By Eric Olson, AP Sports Writer
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Vanderbilt swept the Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament titles, set the league record for wins, tied the record with 13 draft picks and lost back-to-back games just twice.
Now the Commodores are national champions.
Mason Hickman and Jake Eder combined for 14 strikeouts, Michigan ace Karl Kauffmann was knocked out in the fourth inning, and the Commodores won the College World Series with an 8-2 victory in Game 3 of the finals Wednesday night.
Vandy (59-12) won its second title in its four CWS appearances, all since 2011. The other one came in 2014.
“I felt we were going to hit well, I felt we were going to play well. I thought this was going to be a nice night for the kids,” coach Tim Corbin said.
Freshman Kumar Rocker, who was dominant in two CWS starts, was selected the Most Outstanding Player.
Hickman struck out 10 in six innings and limited the Wolverines (50-22) to one hit after he gave up three in a row to start the game. Kauffmann, making his third start in the CWS, struggled with his control, and Vandy broke open the game with three runs in the third inning and two in the fourth.
When Ako Thomas flew out to center to end the game, the Vandy dugout and bullpen emptied and catcher Philip Clarke sprinted to the mound to embrace Eder.
During the postgame celebration, Vandy players invited Teddy and Susan Everett to join them on the stage set up behind home plate. Their son, Donny Everett, was a star freshman pitcher on the 2016 team and drowned before the start of that year’s NCAA Tournament. The seniors on this year’s team were his teammate.
“Those two mean so much to this program and all the players and the seniors,” shortstop Ethan Paul said. “To this day, every time I look at Teddy I think of Donny, and just being able to share that moment with them was something we all really wanted to do.”
The loss ended a surprising postseason for Michigan, which went from being one of the last four teams picked for the 64-team NCAA Tournament to becoming the first Big Ten team to play in the finals since Ohio State in 1966. It was Michigan’s first CWS since 1984.
“They have inspired future generations of Michigan baseball players with the belief that winning a national championship is possible,” coach Erik Bakich said. “The only way you can have an Omaha program is to have an Omaha team. This is very much a tipping point for us.”
Michigan staved off elimination in the first two rounds of the national tournament after squandering leads. The Wolverines knocked off No. 1 national seed UCLA to reach the CWS.
“We were hoping it would end in a better way,” first baseman Jimmy Kerr said. “We’ll look back — maybe not in a week or in a month — but down the road it will be fond memories.”
Bakich was an assistant to Corbin from 2003-09 at Vanderbilt, and the two remain close friends.
“He’s put together a remarkable year with those guys,” Corbin said. “Where they came from … they gave us everything we wanted and more.”
Vandy is the sixth national champion from the SEC since 2009 and 12th overall, second only to the 18 won by the Pac-12 and its previous iterations. At No. 2, Vandy became the highest national seed to win it all since Miami in 2001.
Hickman gave up three straight singles to start the game, leading to Michigan’s first run. He retired nine of the next 10, striking out six, and got out of trouble when the Wolverines loaded the bases in the fourth. He retired the last six he faced before turning the game over to Eder.
Hickman fanned nine or more in five of his final six starts and allowed one or fewer runs in nine of his last 13.
Though the Commodores brought to Omaha an offense ranked in the top five nationally in the major categories, it was pitching that carried them for most of their stay.
Vandy had eight runs on nine hits Wednesday, but its .221 average in six CWS games was the lowest for a national champion in the aluminum bat era that started in 1974.
Vandy got hits when it needed them in Game 3. Pat DeMarco sent Kauffmann’s hanging slider 407 feet into the left-field bleachers — his seventh homer of the season and 100th for the Commodores — to tie it at 1 in the second.
The Commodores scored three runs with two outs in the third. Two walks and a single loaded the bases, and Kauffmann walked in the go-ahead run. Stephen Scott singled in two more.
Kauffmann tied a career high with five walks, and Jeff Criswell relieved him after Kauffman walked Ty Duval leading off the fourth, and JJ Bleday’s single and Ethan Paul’s sacrifice fly stretched the lead to 6-1.
Vandy pitchers combined for a 2.50 ERA over six CWS games. Hickman allowed one earned run and struck out 13 in 12 innings. Rocker, who threw the no-hitter in super regionals that already is part of college baseball lore, gave up two earned runs and fanned 17 in 12 1/3 innings. The staff averaged 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
“I know our offense was celebrated for a long period of time, but you look at what happened in this tournament, and it was pitching and defense, and certainly starting pitching,” Corbin said. “We won this in 2014, it was relief pitching. In this tournament it was starting pitching.”