying double from designated hitter Conrad Gregor — a ball that missed leaving the park by inches.
Center fielder Connor Harrell followed with a no-doubt blast over the bullpen in left for a 5-3 lead and the honor of hitting the first CWS homer in the new stadium.
Not that Harrell is pleading for whoever caught the ball to return it.
“Nah. I didn’t think about that until after the game was over and someone brought it up,’’ he said. “I guess that’s a pretty cool trivia fact.’’
North Carolina coach Mike Fox said there was nothing trivial about the impact of Harrell’s eighth homer of the season.
“I felt that home run deflated us more than I expected it would,’’ Fox said. “They got the big hits, and we didn’t. That was pretty much the tale of the game.’’
Another story line involved Vanderbilt left fielder Tony Kemp. The 5-foot-6 freshman opened the game with a bunt single and scored. He also drove in an insurance run in the eighth and made a dazzling catch with the bases loaded in the fourth.
Freshmen who play on first-time CWS teams aren’t expected to make such plays, but Kemp said he didn’t feel any jitters.
“Coach Corbin told us to prepare just like it was another SEC home opener,’’ Kemp said. “Everyone was loose, making jokes, laughing like they do every game.’’
Add in 5-1/3 innings of scoreless relief from three pitchers, including winner Corey Williams (2-0), and there was no need for Vanderbilt to be nervous.
“Sometimes you never know how you’re going to react out here for the first time,’’ Corbin said. “We were very comfortable during BP today. And when we started the game . . . some big, big two-out hits were the story.’’