DAVID MERCER, Associated Press
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Dansby Swanson was sure you couldn’t script a better afternoon than the one he had Monday.READ MORE: Michigan Matters: From Mackinac to Motor Bella, Major Events Return
Swanson scored the go-ahead run in a 4-2 struggle against Illinois, eliminating the Illini and helping the defending national champion Commodores return to the College World Series.
The shortstop and his teammates celebrated on the field with Detroit Tiger and former Commodore David Price, who used an off day to catch the game.
And, oh yeah, minutes after the win, the Arizona Diamondbacks picked Swanson first in the Major League Baseball draft. He was the first of three Commodores, along with pitchers Carson Fulmer and Walker Buehler, expected to be first-round picks Monday.
“Yeah, I can’t complain, that’s for sure,” Swanson said. “Surreal moment.”
While the Commodores celebrated, Illinois (50-10-1) tried to figure out what went wrong.
“It was just tough going down like that,” right fielder Casey Fletcher, who appeared to have been crying, said. “We thought we had an Obama-bound team.”
The Commodores (47-19) ground their way past Illinois’ most-talented pitcher, left-handed reliever Tyler Jay, who was making just his second start since high school. Jay himself was drafted a little later, at No. 6 by the Minnesota Twins.
And Vanderbilt got a gritty six-inning start from another player with a tough-to-script story, lefty Philip Pfeifer. Pfeifer missed all of the Commodores’ championship season after failing a drug test in 2013.
He struggled early Monday, giving Illinois multiple base runners in each of the first three innings. But the Illini scratched out just the two runs. And then Pfeifer found his control.
“If I’ve learned anything the past two years, it’s going to look bad before it looks good,” said Pfeifer, who just added to the Vanderbilt starting rotation midway through this season.
After losing 13-0 in the opener Saturday, Illinois had to wait an extra day to try to fight its way back into the series. Sunday’s scheduled game was postponed until Monday due to bad weather.
When the Illini finally got their chance Monday, they scored early on Pfeifer, taking a 1-0 lead in the first inning and then going up 2-1 in the third when Pat McInerney singled to drive home Casey Fletcher.READ MORE: Rolling Stone Magazine Named ‘Respect’ #1 Song Of All Time
But Pfeifer coaxed a groundball out from Illinois’ top hitter, David Kerian, and get out of the inning.
The matchup between Swanson and Jay was much-anticipated.
Swanson struck out swinging in his first at bat against Jay, but he homered to left in his second appearance. That fourth-inning shot tied the game at 2-2.
With a little help from a stiff wind, Swanson next drove a Jay pitch to the right-center field wall to lead off the sixth inning, then stole third.
With two down and a chance to give Vanderbilt its first lead, Bryan Reynolds sent a looper into shallow centerfield. Illinois centerfielder Will Krug ran hard and dove just in front of the dying ball but missed. Swanson headed home, giving the Commodores a 3-2 lead that was all they would need.
Jay only came out of the bullpen because the Illini were facing elimination. Hartleb started him over No. 2 starter Drasen Johnson.
“I kind of knew what I was getting into with them,” Jay said, saying he played some of the Commodores in summer league baseball.
With Pfeiffer out, though, Illinois loaded the bases with one out in the eighth inning off reliever Ben Bowden.
Freshman Kyle Wright came out of the Commodore bullpen to protect what had become a 4-2 lead. First he coaxed a fly ball to shallow right from Will Krug, too shallow for Jason Goldstein to score from third. Then the No. 9 hitter, Ryne Roper, struck out swinging.
Getting those two outs, Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said, was impressive.
“Freshmen don’t do that,” he said. “That’s just tough to do.”
After the final out, the Commodores jumped into a massive dogpile just to the side of the mound as Price, clad in Vanderbilt gear, stood to the side, watching his old team celebrate.
The Commodores’ next game will be Sunday in Omaha, a place Corbin said the team had to fight to get back to since every team wants to knock off the defending champ.
“That target is very big, and there’s a lot of shots that you take,” he said.MORE NEWS: Fourth Stimulus Check: Will You See Another Relief Payment Soon?
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