Big swings and big pitches carried Vanderbilt to a Wednesday night win over North Carolina that extended the Commodores’ stay at the College World Series.
Connor Harrell hit a three-run homer and Curt Casali added a solo shot to account for all but one of Vanderbilt’s runs in the 5-1 victory before 24,394 fans at TD Ameritrade Park.
Casali’s blast gave Taylor Hill a 5-0 lead after three innings, and the right-hander came through with some clutch pitches in the fifth when the Tar Heels mounted their one real threat.
The senior right-hander struck out Jacob Stallings with the bases loaded, all but deciding the elimination game and sending the Commodores into the Bracket One championship round against Florida.
On the decisive pitch to Stallings, Hill went with his fastball.
“I was just going to give it everything I had,’’ Hill said. “If he hit it, he hit it.’’
Stallings didn’t, swinging through the pitch to extend North Carolina’s struggles in Omaha. The Tar Heels stranded 34 runners in losing twice to Vanderbilt and beating Texas in an elimination game. They hit .179 (7 of 39) with runners in scoring position.
“You’ve got to tip your hat to the pitchers,’’ North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “It’s a one-on-one battle. Sometimes the pitcher wins, sometimes the hitter wins.
“We left a lot of people on base out here for three games, but a lot of that has to do with the other team, and we were facing some pretty good arms. It didn’t happen for us, and after that (the fifth inning) we didn’t muster up a whole lot.’’
Nothing, to be exact. Hill walked a batter in the seventh before handing the game over to Corey Williams. Williams hit a batter in the eighth and walked one in the ninth, but North Carolina couldn’t advance any of its runners past first in seeing its season end at 51-16.
Vanderbilt improved to 54-11 and advanced to face a Florida team that posted a 3-1 second-round win over the Commodores. Vanderbilt must defeat the Gators in Friday’s 1 p.m. game to force a second bracket championship game on Saturday.
Florida has won four of the five meetings this season between the Southeastern Conference rivals, but that matters little at this point.
“We feel like we matched up against them really well, but it hasn’t fallen our way yet,’’ Casali said. “But we’re looking to change that. We’re not thinking, ‘How the heck can we beat Florida?’
“We feel we can compete with them.”
The Commodores started fast Wednesday against North Carolina’s Greg Holt, an eighth-round draft pick of the Washington Nationals who was making just his second start of the season. Tony Kemp tripled to lead off Vanderbilt’s first inning and scored on Anthony Gomez’s sacrifice fly.
Harrell made it 4-0 in the second with his three-run homer, his ninth blast of the season and his second of the CWS.
“The wind was a factor tonight,’’ said Harrell, referring to a 23 mph wind blowing out to center field. “I just tried to get my hands extended and get that ball into the jet stream.’’
Casali’s homer made it 5-0 in the third, and Hill, the Nationals’ sixth-round pick, put his team in total control after escaping the fifth-inning jam.
North Carolina used a pair of singles and a walk to load the bases with one out in the fifth, and the Tar Heels scored on Ben Bunting’s infield out that also advanced runners to second and third.
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin elected to intentionally walk Colin Moran, the Tar Heels’ leading hitter and a left-handed batter, to face Stallings, a right-handed hitter who had doubled in each of his first two at-bats.
“I don’t know how smart we looked when we intentionally walked a guy to get to a guy that already had hit two doubles,’’ Corbin said. “We just thought the matchup was a little better to keep the ball away from Moran, because he’s a dangerous hitter.
“We just thought Taylor could keep the ball away from Jacob and neutralize his bat a little.’’
Hill started with a slider against Stallings, a former summer-league teammate, and the North Carolina hitter fouled it off. Hill’s second pitch was a called strike, and Stallings fouled off the third before swinging and missing on the fourth.
“He was able to make the big pitches in big situations,’’ Stallings said. “In big situations, he kind of elevated his game a little bit.
“I wasn’t surprised they walked Colin. They wanted a right-on-right matchup, so it probably just ended up being the smart thing to do. Taylor really kind of bumped up during that at-bat. His stuff was a lot better just that whole at-bat than it has been in my previous times.’’
Hill hadn’t pitched since striking out 13 batters in a 6-1 win over Belmont in the regional championship game on June 5. He improved to 6-1 by limiting North Carolina to four hits in his seven innings of work.
Corbin had two relievers warming up in the fifth inning and admitted that he considered going to the bullpen.
“I just felt that when he got to Jacob that it was his ballgame and he was going to find a way to get himself out of it,’’ Corbin said. “He deserved that. He’s been the owner of some tough luck during the course of the season.
“But he’s pitched so well to get us to this point. He deserved the opportunity to win that ballgame.’’
And now Corbin’s Commodores get another opportunity to beat Florida.
“In order to beat Florida, you can’t give them anything,’’ Harrell said. “We’re looking forward to this challenge.’’